Jennifer Wolfe’s Story
When you walk into Jennifer Wolfe’s historical Riverside home (which is also the headquarters for Women Writing for (a) Change, Jacksonville), you’re surrounded by local art hanging on the walls, inspirational quotes painted in archways, big, comfy chairs, and of course, books. Lots of books. Imagine stepping into a local museum that feels like the home of your favorite aunt. Close your eyes and take in the aroma of fresh oranges and lavender. Open your eyes and watch the assortment of birds fluttering in the feeder attached to a tree older than your great-grandmother. If you can picture it, you have an idea of the kind of environment that Jennifer Wolfe creates. She makes you feel safe and at home.
Jennifer established the Jacksonville chapter of Women Writing for (a) Change) in 2013, creating a non-profit component in 2018. She is a writer, facilitator, business owner, and community leader. She said she feels inspired by a comment she heard once: “Women will step into a leadership role when they feel that there is a need that is not being addressed or an injustice that’s been done.” Jennifer’s work does both, which is why we are fortunate to have her as a member and feel compelled to tell her story.
Jennifer's Community First Story
Jennifer first learned about Community First at the “Entrepreneur Symposium for Creatives: Every Artist is a Small Business” event that took place in August 2018 at the Ritz Theatre. The event was in collaboration with the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville and included a panel of speakers from Community First who gave advice to local artists on running their businesses.
“I just felt that it was such a valuable event. Every single presenter gave very useful information and I just appreciated the way Community First was anchoring that event and had people there advising artists,” she said. Jennifer became curious about why Community First was so supportive of the arts, saying, “My experience with Community First was that their actions followed their words. There they were supporting artists and small businesses in the community.”
In the fall of 2018, when Jennifer formed her non-profit, she knew she needed to open a new bank account. One month after the Symposium event, she opened her business account at Community First’s Riverside Branch.
“I had heard so many good things about Community First,” she said. “Here we are…a community organization. That’s in our mission: to build more conscious community through the power of writing. Here I am, doing community work, in the community, with the Community First organization!” she exclaimed.
“When you’re running a non-profit, you need to be fiscally responsible, so the fact that they had good rates was also important,” she said. “There was more integrity there.”
Women Writing for (a) Change Origins
Women Writing for (a) Change was established in Cincinnati in 1991. The founder, Mary Pierce Brosmer, was a teacher for the Ohio public school system. She experienced some interference from the local school board, who objected to the "feminist" literature she was using in her classes. They gave her an ultimatum: either use only approved books or be disciplined. As a result, Brosmer decided to start her own school, “Where women, in particular, would be able to read and write and say what they want to say. And they would be heard. They would not be censored,” Jennifer explained. “What evolved over time was the desire to create a place that was not only a safe place and a protected space for women to write and express themselves, but also was an egalitarian space, was a democratic space, where each voice was just as important as the next.”
Jennifer explained that in traditional academic systems, “It’s all about creating an expert and hierarchy. Here, instead of being one expert in the front of the room, everybody has an equal voice. Everyone is on the same level,” Jennifer said. “Different people have different roles at different times, but this isn’t about hero worship of a great and vaunted professor who knows all. This is about acknowledging that every person’s story is important. When we start to have a focus only on the expert, we begin to have a silencing effect, because then only what the expert says is valid,” she said. “Everything else is subject to criticism. This idea of creating circle-based facilitated experiences is widely used, but what we are doing is focusing on women writing because those voices have been silenced,” Jennifer explained.
In 2011, Jennifer was re-creating her personal and professional life after a divorce. She had previously worked as a consultant and instructional designer to corporate clients on training and development systems but became burned out.
“I recognized I was putting all my best creative energy into PowerPoint presentations,” she said.
During that time, Jennifer was working remotely and not getting any face-to-face interaction with her colleagues or clients. “I am an extrovert, and I love people, and I love ideas, and I love talking about ideas, and there I was…having to do it all through a phone line.”
Jennifer created a list and a vision board for her future. She knew she wanted to run a non-profit and write a book. (Jennifer has always been a writer and has been keeping a journal since she was 10 years old.) A colleague in New Orleans told Jennifer that she has just been through a six-week journaling course. That’s when Jennifer felt like the universe was calling. She realized she could teach journaling techniques and make a new business out of that. However, she quickly realized that teaching journaling techniques alone was a very narrow focus, and she needed a wider platform.
Jennifer’s sister lives in Cincinnati and had heard about Women Writing for (a) Change. In fact, she was good friends with the executive director and encouraged Jennifer to learn more about the organization. Jennifer read the founder’s book, felt inspired, and asked her sister to set up an interview with the executive director. She walked in the building “and in two seconds, I said, “Okay, I’m in!”
She immediately knew that this was her calling. At the top of a stairway into the building, there was a poster that said, “I am a woman giving birth to myself.”
