Wittenberg University’s Senior Class Selects Jennifer Vanica As 2012 Commencement Speaker
Springfield, Ohio – For decades, Jennifer Vanica, former president and CEO of the Jacobs Family Foundation and Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, and a 1976 Wittenberg alumna, has transformed the national conversation about community development while raising millions of dollars to change people’s lives. On May 12, Vanica, now a community change consultant, will return to her alma mater to present the keynote address during Wittenberg’s 167th Commencement Exercises, proving once again that Wittenberg’s motto of “Having light we pass it on to others” continues to inspire both students and alumni alike.
“Ms. Vanica’s commitment to helping others aligns beautifully with our mission and with our class’ own Promise Neighborhood initiative in Springfield,” said Jenna Montali, senior class president. “We are very excited that she has accepted our offer to share her perspective and insight on community change with the Class of 2012.”
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, Vanica recalls with ease the scenario that helped shape her own life. It began with her high school English teacher who tapped her on the shoulder one day, gave her $1,200 in cash and told her to go to college. The teacher then asked her to commit to do what she thought was the equivalent for someone else later in life in the name of education. That gift and a scholarship from Wittenberg became a turning point in her life.
“Receiving these gifts got me to college and made me think deeply about being a part of a cycle of giving back and passing opportunity onto others,” Vanica recently shared in an interview for the university’s alumni publication, Wittenberg Magazine. “If you don’t know you can’t do something, you can very often shock yourself by doing that and more.”
Raised in Bellefontaine, Ohio, Vanica also had a number of eye-opening and life-changing experiences, including working with Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American farm worker and civil rights activist, and helping to establish Springfield’s Project Woman, a domestic violence and sexual assault agency, which provided the area’s first rape-crisis line. Those experiences also made her want “to do something related to improving the conditions of people around the country.” Her goal eventually took her west to California to serve the Jacobs Family Foundation and Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation where she was the architect of an innovative, resident-led transformation of a San Diego community.
Once known as the “Four Corners of Death,” the community was home to 42 gangs, no major grocery store and a deserted, 20-acre brownfield. Today, that site is now known as Market Creek Plaza, an economic engine and a thriving commercial and cultural plaza with several businesses, more than 200 jobs, millions of dollars reinvested in the community and lower crime. That initiative was just the beginning as the larger vision is transforming 45 blighted areas into The Village of Market Creek, a multi-cultural area connected by pedestrian and bike paths and parks that look to attract $700 million in new investment.
The most pioneering component of her work in developing Market Creek was the ownership structure. Following six years of work, Vanica was able to win the right to “go public” so residents could own shares of the project. Today, 415 residents are owners of the development.
“Everyone knows the adage, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat today; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime,’” Vanica explains. “We simply added, ‘Help him own the pond and stock it, and his children and grandchildren will also eat.’”
With 20 years of non-profit strengthening in health, education, philanthropy, and child welfare and 15 years leading place-based revitalization in San Diego’s southeastern neighborhoods, Vanica and her husband, Ron Cummings, are now working to provide coaching and simple, accessible tools that are transferrable to teams managing change on the ground, from vision-organizing to inspired action. They believe that “ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things,” and that “long-term learning relationships provide the most fertile ground for innovation and impact.”
Wittenberg’s 2012 Commencement ceremony begins at 11:30 a.m. during which time Vanica will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters. For more on Commencement, visit www.wittenberg.edu.
Written By: Karen Gerboth