March 2022 Student Spotlight
In this month’s student spotlight we talk to Executive MPA student and Director of Youth & Community Partnerships at Trinity Church Wall Street, Jennifer Chinn about her background in arts and hospitality, subsequent transition to community engagement, and her Executive MPA experience at Marxe.
How did you leverage your background in arts and hospitality to come to your current role in community engagement? What drew you to this path?
The kind of on-your-feet training found in hospitality – restaurants, hotels, and coffee shops – is hard to approximate in other lines of work. One of my mentors in the restaurant business taught me to read the table, to anticipate needs, read situations, and make the most of chaotic and difficult circumstances. I loved creating ease and trust with customers – they used to call my section “the clinic.” As I went along, I wanted to continue building experiences of care and trust with people that were longer lasting than a meal or a show, and I was consistently drawn to a life in faith and the ongoing fight for racial equity.
From there, it was a little luck and some perseverance. Trinity needed a program manager with a hospitality background to run a small community center, and I was the right combination of experienced and hungry. Many disconnected experiences came together at that moment, and I found myself on a path of public service.
I would never want to hold one type of path over another. I have great admiration and respect for a traditional route, if there is such a thing, one that includes an undergraduate degree that leads to work in your chosen field at an early age, followed by graduate school and a path toward leadership. My more haphazard approach, working in restaurants and as a ballroom dance teacher, singing, and working in all manner of performing arts and venues, has earned me an unusual perspective, especially when working with young people. I know from personal experience that there is no “right” way to learn, develop, and grow. It keeps my mind open to young people’s ideas about their future and to know that determination and focus are necessary but so is consistent community support.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced with Trinity Wall Street as senior program manager?
During my first year at Trinity Church, I ran a small neighborhood center called Charlotte’s Place in Lower Manhattan with daily open hours, small events, and a couple of part-time employees. Within six months of opening, Occupy Wall Street lit up a small downtown park just 5 minutes away. The one-room center went from 60 to 300 guests per day in a matter of a week. Our slow plan to build in service options and community partnerships was obsolete in a heartbeat. At first, it was a vibrant crisis, people everywhere painting signs, writing, talking, planning. And then, after the NYPD broke up the encampment in Zuccotti Park, there was a new crisis. Young, vulnerable people had been left behind. Where would they go now? How could young activists resistant to services on a good day trust the City to help them? Our team of three, none of whom was a social worker, assisted in 90 shelter placements that winter – it was a whirlwind.
I learned two significant lessons during that time. First, it is always right to spend a little time rethinking what we came here to do together. What is our mission? Does that still feel right in the face of what the community needs? If so, are we addressing those needs? The second lesson is that you have to find ways to stay open to the community, whether it’s a door, a program, or a show. At that time, it took the form of daily open hours, which allowed our small team to be a consistent presence and to test our ideas right out in the open. We were consistently visible and available. It was hard, and it was humbling, but it was also effective.
What have you learned in the Executive MPA program thus far?
Experiential learning is nonlinear and chaotic, and powerful. The EMPA program offers me a space to think deeply about those experiences, contextualize some of the mysteries, and affirm that what I have been learning in the field is consistent in a wider world of scholarship. The readings and assignments have allowed me to formalize and name what I have been learning on the ground these past 25 years.
While the classwork is one critical aspect, I cannot neglect the jewel of the EMPA program: the cohort model. The insights, support, and hilarity offered by this group of committed service-driven professionals cannot be approximated in any other way. There is something magical about an intense learning experience alongside an intentional group traveling together. During the pandemic, this fantastic group of people has been my lifeline. This combination of cohort and curriculum has given me the confidence to address blind spots (well, hello statistics) and further develop my strengths in a way I would not have done in the ordinary flow of work and life.