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Young, Gifted and Black: WGSS Alumna Puts Her Passion into Community Design

In celebration of Black History Month, UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences is proud to highlight the stories and accomplishments of recent alumni who are working hard to make the world a better, more just and inclusive place.

Date: 2/26/2016 12:00:00 PM
By: Zack Hatfield
Phone: (513) 556-5087
Photos By: Provided
Jeni Jenkins’ résumé reveals an expansive range of interests—social justice, art, journalism, and education. Still, a single thread connects them: design. Jenkins has dedicated her career to using design for a greater good—creating graphics for nonprofits and organizing socially conscious publications, but also designing her future in a way that allows her to give voices to all corners of the community. 

Jeni Jenkins

When considering how much of her career is literally by and about design, it’s ironic that her time at the University of Cincinnati wasn’t. As a first-generation college student and a single mother of two, Jenkins, an Idaho native, didn’t plan on going to graduate school. But then she won a scholarship two months before she was set to graduate from Boise State University. The scholarship meant staying an extra year to complete her B.S. in social science, but it allowed her to conduct research and get published—it also enabled her to pursue further education in graduate school.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but not an obvious one for Jenkins to take. With a growing interest in women’s equality, sparked by her classes as an undergraduate, Jenkins applied and was accepted into the master’s program in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) at the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. Jenkins’ decision was influenced by her professor and mentor at BSU, Marcy Knopf-Newman, who received her Bachelor’s degree from UC in 1992.

At UC, a whole new world to consider 

“I came from a poor family, and so flying across the country to go to grad school was never something I thought I’d do,” Jenkins said. “It was completely out of my comfort zone. My family said ‘What are you doing?’ They didn’t really get it. For them, life was learning a trade and going to work.” 

But Jenkins was determined to go a different route. “I realized that there was a whole world I never considered,” she said.

That’s why she applied for the master’s program at UC. It was hard. Very hard. She had two kids, a job, a new world of graduate studies and virtually no support system in a new city. But that experience came with benefits as well as struggles, she said.
 
“I honed my critical thinking skill,” she said. “The master’s in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies is a very rigorous program. The professors believe in the work they’re doing and try to help students reach their academic achievements.”

Jenkins says WGSS professors like Amy C. Lind and Deb Meem helped her focus her interests, which had shifted after her move to Ohio from women and violence to race. Here, she experienced racism on a different level than in Idaho, she said. She became fascinated by Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the lost stories of mixed-race women, an interest that eventually led to her master’s project. 

Jenkins is also grateful for professors in other academic disciplines at UC, like history professor Tracy Teslow and Kimberly Paice, who serves as graduate program coordinator in art history and museum studies in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. Having them as resources on her committee helped broaden Jenkins’ scope and inspired her to take more creative approaches in her work.

After a change in plans, a new passion for nonprofits and activism 

After earning her master’s degree, Jenkins’ plans changed direction again. Her children had been accepted into the competitive School for Creative and Performing Arts. So, instead of continuing her studies elsewhere and earning a PhD, Jenkins decided to stay in Cincinnati and work. But there was just one problem. It was 2008, and America was in the middle of a recession. 

“There was nothing,” the 36-year-old said. “I felt stuck.” But Jenkins never gave up. She spent a semester teaching as an adjunct at UC in the WGSS department, educating students about oppressive social systems and inequality. “It was invigorating to go into a classroom everyday and spark critical thinking and empower students to understand how social and cultural influences have shaped the lives and roles of women throughout history, and raise consciousness,” Jenkins said. “I loved teaching and coming up with creative assignments to get them thinking about their place in the world.”

After a string of part-time jobs, Jenkins found a position as director of education at the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. The more she learned about local poverty and homelessness, the more she became driven to raise awareness and work as an advocate. She partnered with Prairie Gallery and founded Day By Day, a program that gives creative outlets to the homeless through photography, while bridging relationships with high school students. It still culminates in an annual calendar, designed by Jenkins, and features photography by Cincinnati’s former and current homeless community and students from local high schools. 

While at the Homeless Coalition, Jenkins also managed the Streetvibes program, an alternative newspaper sold entirely and written in part by people experiencing homelessness. The bi-monthly paper specializes in stories about social justice issues and poverty in the city.  Jenkins' interest in graphic design led her to become the layout editor of Streetvibes when the editor unexpectedly resigned. 

Jenkins, who lives in the neighborhood of Northside, is actively involved in the community and served a two-year term on the Northside Community Council. Through this role she started doing editorial and design work for The Northsider, a monthly grassroots newspaper. When the editor of that paper suffered from illness, readers and writers looked to Jenkins for leadership. She took over the reins in 2013. 

The monthly production took more time than she thought—she basically built a paper from scratch—but it was an avenue that let Jenkins do what she was good at: engaging the community and giving people voices.
 
“We wanted to communicate with people who weren’t able to attend the council meetings,” Jenkins said. “We featured artists, small businesses, women-owned businesses, musicians. I invited writers and readers in the community to speak up.”

Education and design helps 'transform the world' in her own way

During this time, Jenkins decided to merge her passion for nonprofits and the community with her passion for design, so she formed her own graphic design business, Uncaged Bird Print and Design Studio. The company focused on working with local nonprofits and small businesses to help them achieve their social, organizational and economic goals. Uncaged Bird came out of Jenkins’ desire to make a difference, a passion for graphic design and an interest in utilizing an integrative and holistic approach to facilitate social change.

But Jenkins, always looking forward and always keeping busy, recently stepped in to work as director of communications at Our Daily Bread, Cincinnati’s largest soup kitchen. There, she uses creativity as a way to advocate for the city’s homeless, engaging with volunteers, donors and guests on a visual level through her design for websites, social media, digital marketing and other materials. 

No matter where the future leads, Jenkins knows some themes will remain constant. In an ideal world, she’d create a nonprofit artist cooperative and studio where all are welcome to come to work on creative projects with social justice themes.

“I’m constantly thinking about how I can create programs and projects related to women and art,” she said. “I want artists to have a space where they can work for free and actually implement their ideas.”

Jenkins looks back on her time earning her degree in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies as a formative experience, and the department sees her as a shining example of how critical thinking can be transferred to the real world. The department awarded her the Alumnae Award last year. 

“So many people have asked me why I pursued the women’s studies and social justice route, but I don’t think those who ask realize what that means,” said Jenkins. “For me the answer is simple: the program was one of the hardest things I have ever tried to do in my life, but I grew as a person, as an educator and as an activist. Now I have an advanced degree with a focus on transforming the world. The professors believed in me and pushed me outside my comfort zone, and I now have a deeper appreciation for diverse people, cultures and points of view, and I will continue to use these skills in the future to creatively address inequality, but in my own way."

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