A forward (yes, a forward…):
As I write this (which was intended to be a quick candidate bio), I realize it has become long winded, written in a fairly informal manner, and to some unusual level of detail for a political candidate. I’m going to keep it that way, which warrants a warning to you, the reader, that this quick bio has become a mini memoir, written on a chilly spring evening on my back porch. It’s somewhat impulsive, and it is as honest as I can be while maintaining some semblance of grace. It is as short as possible while still providing a clear insight as to who is asking you to support their attempt to represent your community on the federal level. I believe that one of our greatest faults as a society is that we do not appreciate vulnerability in one another enough. We like confidence, we value privacy, and we bore easily of other’s histories and challenges. If you’ve been invited to this page, and have not dismissed me outright yet, I ask that you read this narrative of my life and experiences before thinking I am unsuited or unqualified for representing you or South Jersey as a whole. You may leave holding that same belief, and you may be right, but at least it was an honest evaluation. Thank you for your consideration.
The formative years… (the way back)
I was born in Pennsylvania in 1986, the fourth of five children to devout Christian, working middle class/ low income parents. My dad worked as a self-employed, family taught, carpenter throughout his career, and has been known and respected for both the quality of his work and the content of his character, if not his unbelievably low prices. Oftentimes as a child, I would see him leave in the night or on God’s declared day of rest to utilize his gifts for the benefit of a neighbor (who many times he had just met or heard of). Witnessing his consistent and humble service over my lifetime created in me a strong sense of responsibility toward those in need. Because he let me follow him around and assist on worksites from my earliest years, I still delight in a hard days work and a home improvement project well done.My mom is a vibrant woman, intellectually and physically. She would work alongside my dad when needed, humbly submitted to assist him in work related to ministry, and somehow managed baring and caring for five children by the age 28. Sometimes she didn’t manage, and ultimately the cumulative damage of childhood trauma and untreated mental illness resulted in years of a long back and forth between of tumultuous and joyous seasons. Watching my mother and our family live through those challenges created in me a yearning to see people live well, and families supported so that they may be stable and loving environments for children and parents to thrive. My mother eventually found the resources and support she needed to thrive, and as look back, I wish they would have been made available to her much sooner. Two things I cannot thank my parents enough for are: 1) my four built in best friends and 2) the investment put into our private christian education. My early years were filled with social and intellectual stimulation, under the broad assumption that the big things to remember were to love (and obey) your all knowing, all present, all powerful God and to love your neighbor. Along with the religiously based instruction and discipline, my elementary school also provided a strong foundation in academics. Reflection and writing skills were honed. Opportunities were available to me to engage in many extra curricular activities, and the sense of community and accountability was strong. Our home with five well-educated, inquisitive children who were encouraged to have healthy debates and explore our interests was an amazing place to grow up.
The dark years
I was a nightmare teenager for a time. From youth group recruiter to three-time-runaway juvenile delinquent in a matter of months. My unchecked confidence and confrontational nature led me to drop out of the 3rd high school I attended, primarily because I was a bored honor roll student, but also because I wanted to prioritize my relationship with my adult boyfriend who was a provider of beer and other party favors that were used, misused, and abused regularly among our circle. I passed the GED test with flying colors, and was pregnant sometime after that (but still before I was old enough for a driver’s license). He and I were married, and I became legally, financially, and emotionally dependent on him. That dependency was abused at times, but most alarmingly when he moved us out of the state to New Hampshire. Things worsened to a point I don’t like to discuss, and I filed for divorce eleven months in, when our daughter was just eight months old. I returned home to South Jersey with my child, having nothing to my name but a one way plane ticket, a carseat, and the biggest duffel bag the salvation army had for under $10, which I had stuffed with clothing and diapers. I remember weeping because I couldn’t fit all of the diapers a friend gave me into the single suitcase and I didn’t know when I would be able to buy more. He and I tried to reconcile briefly one more time soon after that, and just like that I was pregnant with our second child. The marriage that never should have been ended not a moment too soon, and while I don’t know what an alternate timeline may look like, I’ve got a strong suspicion that I would likely not be alive right now had I stayed there. In fact, he succumbed to the opioid epidemic in 2018. just like so many of our friends from that time have. I could have easily been one of the first to go. Those years are the hardest for me to recall, not just because of the real cognitive impacts of substance use and trauma, but because retelling them still brings about some feelings of shame, guilt, and regret. I used to wonder/worry about what people would think if details of that time leaked during an aspirational political run, but as those years slip further into the past, I don’t regret having lived through them. I gained my children from those years, I grew from those experiences, and I overcame that lifestyle. The greatest gain from that time is that when I encounter people at their lowest points, and in the deepest of pain imaginable from abuse or addiction, I feel as though I know them. I have known them. I have been them. I have tried, both failing and succeeding at helping them through. I want to remove what is in the way of their deliverance, and I want to prevent more people from those snares.