“For me,” she said, “that was the invitation. The universe was saying, ‘Here you are, Jennifer. Here’s an opportunity to be re-born in this next stage of your life.”
Writing has always been a love for Jennifer. It’s also been a healing tool, a creative outlet, and a way for her to document her life and access wisdom that she didn’t know she had.
“I’m just like anybody else. All of that is possible for other people as well,” she said.
Jennifer immediately signed up for the 2013 leadership certification process (a three-week residential training program with a six-moth process to get certified and become a licensed affiliate site).
The Jacksonville Chapter
There are between six and 10 affiliate sites around the country, with more on the horizon. “The model is slow and steady growth. We are not a franchise. We are not cookie-cutter,” Jennifer said.
She compares it to growing a garden: “A fast-growing garden can quickly get unwieldy. And there are no two gardens that are exactly the same,” she said. She stressed the importance of slow, carefully tended growth, as opposed to industrialism, mass-manufacturing, franchising, and chains. “We need the antidote to that,” she said.
When she first started Women Writing for (a) Change, Jacksonville, in the spring of 2014, it was a for-profit business. After five years, Jennifer realized that she needed to get outside support to increase outreach and make the program more accessible to a more diverse audience. That’s when she decided to start a non-profit to help fund her outreach programs.
What are Writing Circles? And How do They Work?
Jennifer’s first class consisted of seven women who sat in a circle around her dining room table in January of 2014. They practiced what it meant to write together and what it meant to build a community together through writing.
“We were telling stories that were the truth of our lives,” she said.
Jennifer also conducted a number of outreach circles that spring, including with the Women’s Center of Jacksonville and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).
At the end of the semester, she held her first Public ReadAround, when each woman shares with female friends and family one piece she has written over the course of a semester. At the first-ever ReadAround in May that year, there were 45 other women who came to hear what those seven women wrote. “We brought together a community,” Jennifer said, “We started in January with seven and by May, we had about 45 women gathered in a circle sharing their stories and listening to each other.”
Working with Incarcerated Women
Later that fall, Jennifer started working with women incarcerated at the Community Transition Center, where prisoners participate in work-release and rehabilitation programs while incarcerated to help them transition to the outside community.
“That became a very important part of my work. What I didn’t expect was, not only how much they needed this, but how much I needed it, and how important it became for me,” she said.
“I learned how many assumptions I had. The women in there are just like you and me, not a dime’s worth of difference, except that they’ve been more exposed to violence, sexual assault, and drug and alcohol addiction,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much I would learn from them. They’re just as capable of telling their stories; in fact, more so.” This program is something that Jennifer has done for the past five years without any financial support and still does to this day.
Many of the women have experienced some form of trauma and this is the first time they have ever written or spoken about their experiences. In some cases, the trauma is decades old. “These things are right under the surface,” Jennifer said, “and when you have a chance to write about them, it is cathartic, it is freeing, and also surprising,” even to them.
Many of the incarcerated women have written about how they “lost their voice” along the way. Through Women Writing for (a) Change, Jacksonville, Jennifer gives them a platform to have their voices heard again.
Jennifer started creating compilations for the incarcerated women. She typed up everything that they wrote each week and had it published in an anthology. She gave each woman a copy. “They were so proud of it,” she said.
“When I documented their words in an anthology and they could read each other’s stories and see them on paper… well, that was validation that they had not had before. These stories become each other’s stories. I can read one story and learn from it, and then it becomes part of me,” said Jennifer.
After Jennifer published one of the anthologies last fall, one of the women shared it with both her mother and her daughter, revealing her true story for the first time. “They had a conversation about something that had been silenced for 20 years. Three generations are now talking about what had been unmentionable before. Why? Because we wrote it down, it was documented, it was listened to, and it was honored,” she said.
How Jennifer Puts the Community First
Jennifer says her work is always to create human connection. “Women catch courage from each other, and when we tell our stories, it encourages others to tell their stories,” she said.
Jennifer is often told, “You’re changing lives,” to which Jennifer replies, “If I was doing this for my ego, to feel good about myself, then that would be very wrong. My job is not to become the vaunted expert and the great heroine in the room. My job is to be a facilitator of human connection and human consciousness.”
Different Roles, Different Rewards
When we asked Jennifer how this new role in her life is rewarding, she reflected on her previous work as an instructional designer.
“I was always searching, like all of us are, for meaning and purpose in my work. We all want and need that. The question is, ‘How can I bring the best of me to the greatest need in the world?'’”
Jennifer was inspired by a quote by Frederick Buckner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” She said, “I feel called to this work because it’s the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. I don’t regret my corporate career. I learned a great deal and bring that into my work every day, but I wasn’t the only one who could do that work. So how could I be more specific to my own skills and talents?"
Jennifer explained that for her, writing is the golden thread that ties everything together in her life. “If it doesn’t have to do with writing, then why am I doing it?” she asked.
She was also inspired by a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “I will do what I can, where I am, with what I have.”
