This past year has been tumultuous, especially for educators. Across the country, school leaders have had to juggle navigating a global pandemic and our nation’s racial reckoning. They’ve transitioned to virtual teaching and learning, created space to discuss police brutality and systemic racism in their schools, and addressed the physical, social, and emotional needs of their students and families. In light of all, they have persevered through. Our School Leaders Who Inspire Series is intended to celebrate and highlight the prominent and impactful educators we have the pleasure of working with.
Over the course of this series, we will share interviews with school leaders about their motivations to lead and teach, their biggest lessons, influences, and best advice. You will learn more about their contributions to the public school system and how they have worked to provide their students with a high quality and equitable education.
"My inspiration for supporting Black students' education and creativity was born from my own experiences watching my mother pursue education while managing personal trauma and overcoming economic barriers. I used poetry to navigate the death of my primary parent which taught me to use art as a tool for healing and self-expression."
Our Conversation with Jennifer Hodges
How long have you been working in the charter school sector?
I joined KIPP Chicago in August 2019 to launch and lead the Whole Child Initiative.
What motivated you to do this work?
My life purpose is to use my creativity toward generational advancement and to help elevate human potential. My ultimate motivation is to remove barriers to access for student success. I chose KIPP Chicago and the Whole Child Initiative to be part of my journey to implement lasting solutions and approaches to pervasive and emerging community challenges such as poverty and access to quality education. As a youth, I resided in three economically contrasting neighborhoods in the heart of Detroit, Michigan, and I understand the interconnectedness of stable communities, the overarching benefit of accessibility to gainful employment, and the positive effects of access to quality education. Living and working in Chicago, I witness the disparities and effects of marginalized communities and how it increases violence, unhealthy behaviors, and psychological damage. This perspective fuels my desire to make changes to benefit resilient Black and Latinx communities. Being a convener of key stakeholders to create solutions-focused programs, living in contrasting Detroit communities, and advocating for strategic investment in communities of greatest need affirm my love and passion for children and their families.
What book, experience, or resource has had the biggest impact on how you approach this work?
My inspiration for supporting Black students' education and creativity was born from my own experiences watching my mother pursue education while managing personal trauma and overcoming economic barriers. I used poetry to navigate the death of my primary parent which taught me to use art as a tool for healing and self-expression. My story is not unique and I am dedicated to offering support to and fostering creativity within children like me. I aim to design the Whole Child Initiative from a place of empathy for our students who may experience forms of personal or economic trauma.
In many ways, I am a success story of the benefits of better education, the resiliency required to pursue higher education, and the importance of arts in the recovery from traumatic experiences. Although my trauma was the loss of a parent, there are many other psychological and emotional traumas that affect communities and its residents, like food insecurity, homelessness, violence, and poor health. Access to education and better paying jobs are solutions to most community challenges, but coupled with an effective tool for self-expression - like artistic expression - can create lasting holistic resolutions from traumatic experiences for the individual and for the improvement of communities. I not only want to improve communities, I want to heal the psychological and emotional wellbeing of those in need through art and education.
What strategies or best practices does your school use to help support your students’ racial identity development?
The Whole Child Initiative (WCI) is KIPP Chicago’s multifaceted and community-centered approach on our journey toward becoming an anti-racist organization by removing barriers of access for student success while supporting parent and teacher wellness. This approach embraces a whole child, community focus, which ensures each student, family, and teammate is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Through the launch of the WCI, KIPP Chicago's goal is to remove barriers to student success and matriculation. We are aligned in the belief that when you center the holistic needs of the child, they will succeed.
The seven Whole Child priorities integrate social and emotional practices that work in synergy to offer students the tools for relentless pursuit of happiness and a life of choice. The seven tenets of Whole Child are: Food Justice, Enhance Teacher Wellbeing, Inclusive and Challenging Curriculum, Identity Development Practices, Family and Community Partnerships, Social and Emotional Learning, Elevate KIPP’s Children’s Museum of Art and Social Justice.