Hard Knocks with a Social Safety net, Some Kind Souls and a Side of Privilege (a heaping side)
Back on the timeline, I moved into my first apartment at age 18, with a 12 month old child and another in the womb. It was the dead of winter, and everything that was moved into the <500 sq ft efficiency apartment came second and third hand from family. There wasn’t much, but there also wasn’t room for much. At the time I was earning just $100 per week after paying for childcare. Luckily, the landlord who extended me the lease on the good word of my older sister was only charging $425 per month. I was working full time, occassionally receiving child support, but reliant on food stamps and WIC to eat, community clinics and medicaid for my prenatal care, and utility assistance to sleep and live in civilized comfort. I tried to take on a second job, but the attendance policy of job #1 said that I could not have a 10 minute grace period to get into my shift from job #2, so I switched jobs thinking the commission spot had more potential. Turned out I was a terrible salesperson. No matter, because I went into premature labor with my second child at some point between 29 and 32 weeks (this is unclear because of a late start to prenatal care and my poor health at delivery. I was technically underweight, and had an abscessed tooth at the time. These were not addressed in my care). My second daughter was delivered by emergency cesarean. After signing a consent I was put under anesthesia and awoke hours later to a deflated womb and an empty room, as my newborn child had to stay in Special Care, even after I went home to heal and care for her toddler sister. Those earliest years of their lives are a blur. I don’t know when I slept, or how I afforded anything at all. There were gigs like newspaper routes (where the kids rode along and eventually the wear and tear cost me my car). There was a call center job with uniforms and strict attendance policies just a cut above minimum wage (which was lost when childcare fell through). At one point I attempted both simultaneously, and couldn’t keep up. Eventually I was out of work, ineligible for unemployment, and requesting general TANF cash assistance of $400 per month, which required participation in a work-ready program. The best thing about the program was that childcare started from day one. On day one, I applied in person to an ad in the paper to work customer service at a local family owned Glass company. I was hired at $14.00 per hour, a $3.50 per hour raise from my best job before. (Fun fact: There is a penalty for returning to work too quickly, and they are glad to take it from an Earned Income Credit at tax time). In looking back on that day specifically, I have wondered if the reason I was hired was due to certain privileges that I had as a young white woman who was well spoken, seemingly driven, and who would be a “good fit” for the organization. All qualities that were inborn and not earned. (*This is not any suggestion that his employer would not have hired me if I were of a different race, just an acknowledgement that we all make decisions with some biases at play, and in this instance and many others, it was likely qualities that I do not control which made another person willing to invest in me without an objective reasoning. It very likely could have been that I was perceived as needing charity. I should call him to ask if he can remember) I was extremely grateful to be able to earn my wages at that time, whatever the reason was for the hiring decision. The environment with this employer was one of closeness and accountability, like a family. The work itself was not grueling, I felt like a valued member of the team, and I was able to be home on weekends and evenings. Access to fair wages meant I started catching up on my back rent, worked up to a more dependable car, and even began saving money for a place with a bedroom. I enrolled in courses at Cumberland County College part time. A connection through boss allowed me to move into a better apartment without a credit check. When my security deposit had to go to car repairs, the two of them worked out a deal where my security deposit was a loan of sorts, the collateral being my relationship with my boss and the reputation I was trying to build for myself. That investment they made worked out, although they earned no interest, and along with the financial boost I had the blessing of two accessible mentor-like figures in my life. Noone forced them to make a no-gain investment, and no blank check would have achieved the same impact on my life. My relationship with these men, along with my forgiving first landlord is the basis for my strong belief that the best way to help the most vulnerable in our communities is to connect them with loving neighbors and employers. Ultimately I left that job as I reached the end of my time at community college. In looking at transferring to a four year university, it became clear that I would not be able to obtain a degree solely through online and evening classes. My developing passion for human services and psychology no longer meshed with the goals of a traditional business, and my work performance was impacted. Fortunately by that time in 2010/2011, the relationship with my long time on again, off again boyfriend turned into a cohabitation/engagement. His financial and logistical support, along with access to federal student loans, allowed me to flip my responsibilities to full time education and part time work. I enrolled at Rutgers-Camden as a psychology major and worked various jobs and gigs, making ends meet and exploring my abilities and interests- just like young adults should. I was active in campus clubs and in research labs. The lessons and concepts learned in the study of psychology allowed me to be a well-informed and involved parent and partner. The strong mentorships I developed with researchers created a strong respect for the value of empirical understanding, and motivated me to be a critical thinker (and not just a consistent critic). Furthermore, my access to a quality education at a small campus propelled me forward intellectually and professionally. I learned to conduct and evaluate social research and engage in fruitful discussion. Better yet, I developed a desire to connect people with knowledge that often ends up stuck in the world of academia. Luckily, the whole thing only cost me $62,000, after grants and scholarships, plus interest.
