Jennifer Vanica ’76 has not forgotten the day her high school English teacher tapped her on the shoulder, gave her $1,200 in cash and told her to go to college. The teacher asked her to commit to do what she thought was the equivalent for someone else later in life in the name of education. That $1,200, combined with a scholarship from Wittenberg, was enough to get her to college.
“Going to college at Wittenberg was a transformative experience I will appreciate forever,” Vanica says. “Receiving that gift from my teacher got me to college and made me think deeply about being a part of a cycle of giving back and passing opportunity onto others.”
The principle became the foundation for her career. For more than 25 years, from Ohio to California, she has raised millions of dollars to help change people’s lives. Her start in fundraising came in Wittenberg’s Offi ce of Advancement, where she raised money for the Seth Thomas Hotchkiss clock that still sits atop Recitation Hall and where she participated in her first multi- million-dollar capital campaign. She also worked with some of her colleagues to start Project Woman in Springfield along with the area’s fi rst rape-crisis line.
“That’s when I knew I had it in my blood to be an organizer and to be engaged in the helping profession in some way,” she says.
Raised in Bellefontaine, Ohio, a self- described “vagabond” with no aspirations for college, Vanica was looking for the fastest way out of her small town. At the age of 15, she landed at a work camp on an Indian reservation in Wyoming; a year later she was working with Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American farm worker and civil rights activist. These “eye-opening and life-changing” experiences made her want to get an education.
“I wanted to do something related to improving the conditions of people around the country,” she says.
Today, she is president and CEO of the Jacobs Family Foundation and Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. She is the architect of an innovative, resident-led transformation of a San Diego community, an area once known as the “Four Corners of Death” – home to 42 gangs, no major grocery store and a deserted, 20-acre brownfi eld. That site is now known as Market Creek Plaza, an economic engine and a thriving commercial and cultural plaza with 11 businesses, more than 200 jobs, millions of dollars reinvested in the community and lower crime.
And that is only the beginning – Market Creek Plaza is the fi rst phase of a larger community redevelopment plan that will transform 45 blighted acres into The Village at Market Creek. The Village is a multi-cultural area connected by pedestrian and bike paths and parks that will eventually attract $700 million in new investment to fund an additional 350,000 square feet of retail space, 800 new jobs and 800 new homes.
The statistics Vanica is most proud of, however, relate to the involvement of the original residents of this once devastated neighborhood: Since 1997, more than 3,000 residents participated in teams to plan, design, build and lease Market Creek Plaza. Today, residents own and operate the Plaza, and 69 percent of those employed there are residents.
It is all part of the Jacobs Center’s mission, “Resident Ownership of Neighborhood Change,” which is based on the philosophy that residents must own and drive change in their community to make it meaningful and sustainable. To some degree, this focus was born out of Vanica’s and the Jacobs family’s personal experiences observing how traditional philanthropy did, or often did not, address the underlying issues of poverty and disinvestment in communities. She recalls a visit to Cairo, Egypt, where they saw huge, abandoned economic projects outside the city. When they asked residents why they were abandoned, the residents replied that they had never wanted them. Had someone asked them, she says, they would have found out that beehives and goats would have been much more useful.
“Foundations often start out with a vision of what a community needs. They design predetermined outcomes and expect the results to coincide with their ideas,” she notes. “We wondered what we could do to change that in our own philanthropic work.”
So they threw out the book of what foundations typically do, zeroed in on one community and got into a dialogue with the residents to figure out what they wanted. By becoming partners with the community, Vanica and the Jacobs foundations supported the residents in taking ownership of the process of rebuilding their community. It started with community surveys and living room meetings, and progressed to the formation of resident “working teams” responsible for specific areas of the Plaza’s development.
One of the partnership’s greatest innovations took the idea of ownership to the next level: actual community ownership of assets. It was a novel idea that took six years to accomplish, but Jennifer and her team of residents and legal experts launched the country’s fi rst Community Development Initial Public Offering (CD-IPO). The community is literally invested in itself. And that is the core of what Vanica believes creates sustained, generational change.
Vanica has become a leader in bridging disciplines – from philanthropy to smart growth to social enterprise – and building partnerships that advance innovative solutions for comprehensive, sustainable community change. By sharing the Market Creek experience with others, she is helping residents, foundations, civic leaders and all community stakeholders find new roles to play in community development. Last year, more than 2,000 visitors – many from around the world – came to see what resident-led renewal looks like and how to be more supportive of that model.
“It is really extraordinary to see residents shine and lead and tackle some of the country’s most entrenched issues,” she says. “The residents here have taken blight and turned it on its head, created valuable assets and returned them to the community.”
Her pioneering work recently earned her the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award this year, which recognizes extraordinary leaders advancing innovative and effective solutions to issues in California. She feels honored by the recognition of her team and excited about how the model of Market Creek might be used to transform other communities.
Inspired by the concept expressed in Wittenberg’s motto of passing light onto others and the sacrifi ce of her teacher, Vanica is now grounded in a strong sense of duty to help others, a compassion for all and a belief in people’s innate abilities and creativity. She has learned to take risks and to always stay in a “learning place.” As an English major, she surely never thought she would be managing a mission-related network of 13 businesses or designing a new kind of CD-IPO, but as she says:
“If you don’t know you can’t do something, you can very often shock yourself by doing that and more.”