Embracing an inclusive and challenging curriculum. We center our student’s racial identity by implementing the 1619 Project into the middle school curriculum to reframe how history is taught and to share the contributions of Black people to US and global societies.
Cultivating identity development practices. Two key initiatives to promote identity development are The McNair Leadership Fellowship, designed to support a cohort of Leaders of Color to thrive in management roles. Additionally, the physical space our students occupy is a positive reflection of Black and Latinx students at each school.
Jennifer Hodges, Vice President, Whole Child Initiative & Community Impact, KIPP Chicago
This cohort of 71 Notable Black Leaders worked for decades to reach prominent places in law, banking, media, and nonprofits and lift their communities. Following the murder of George Floyd and reckoning over systemic racism, they found themselves in new positions.
For the first time, they say, they've had an opportunity to share their experiences with racism and how they overcame obstacles. They've been encouraged to share their views and open deeper conversations on race with colleagues. Many observe that their insights have a wider impact and are aiming to use that visibility to speak out on inequality in the workplace.
Many have taken on new roles leading new or expanded diversity initiatives as companies vow to improve their practices in recruiting, hiring and retaining talent from diverse backgrounds. And these leaders have redoubled efforts to boost the next generation through nonprofits that help young people succeed in school and prepare for a career. These leaders are seizing the moment.
Jennifer Hodges is responsible for the strategic direction and implementation of KIPP Chicago. During the pandemic, she led food distribution efforts and also coordinated with the Illinois Department of Public Health to provide free and immediate access to vaccine clinics for Englewood and Austin residents. In recent months, KIPP implemented the 1619 Project into the curriculum of middle schools to help reframe how history is taught and to share the contributions of Black people to U.S. and global societies. Another initiative featured 18 weeks of content aligned to topics that parents said was critical to their families’ success, such as nutrition education, financial literacy, mental health and assisting formerly incarcerated people. Prior to joining KIPP, she was director of corporate development at the United Way of Metro Chicago.
3Arts is a nonprofit organization that supports Chicago’s women artists, artists of color, and Deaf and disabled artists who work in the performing, teaching, and visual arts.
Make a WaveMake a Wave is an artist-to-artist giving program that erases the traditional gatekeeper by inviting each of the previous year’s 3Arts Award recipients to select another artist to receive a surprise grant from 3Arts—in effect sending a wave through Chicago’s brilliant cultural core.
Thanks to our 2021 Make a Wave Presenting Partner, The Joyce Foundation, we are making a bigger wave than ever before by doubling the grant to $4,000 each and inviting all past 3Arts Award recipients to select artists this year. We are also grateful to the Siragusa Family Foundation for being our Make a Wave Partner and to the Reva & David Logan Foundation for providing general operating support for this program.
Jennifer L. Hodges is an abstract acrylic and mixed media visual artist originally from Detroit. Hodges received a Bachelor's in Business Administration from Western Michigan University and a Master of Business Administration through the Baumhart Scholars program at Loyola University Chicago. Hodges serves as Vice President for a public charter school system where she leads the Whole Child Initiative.
Jennifer's creative career has been strategically integrated into her formal education and has spanned more than 20 years. Hodges began writing poetry at age 11 to manage personal trauma and began painting while pursuing her undergraduate degree. Hodges now exhibits across the U.S. and her work has been added to many private collections. She is consistently creating new work in her South Side Chicago studio. Her work represents a contemporary exploration of the Black experience with a spotlight on the various aspects of Black femininity. She intends to evoke feelings, stimulate thought, and enhance ambiance. Her work is a place to explore without boundaries, relish in liberated creativity, and challenge thought, education, and experience. She draws creative inspiration from the metaphysical, psychology, and spirituality. Her choice of color combination and texture through mixed media aims to inspire spirituality, cultural connection, and an overall sensory connection for the viewer, making them feel represented in the work of art.
Jennifer L. Hodges
Creator + Executive