The present Era
Throughout my educational pursuit, the girls obviously continued to grow and develop, as did I, and the challenges we faced changed from matters of survival to those of growth. Things stabilized through both consistent effort and twists of fate. Jason and I blended and added to our family and moved into his childhood/ our permanent home during my senior year of undergrad. We married in 2015 while I was finishing graduate school, and as he was reaching new levels of stability in his career as a New Jersey carpenter’s union member. That same year, I began working more closely to use my education, experiences, and passions to build my local community in the role of a Family Advocate. I would sit, sometimes for hours at a time, in homes around Cumberland and Salem counties, meeting with working-class families to engage them in assessing and overcoming threats to their wellbeing, then setting and achieving goals for growth. I met many of these families at times when they were downtrodden and discouraged. Some were introduced to me because their children were struggling with behavioral and educational needs. Some had ongoing legal entanglements with family or criminal courts. Some were financially unable to provide for their family’s basic needs, and were not equipped to access the services available to them without assistance. Nearly all were lacking the privileges and opportunities that had helped me find my own “bootstraps” in the decade before, but All wanted a better way of life for their children. Despite many disappointments and skepticism over their odds of success, they were willing to put in the work. It was quite literally my job to encourage them emotionally, talk them out of reasoning that would lead to giving up, and to support their efforts. I often mediated marital and parent/child disputes. I would sit on the phone with lawyers, principals, and utility companies on speakerphone with families so that they would feel empowered to not accept “no” or “later” as an answer to their pressing concerns. In this role I was able to witness great disparities and obstacles to success within our established systems. My mere presence in these moments sometimes shed light on these in a way that even the families I served had not anticipated. They thought no one got through on those phone lines or got answers, but really someone who sounds well educated and can manage their frustrations enough to sound polite usually can. It was an uncomfortable realization, and the basis of my job security at the time.In that role, I began to engage more with agencies and initiatives that served families, and was soon invited to tables where decisions were made and plans laid that impacted whole communities. Around said tables sit some of the most talented, visionary, dedicated public servants, non profit leaders, and community advocates you could imagine. I like to think I’m a helpful addition to these meetings, but I know that sometimes I am a cause of frustration and make extra work for people. Whatever impressions I leave, I am consistently active in meetings with suggestions, and requesting clarifications on goals, motivations, and methods. When I can, I will offer to help move projects along. The skills honed in family support work have been similarly helpful where non profit agencies do their back end work, not just for a sense of perspective (which most people there have), but also because critical thinking, problem solving, and dedication to achieving outcomes with limited resources are helpful skill sets on both ends. My current business card reads: Director of Coalitions and Community Partnerships, and I’m so new to the position that the ink is hardly dry. I work for a 30 year old non-profit that provides substance abuse prevention, education, and treatment services in the very communities I’ve lived, worked, and served in my entire life, and where my kids are growing up. My primary function is to coordinate and support the efforts of a fun and talented team of six, who I actively work alongside to engage community partners in prevention. I tend to come up with a lot of ideas (you’d have to ask other people if they’re any good, but I can assure you that some of them are terrible), and due to my position and the nature of some funding/ organizational relationships there are at least a handful of people who have to listen to and go along with those ideas as a matter of their paycheck (you’d have to ask them how they feel about that, but I would guess there are times they wish they didn’t have to). Overall our work is guided by a collection of large scale studies on evidence-based programs, practices, and processes, and we make our best attempt at utilizing them well. As far as how good we are at it, I can really only speak to our momentum, because showing movement in the needle of substance use issues is tough, but attempting to take credit is folly, and frankly blind arrogance. Most