Making San Antonio Livable No Matter Your Zip Code
By Hernán Rozemberg
SAN ANTONIO — Jennifer Cook exudes passion and determination. Those are but a couple of the many strengths and values she brings to the San Antonio Area Foundation as our Senior Program Officer overseeing the Livable and Resilient Communities (LRC) impact area as part of our Community Engagement and Impact team.
Jennifer has been with us for a bit over a year, yet she brings a long and successful career in nonprofit service. For nearly two decades prior, she worked at Good Samaritan Community Services, creating and implementing innovative programs benefiting youth and adults. She also has an ample community involvement track record, such as serving on the Texas Education Agency’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Council as well as receiving an Outstanding Leadership Award from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
After completing her undergraduate degree at St. Mary’s University (where, coincidentally, she played on the women’s basketball team), she went on to complete her MBA from Walden University. An exercise aficionado, she’s a certified fitness instructor. Please continue reading and check out her accompanying video for an in-depth look at Jennifer’s mission and work at the Area Foundation.
Why did you want to join the Area Foundation and how has your experience been with the organization thus far?
I spent 18 years working for Good Samaritan Community Services, serving families in one of San Antonio’s most impoverished zip codes. During my time with Good Sam, I had the privilege of helping the organization grow its mission throughout several South Texas communities. As I got to know the families were served, regardless of location, often faced barriers to success that were outside of their control. Seeing these disparities and how one’s zip code or condition may affect life outcomes increased my desire to be part of a larger conversation – an opportunity that presented itself with my current position at the Area Foundation. My experience here has been interesting and rewarding. Interesting because I started the job after the pandemic hit, so I’ve had to navigate and build relationships with the nonprofit community virtually. Rewarding because I can relate to our nonprofit partners. I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve run programs. Written grants. Made difficult decisions. Being able to share those experiences with nonprofit leaders helps me build meaningful relationships with them and advocate on their behalf. I also enjoy sitting in a space that allows me to brainstorm and strategize how we can reduce disparities in San Antonio.
You’re a member of the Area Foundation’s Community Engagement and Impact (CEI) Department. How would you describe CEI’s work and mission and can you describe your particular role?
The CEI team is responsible for connecting the interests and passions of our donors to nonprofits fulfilling the work in our community. As a team, we work to understand the social conditions that exist in our region and create solutions to best support our nonprofit partners who address those conditions. My job as a program officer is to build relationships with nonprofits, understand their successes and challenges and serve as an advocate and thought partner to help them advance their work.
What do we mean by “Livable and Resilient Communities (LRC)?” That concept could be interpreted in different ways.
Simply put, LRC means inclusion and opportunity. We envision a thriving, connected and resilient city where residents can enjoy a safe, stable, life of opportunity no matter what part of SA they call home. In order to fulfill this vision, we all have to work together to remove barriers that prevent marginalized populations from thriving.
Equity seems to be central both to your role in particular and to the Area Foundation in general. Why is this so? Why do we care so much about this word?
Addressing equity in our work is important to understand and address the imbalances that exist in our community so that all individuals, regardless of their background or place of birth, can thrive. It’s about redistributing power to center the voice of our most vulnerable residents and changing the power-dynamics between philanthropy and nonprofits to create a fairer and more just nonprofit sector. In order to do this, we must be willing to trust nonprofits as experts in their field, deepen our relationships to fully understand their work and collaborate closely to create impactful solutions.
It seems that the coronavirus pandemic has profoundly impacted all aspects of the Area Foundation’s work and mission. Has it at all affected our work toward building equity?
COVID-19 has definitely affected our work toward building equity. San Antonio is one of the most economically segregated cities in the nation. Pre-pandemic, we were challenged with addressing social conditions such as high unemployment rates, cost-burdened housing and lack of access to healthcare. We know that social conditions are interrelated and with the pandemic magnifying the disparities and everyday challenges that marginalized populations in our community experience, it forced a shift in thinking and action to respond to the situation. Much of the burden of this work is being carried by nonprofits. For our nonprofit partners, there was a tremendous shift in priorities and services to help families meet their basic needs, a disruption in fundraising efforts that help them fulfill their mission, and a lot of innovation to reach more individuals in need. Seeing the effect the pandemic has had on nonprofits forced us at the Area Foundation to deeply reflect on our role in philanthropy and influence in the community. We hope that being part of and continuing the conversation about equity will create new opportunities to advance our work as a community.
Without a doubt there are many community partners and nonprofit grantees that you get to work with closely as the LRC Senior Program Officer. Could you share an anecdote about one such partner/organization whose work has had a personal impact on you?
I’ve learned so much from all the nonprofits I collaborate with. However, I think I’ve learned the most from our smallest partners. Their grit and tenacity to meet the needs of their clients is inspiring. I love seeing the deep connection they have to their work and that they aren’t afraid to ask for help. One of our new grantees, Libraries Without Borders (LWB), is doing some innovative and much needed work to address San Antonio’s significant digital divide. They accomplish this by partnering with local laundromats and other organizations to bring technology and information to families by meeting them where they are. I was able to attend LWB’s first outdoor, socially distanced, in-person event since the pandemic began. During my visit, I had the opportunity to get to know the laundromat owner, who shared how the partnership with LWB benefited the families he served. I was also able to witness children and their parents receive free books, sign up for a library card and access free technology services. The curiosity for learning and gratitude these families had for being able to access these resources was inspiring. Seeing it all for myself proved that the need in our community is great, but it also affirmed that we are making the right type of investments to help improve the lives of local families.