Jen Giovannitti, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

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How did you come to work in community development?

I grew up in the Appalachian area of Pennsylvania, in an area that was very rural and mountainous. I went to undergrad in Pittsburgh, PA, and I became fascinated with how other types of cities work. I focused my undergraduate studies in that direction and then went to graduate school for community and regional planning in Vancouver, BC. I was exposed to the Cascadia mindset, which was more environmentally and international development planning focused. That’s where my real passion for community development took root. The biggest trajectory of my career was when I was awarded a research fellowship and lived in Vietnam for 2 years. At that time, Vietnam was the 13th poorest country in the world. My research focused on a project about slum settlement relocation and another on marketplaces and women’s role in the household economy. Looking back, it was specifically relevant to Appalachia and the importance of “place” in our lives because in a communist country like Vietnam, they can literally relocate people, but the people inevitably gravitate back to these places where they feel they want to live. I truly loved poverty alleviation work because it allowed me to see the compelling and entrepreneurial subcultures of people that exist in places like slum settlements. 

How did you come to work in community development?

I grew up in the Appalachian area of Pennsylvania, in an area that was very rural and mountainous. I went to undergrad in Pittsburgh, PA, and I became fascinated with how other types of cities work. I focused my undergraduate studies in that direction and then went to graduate school for community and regional planning in Vancouver, BC. I was exposed to the Cascadia mindset, which was more environmentally and international development planning focused. That’s where my real passion for community development took root. The biggest trajectory of my career was when I was awarded a research fellowship and lived in Vietnam for 2 years. At that time, Vietnam was the 13th poorest country in the world. My research focused on a project about slum settlement relocation and another on marketplaces and women’s role in the household economy. Looking back, it was specifically relevant to Appalachia and the importance of “place” in our lives because in a communist country like Vietnam, they can literally relocate people, but the people inevitably gravitate back to these places where they feel they want to live. I truly loved poverty alleviation work because it allowed me to see the compelling and entrepreneurial subcultures of people that exist in places like slum settlements.

 I ended up working professionally in Appalachia in WV after my husband was offered a job in Elkins.  We had both been working in Pennsylvania but were excited to move to a small town and be near the Monongahela National Forest. Working in Appalachia reminded me of the things I loved about Vietnam: the authenticity, strong family connections, the pride and resiliency of the people, and the challenging nature of the issues.  My work in WV is some of my proudest and most fulfilling contribution to community development in my career to date.

 

How did you get involved with the Appalachia Funders Network?

The Appalachia Funders Network already intersected with some of my existing West Virginia relationships, and it all came full circle for me to work with them again through the Federal Reserve.

I actually came to the Network through the Tri-bank concept, which was a cooperative initiative between the Atlanta, Cleveland, and Richmond to combine our resources in Appalachia. The Tri-bank was more an initiative on paper at the time. The initiative was the perfect way to work with the Appalachia Funders Network and engage my reserve bank in a bigger way. It represented this opportunity to bring understanding of the strategic work that is being done in the region, and how the Fed, which doesn’t have a specific agenda, can play a role as an agnostic partner and support to the work. The Fed benefits from having relationships with practitioners and community foundations and we can benefit the network with our research skillset and policy approach.

 

You’re a member of the Strengthening Community Capacity working group. What do you hope to accomplish through these roles?

I just hope to be nimble enough to add value as needed, like contributing ideas and research and data analysis. I want to be nimble enough that people can reach out, and we can fill some gaps that are hard for practitioners and foundations to fill. Hopefully the maps we’ve contributed to the group add value. Other information we can provide is around bank investment, integrating more analysis around human capital, and the Community Reinvestment Act and the role of banks. Finally, the Community Development staff at the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Reserve Banks of Richmond and Atlanta are hosting a Community Leaders Forum in October 2016 to support rising community leaders and to help the Federal Reserve better understand the implications of emerging trends on traditionally underserved communities. We hope that the forum will help advance the community development field by creating a network of diverse and emerging voices, increasing participant understanding of community development issues, and informing the Federal Reserve System about critical community needs that could influence research and/or policy development.

What benefit does the Federal Reserve receive through its involvement with the Network?

Of course we (and I) learn a tremendous amount from the network, but more importantly, the Appalachia Funders Network sets the tone for strategic issues that matter in a collective way in this region. They also set the tone for the cultural legacy that the region is trying to preserve. The Network sets that, and I communicate that back up to the Fed. When you have a Network like the Appalachia Funders Network that is so mobilized and cooperative, it’s easy for me to elevate and communicate the goals, strategic issues, and cultural priorities of the region and elevate them into the Federal Reserve Bank and Federal system. I know that, in the Appalachia Funders Network, strategic issues are vetted in this collective way, and this allows me to promote it, share it, and add additional value with my network.

 

What are you learning from your involvement in the Network that feeds into your daily work?


I’m learning what investment vehicles the region is lacking and why. I’m learning about the region’s potential for leadership and it makes me see the potential for nationally greater philanthropic alignment and leadership. I’m learning about the human capital underpinnings that the Network inspired me to analyze through data on the region. The human capital base data is crucial to knowing more about the people side of the region’s assets. That data is important to me because it’s a gap. For the six years I’ve ben involved with AFN, we’ve talked about aligning goals. But we haven’t talked about human capital in a way that we are now. Merging that data with other community development indicators is the future of positive and holistic change.

 

Who do you look to in the fields of philanthropy, community development, or social justice for inspiration?

In community development, I admire Jane Jacobs. She was a real rebel thinker of her time when it came to community development. In philanthropy, because of my real love of international development, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation really inspires me. They have driven a leadership agenda through philanthropy that has been impactful for solving some of the world’s most troubling problems. And in social justice, for me, social justice has to involve everybody. Anyone who’s willing to stand up for equality, I don’t’ care what kind of equality, inspires me.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

I have three kids, so much of my free time is associate with that. I love being outside and  doing yardwork, gardening, and cooking. The hard work and rewards can’t be beat. I love observing the slightest changes in things ranging from my bee hives to my bread dough.  I’ve also gotten into knitting in the last couple of years. Really, hand work—anything that requires using a lot of senses and a lot of attention to detail. 

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