of the work I engage in at present time shows no immediate pay-off, and there are lots of other groups making their own similarly difficult to measure attempts within the same area. There are factors we are not even aware of that are at play. It has been a bit of an adjustment to enter a field where you can’t be sure you’re doing it right. In business, people pay for your good and services, or they won’t. With research, you conduct the study to “Accept or reject the null hypothesis” and write up a thoughtful and informed discussion, then submit it or file it. With families overcoming hardship you get hugs and smiles and invitations to graduation parties, or you get told that the plan laid was a bust and there’s no desire to try plan B. No, in this job you get up, and get together with others (hopefully) to assess the need, plan the action, do the thing, and then count heads in the room and hope it helped. This reality is true of the work being done by countless well-intentioned people in regards to a near infinite number of social issues, utilizing an amount of resources (private, personal, and public) that would make our heads spin if they were tallied by time, talent, and dollars. The goals are certainly worthy and noble, but the best means to those ends are neither certain nor free. That bothers me both on levels I believe are both within and beyond our control as a society. I believe that as a society we have an obligation to protect human lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness, but to what extent, by what means, and with what resources, I don’t know. So in doing this worthy work that involves the use of other people’s resources, I’ve taken comfort in the grant requirement to engage others (a common grant requirement, as most calls for proposals include some language around “coalitions” , “collaborations”, or “community-informed efforts”). This is a good thing and requires many of the same people to keep showing up in the same places, staying engaged, and taking genuine enjoyment in the experience of meeting, knowing, and working with one another. In short we build communities of professionals who serve communities. These are really great impressive tables to sit at, and unfortunately I have never seen an elected official beyond the county level present. At these tables, where the people who coordinate and execute services that involve our most vulnerable neighbors, there are not representatives present. That bothers me on a level I think we can change.
In closing… (yes, you’re finally at the end)
I sat down yesterday to write a typical “Know Your Candidate” blurb, which I thought would take like A minute. It wasn’t coming out right. It felt forced, and even made me begin to question if I had it in me to campaign for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. I replaced the “Jenna”’s with “I’s” and then what you just read poured out over three to five sessions of keyboard reflections. Those sessions took place after fulfilling duties in tele-working (It’s currently week 5 (?) of COVID response social isolation), keeping house, checking in with the husband, and parenting two teens and a talktative seven year old who is inconceivably bored (yes that word means what I think it means, it’s homeschool spring break after all). That’s my life at the moment, and as I continue this campaign, it will have to be in that context. You just read my own account of the jist of all of my life before pandemic days. I’d say this has been a very thorough “blurb”. I could have tried to fit a shorter jist into a few paragraphs, but as I have revealed my political intentions to the people closest to me in the past week (and in between these musings), I talked with more than a dozen of the people who know and love me best, beginning each conversation with a random call or text awkwardly getting some version of “I’m running for Congress as an independent for 2020 (i.e., 6 months from now).” I came to realize that their joyfulness, support, and concerns are all based on one commonality- they really know me well. The above mini-memoir is the best response I have to other candidate’s traditional funds and party support. I hope it wasn’t painful to read, and I hope that without me giving you a listing of my character and fitness for office you can form your own initial opinion. If you are someone who has known me in some capacity, please check my account with your experience. None of you has been with me all along, so please feel free to fact check, search for confirmation or contradiction, and pursue better understanding. My direct opinions on hot topics isn’t laid out here, but I’m happy to share, discuss, and allow you to broaden my understanding. Above all else, if you go in November and my name is on your ballot, I hope you feel like you know and trust the person you’re voting for (or against… I couldn’t possibly know for sure).Be well, and thank you again for your consideration.