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Spotlight on TCC Group Changemakers: Jennifer Stephens

We’re checking in with some of our featured team members to hear how their work has evolved over the past year and what they’ve learned along the way.

Tell us about yourself!

I’m an expert in public health and a researcher. I love doing qualitative data collection and bringing that back to people in an accessible, concise, understandable way that’s actionable. I also thrive in working with diverse teams—both in terms of expertise and cultural background—that allow us to show up as our whole selves because I think our products just get better when we do that.

In fact, you’re known for an inclusive approach to relationships. Why is that important, and how does it show up in social impact work?

It shows up for me most recently in getting to lead a group of 12 Black women–cis, trans, HIV positive, HIV negative–in a series of 16 conversations that led to reframing [the term] “risk” for HIV. I intentionally showed up as me and talked about my experiences as a Black woman. I created the session themes around songs by Black artists. I was sure that my boss or my client would say, “No. This is too much. You’re going too far.” Instead, the reaction was, “I love it so much!” That reinforced that not only the way I wanted to show up is great, but that it’s celebrated at TCC.

In the same way, I appreciate the fact that so many of my colleagues at TCC show up as their authentic selves. There are times when we talk about this on a personal level and then that deepens connections that can lead to creating better work together for our clients.

How do you activate this approach in your work with clients?

We’ve certainly seen individuals, funders and nonprofits commit to building relationships with their grantee organizations and communities at large.

One way that shows up is the shift from thinking about stakeholders as those we serve and grant funds to to seeing them as partners in co-creation. Co-creation of conferences, initiatives, presentations, and materials has garnered greater engagement and interest spurned by an air of authenticity. In my work, a concrete example of that is the ways we collaborated with the Black Women’s Working Group to build and grow the Risk to Reasons initiative.

I think there’s also a recognition that relationships require two-way communication and that means we’re doing more listening to build relationships. We’re keen to listen to stakeholders and gather their formative input and feedback on what’s needed, what’s worked, and how we can improve. We see this take the form of site visits, breakout sessions at networking or educational events, surveys, interviews, focus groups, community meetings, and even informal conversations. What’s key to ensuring that’s a trustworthy relationship is sharing the insights back with stakeholders.

Finally, I think relationships are made stronger on both an individual and organizational level by nurturing honest, vulnerable conversations. As we’ve grown into honoring diversity, equity, and inclusion, we also value bringing our whole selves to our work instead of stifling unique personal experiences. As individuals that may show up as sharing our personal history or experiences and how it’s impacted the ways we work. As organizations (and individuals too) that can mean being honest about what we don’t know, where we are struggling or challenged and asking for support.

Healthy, strong relationships take work, but in 2023, I’ve seen how they give rise to shared opportunities and solutions to problems.

How do you build institutional trust?

I wrote a whole guide about it! We talked about authenticity, honesty, about confidentiality, doing good, competent work. But then there’s this piece about fidelity and community engagement ……. it’s Pride month. But the organizations we work with celebrate Pride all year long. It’s the idea that, I’m here to show up for you all the time in the same, consistent way.

The other piece that most folks haven’t explored is about equity. In none of the academic research frameworks was equity ever in there. If you’re a hospital, it is not just about making sure you’re treating everybody equally based on race or ethnicity but also based on body size, gender, religion, etcetera. It also needs to be part of the way you treat your folks, how you hire and uplift your people, and who you have leading your organization.

Who do you look up to?

A lot of it goes back to my aunt who passed 23 years ago and yet still she guides so much of the way I operate, the way I work, the way I show up. When faced with a difficult situation I ponder a question she sent to me: “Will you be the bigger person or the better person?” I love it because there is no one answer for every situation and it helps me weigh my choices beyond pros and cons.

You can learn more about Jen and her work at TCC Group here.


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