“That’s me here in Jacksonville, Florida. In my own backyard, in my own garden, how can I leverage my skills and deep gladness to meet the world’s deep hunger and this community’s needs?”
She tries to do that by creating an environment that is most supportive of the individual voice.
Jennifer writes with all types of women, and specialized or marginalized communities, including women with breast cancer, women who are recently out of jail and are integrating into the community, addiction counselors, and even doctors and nurses at the Mayo Clinic. She tries to conduct at least one outreach activity per month in the community.
“There is a great need for many niche communities to sit together and share their stories in a safe environment, free from critique or censorship,” Jennifer explained.
Her Historic Home
When Jennifer transitioned to being an empty nester, she moved from a country club community to Riverside, where she purchased a historic home. She came to understand that the community also owns a historic home; it is part of the fabric of their own community.
“This is a public/private space,” she said, “and I began to think of my house as yet another platform, yet another way to provide a platform for women’s voices.” She wondered, “How can I create a place of warmth and hospitality, not only for myself, but in my community?”
One of the things Jennifer learned was how poorly women’s art is represented in our national museums. She explained that only two to four percent of art in our national museums is by women. “Everything that you know about art is through a man’s lens,” she said. That’s when Jennifer decided to make her own home an art gallery for women’s art. She hosts a show in the spring and fall of every year that features the work of local artists. Last fall the show was called RISE, and this spring it was SHINE. Her current show is called BIRDS, and in the spring, it will be BLOOMS. Each year, after the art show is over, she is producing an anthology with a collection of the art and writings from the previous semester. This fall, in time for the five-year anniversary of this organization in Jacksonville, she will publish their first public anthology, titled (a) river rising ("Rise and Shine" edition). Next year, they will publish the "Birds and Blooms" edition. Each anthology will feature the writing and artwork of women who have participated in the Women Writing for (a) Change community.
Everything Jennifer does is through the lens of writing and art. The title of the anthology, (a) river rising, is a metaphor for the rising voices of women in our community here in Jacksonville.
“We live in a city of rivers, and the water that flows underneath is women’s voices,” she explained, “which is the creative and transformational power to change the world.”
In addition, she transforms her inspiration into action by organizing community events and classes to coordinate with the art show theme, such as an urban bird walk, artist talks, house concerts, workshops, and women's leadership events -- all out of her historic home.
We asked Jennifer what the future of Women Writing for (a) Change, Jacksonville, looks like, and she said that three new faculty members will be added in the spring of 2020. These women will help the organization expand in Jacksonville by both leading circles here and bringing this work to their work in the world,” she said. “Anybody who comes to our circles has had a seed planted in them, and that is growing in the community somewhere.”
When we asked Jennifer if she achieved what she wanted when she first opened her non-profit account with Community First, she said, “I certainly couldn’t have known how much support I would get in the community. When you’re called – you just do. And it’s vulnerable. You don’t know how it’s going to come out. I don’t think I had something in mind that I was going to achieve except maybe creating greater human connection in my community,” she said.
Jennifer is influenced by many authors and other people in her life. She quoted the Dalai Lama, who said, “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.” “So this is my way to change the world,” Jennifer said, “word by word, bird by bird.”
Her Aunt Edith, who was a minister, also influenced Jennifer. She tells the story about her aunt, who couldn’t walk down the street without talking to everyone she met. Her aunt used to say, “If I don’t talk to people, who will?” Jennifer feels that she is carrying on her aunt’s legacy. “I am a writer. I am a facilitator. If I don’t use writing to create connection and work toward world peace in that way, then who will?” she asked.
Jennifer’s children also support her work. “They bought me a blue bird nest-box for Mother’s Day in 2013,” she said, explaining, “A blue bird is a symbol of happiness.” At first, Jennifer said she just put the box on the back porch. After her daughter insisted that she saw some blue birds, Jennifer’s son helped her move it to the front yard. One day while gardening, she saw a flash of blue out of the corner of her eye. “A total of eight sets of fledglings fledged that nest box over the next four years,” she said. This was a huge metaphor for Jennifer, which came at a pivotal time when she decided to create the Jacksonville chapter of Women Writing for (a) Change. “All I had to do to find my happiness was to invite it to my front door. Happiness found me because I created a garden where it could.”
In her spare time, Jennifer enjoys bird watching, hiking in the woods, and traveling to visit her two children in New York City. She also started The Jane Austen Book Club in Jacksonville that has been going on for almost 10 years. Of course, she also reads…a lot.
If you’re interested in learning more about Jennifer or Women Writing for (a) Change, Jacksonville, visit the group’s website and follow them on Facebook and Meetup. You can also follow the group on Instagram and LinkedIn.
Our member Jennifer Wolfe -- she really is changing the world, word by word.
*All photography courtesy of Laura Evans Photography, Craig O’Neal, and Jennifer Wolfe.