Featured interview with:
Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities
Meet Jessica Hawthorne
We are thrilled to share our featured interview with Jessica Hawthorne who is the Vice President of Programs at the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities! As you may already know, Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities has cultivated many programs that help schools, business, and communities throughout Virginia adopt and manifest an inclusive environment where difficult topics can be discussed in safe and inclusive ways. They are constantly finding new ways to bring their passion for the community and the increasing demand for inclusivity in today’s fast-paced educational and business realm.
Below are a few of our favorite moments from the interview:
Kelly: With COVID was there a big learning curve going virtual? Or is that something that you have already started doing prior because I know you all decided to launch an LMS system (learning portal for Educators) a while back. What prompted you to make that decision?
Jessica: I am so glad that we did that when we did it. That was actually not because of COVID. That was something that was requested of us. We had a district say “We love working with VCIC, and we can’t fit in-person sessions easily, so is there a way that people could engage asynchronously?” So we pursued grant funding, got it, and then you all [Hofbauer Consulting] helped us put that together. It was SO helpful to us in the pandemic.
In spring of 2020, we were supposed to be ramping up some more intensive work with another district and they said the Portal was perfect for use during that time.
Since then, we have had so many districts that wanted it because teachers are already pulled in so many different directions. This gives them time to work within their schedule and to learn about some of these concepts before we engage them in live sessions.
Kelly: Do you have a plan for going back to live sessions in 2021, or is that just still kind of up in the air as the information of COVID continues to change?
Jessica: “Almost all schools are saying they still prefer in-session PD. Particularly before students came back, we did a number of in-person sessions. Depending on each district’s rules, we may not be able to go back into the building while students are in-session. However, there are definitely a mix of in-person sessions and virtual sessions happening this fall. We’re still taking things month by month and want to be as safe, but also as effective, as possible.”
Kelly: Oh, that’s good. Have you had any existing technology that you’ve had but you’re using more often now? In addition to the learning management system, how does that support your overall mission of VCIC?
Jessica: VCIC has always been relatively low tech. I remember when I first started at VCIC we didn’t rely on PowerPoints very heavily because we never knew what the projector situation was going to be like. Some schools may only have 1 or 2 public projectors on carts, and if they happen to be used in some other way then we wouldn’t have the chance to use them, so we never relied heavily on PowerPoint. That has changed over the years and we actually bought our own projector a couple years ago. It was amazing! It was also easier to be low-tech because these sessions are a lot of facilitated dialogue. This is where you all [Hofbauer Consulting] were so helpful to us because we didn’t have a ton of knowledge on how we could create similar engagements digitally. We did put together some of our own kind of “asynchronous modules” with zoom and screen sharing a PowerPoint at the beginning of the pandemic and they got the job done, but they are definitely not the quality that you all put together.
Kelly: Oh, thank you for that! I know VCIC has Unpacking the Census coming up, Can you tell me a little more about that?
Jessica: Yes! The first one happened in 2010-2011. That was the year that I started volunteering at VCIC, so one of my volunteering opportunities was helping to deliver that content. I’m really curious to see how the technology will be used and incorporated into our 2020 Unpacking the Census program.
In 2011, we did a facilitator retreat over a weekend and then facilitators went out into the community and did presentations for anyone who requested them. So I did presentations in people’s living rooms, I did presentations in government buildings, and everywhere in between. There were a wide range of requests and it was basically like anybody who can volunteer could participate. I found it incredibly helpful. There was so much history about Richmond and Virginia that I knew and some I didn’t. That program showed me that some information was withheld from me by so many – family, community, teachers. Sometimes that was done on purpose, I learned a lot about Richmond’s history through that engagement and I’m really looking forward to having it updated.
Kelly: Like Reading Rainbow, “the more you know.”
Jessica: Exactly, yes.
Jessica: I think it was helpful to me personally and professionally. There’s still a group that I work with every year who found that presentation so meaningful in 2011 that they have said “please come back every year and give a presentation. We don’t care if the data is outdated”. Because, generally, even though the numbers have changed over the last 10 years,, the trends are still there. So I’m excited to have a new and updated data set for 2020.
Kelly: What was your inspiration to volunteer for VCIC? I know you said your mom had mentioned the organization to you because she was in education, but since inclusion is important, what was your inspiration to volunteer in the first place?
Jessica: Sure! For me, when people ask what’s your greatest strength? What’s your greatest weakness? I answer the same: I’m an empathic human, so sometimes that is really helpful and fantastic and I can relate to a lot of different people. Some of our coworkers joke with me that “Jessica, you see yourself in everyone.” I always find ways to relate to people. The flip side of that is, when I was growing up, I was called “too emotional” and “too sensitive,” and that “I just needed to let it go.” I was never really good at “letting it go” and this job helps me to not just “let it go”. Inclusion means listening, even when I can’t relate to the experience, or am devastated to learn the “hard parts.” I appreciate being able to talk to others about their real experiences and their interest in learning more in combating prejudice and combating all the “-isms”. And, listening needs to come with action to create more inclusive climates and cultures and organizations, whether that’s a school or district or a Fortune 500 company.
Jessica: Additionally, when people ask “how did you get into this work?” I have a short, medium and long version of the story, but the very shortest version is the high school where I went.
I went to school in Henrico County and at the time the high school where I went was the most diverse racially and socioeconomically and I didn’t fully understand it. We just had such a wide range of people in that high school, and I remember loving it and really getting to learn about different ideas and perspectives and experiences and family histories and all those things.
So anytime I’m able to learn about people who are different from me, I get excited, and that’s really what this job is about. It is helping other people learn about difference and leveraging difference versus managing differences. Martin Davidson describes “managing differences” as trying to put everybody in a box attempting to make sure we’re all the same, and “leveraging differences” as about having different ideas, perspectives, opportunities, thinking creatively and working together.
That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have conflicts, but instead we’re invested in working through the conflicts to look at ways that our solutions can serve a larger number of people and last for a longer period of time.