Kismet Trailblazer: Jennifer Childress of The United Negro College Fund
As our society and culture begin to change, we’re seeing more and more experiences with a focus on social justice and community development. Focusing on bringing a community together encourages and inspires people in a way that they don’t get from other companies and products.
Jennifer Childress understood this idea and has been doing it since day one. Scroll through to read about her role as the Los Angeles Area Development Director for the United Negro College Fund and how she’s leading the fight for better futures.
How has your role personally impacted you?
Leading UNCF LA has impacted me on many levels.
It is very rewarding, especially in the political and cultural moment in which we find ourselves, to be able to take action every day in support of the things I believe in. A lot of people have been asking some version of “but what can we DO about it” these days, and I am so grateful to have an answer to that.
How important is the UNCF given this current political and cultural moment?
UNCF is incredibly important, especially given the current climate. As an organization that supports historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) I don’t think we have ever been more needed or relevant. Increasingly, we see that African Americans—especially young people—need spaces where they can simply exist, safely.
HBCUs are one of the few places that offer this. One UNCF student, Nyla Williams (Spelman College), spoke a bit about this in her remarks at the Ball. Nyla, like many young men and women of color, learn early on that the world isn’t quite so welcoming to them, and have to figure out how to respond to that and thrive in the world.
It could be a high school advisor steering them away from higher education assuming they don’t have the talent to succeed, as I have seen occur many times in my career.
I have seen young professions who are excluded by their peers because they seem different, and that makes them “not the right fit” for this group or that opportunity.
Or just a general sense that, when they use their voices to participate in the conversation the way others do, they are seen as “aggressive,” and “difficult,” and are made unwelcome.
On the flip side, many people of color have had the experience of being the only one in the classroom or boardroom, and having to be the “official Black spokesperson,” rather than just participating and experiencing like everyone else.
Learning how to successfully navigate this is another layer of coming of age that Black and brown people and their families deal with. And it is so invisible to those not experiencing it that I can be difficult to talk about it.
HBCUs give young people of color a welcoming space to learn, grow, and figure out how to navigate the world successfully. They also offer kids the opportunity that white students often get by default.
I was listening to a conversation about HBCUs on the campus of Clark Atlanta University last summer. The newly instituted president of Morehouse College was there, and he said it so well. He said “Morehouse is a place where Black men can just be.”
After going growing up here in Southern California and attending K-12 schools where she, like most students of color, was in the minority, Nyla Williams chose Spelman. It was on that campus that she says she realized that not only was her voice welcomed at the table, but that it was appropriate and necessary for her to raise it.
This opportunity to know who you are, be who you are, and for that to be okay is at the crux of the HBCU experience.
It is essential support for so many young people who are graduating into this political and cultural environment, especially with the increasing (and increasingly public) violence and hate speech against them.
How long have you been with UNCF? Can you describe your role and what your day-to-day is like?
I’ve been at UNCF for about 3 ½ years. Like most people in non-profit, there is no typical day.
But my primary role has two parts: the first is to do whatever I can to make sure that Los Angeles students of color have what they need to be successful. Every year, between 1700-2200 African American students graduate college-ready from LA County high schools. Our goal is that not a single one is prevented from attending college due to access, resources, or opportunity.
The second part—which really supports the first—is to make sure that UNCF’s work, and that of HBCUs is supported financially, that the work is made visible, and that the next generation, our community, and our investors understand the relevance in 2019.
What are your favorite parts of the job?
I love working with the students and our partners in the community. Our scholars are so impressive and inspiring.
We are fortunate to partner with some incredible, non-profits, corporate leaders, high schools, and others, and they inspire me every day.
People really understand the need to work together and support students, and it’s so rewarding to be able to build those bridges and get something done for our community.
I also really enjoy sharing the work with others. UNCF is a historic institution, and I am so glad to be the caretaker of the brand for a time, and to promote it to a new audience.
What are your not-so-favorite parts and how do you stay afloat?
Also like most non-profit workers, I am a professional project juggler! When I catch up with friends and colleagues in the for-profit arena, they are always a bit shocked about the bootstrapping that goes on.
Just like HBCUs, those of us in non-profit are asked to do more (and more difficult things) with a lot few resources. It can be challenging, but it’s what we signed up for!
The other thing that can be tough—and you touched on this in an earlier question—is the constant immersion in social justice work during this political climate. It can feel exhausting not to be able to take a break from the constant onslaught when it’s part of your job to respond to it.
I wish I could say that I am great at self-care and staying afloat, but finding time when the stakes feel as high as they do to those of us in cause-related jobs can be tough.
I try to block off time to refocus on my family and friends, and to do the things that feed my soul. I am also a soprano in a Los Angeles choir, Angel City Chorale, and that has been an important way for me to stay grounded, balanced, and sane.
The weekly rehearsals, time spent immersed in a particularly difficult piece, and teamwork that choral music requires can be almost meditative.
I am also trying to develop an actual meditation practice. I’m new to it, but we’ll see how it goes!