Shawn Jenkins -

Dec 18, 2023

Through the Prism with Shawn M. Jenkins

Shawn grew up in Harlem, New York, and is a first-generation college graduate. During his senior year of high school, he served in AmeriCorps as an afterschool program counselor for kindergarteners. He earned a scholarship through the Posse Foundation, a full-tuition four-year leadership and merit scholarship that propelled him to Franklin & Marshall College (F&M) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Shawn spent nearly a decade in college access and direct student services. Most recently, he was the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the College Board where he managed external partnerships and led a broad set of strategic access initiatives. Now Shawn serves as the Bridging Strategy Lead at Einhorn Collaborative.

What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?

While not my earliest memory, one of my most cherished experiences with human connection is from studying abroad. As a junior in college, I spent a semester in Belém, a small city near the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil, in a program focused on human ecology and Amazon resource management. Part of the experience involved a homestay in a remote rural community only accessible by a ten-day boat journey. The community was quite removed from broader society; they grew their own crops, hunted for meals, and for one hour a day, they turned on the electricity via a diesel engine to watch Caminhos das Índias, a popular telenovela at the time.

Before arriving in Brazil, I did not know any Portuguese, and by this point, my inability to carry even a basic conversation made me feel incredibly homesick. When I got to the town, I was assigned to live with a mother and her two kids. The ten-year-old boy named Danilo gravitated towards me. Each morning, he would tap on my door, take my hand, and lead me through the village. Danilo was my community tutor, sharing knowledge about local crops, demonstrating the fun of coconut bowling, and revealing how to discover joy in the tiniest moments.

One particular adventure etched in my memory involved a handmade canoe. Danilo expertly paddled us to a nearby island, jumped out, and scaled the trees to pluck fruit with ease, while I clung to the boat's edge for dear life. The canoe hovered barely an inch above the water's surface, and I was convinced that with any sudden movement, we would capsize. Danilo could not contain his laughter at my expense.

Though we never exchanged more than a few words, even a decade later, I still carry an immense gratitude for him. He helped me to remember how important shared experience and play can be to forging human connection.

What values guide your personal life and your work?

Growing up, my parents worked in social services. My dad worked in law enforcement, and my mom worked for a community center. For years, I watched them be incredibly generous with friends, family, and strangers. I believe they gave their time, energy, and love to people in part because it also brought them joy.

I grew up in Harlem in the 90s when poverty was rampant, but I rarely noticed because we were wealthy in so many other ways. A lot of the kids in my neighborhood were often over my house because that was just where everyone wanted to be. Not necessarily to be with me or my siblings, but because my parents treated every kid like their own.

Generosity was instilled in me pretty early on. I was pushed to think about how much more I could do, what more I could give, and how else I can be supportive.

My dad passed away toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the things that grounded me was stories of gratitude from people who he helped. I thought I knew him well, but I understood him much better through other people's eyes and the moments of generosity they received from him. Observing my parents building community through generosity played a tremendous role in shaping how I can be generous with others.

When did a person or experience change your mind about an idea or belief?

Starting in 2016, I was asked to serve on the board of trustees of my alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College. Before my first meeting, I remember reviewing the Trustee list and recognizing several prominent Democrats and Republicans and thinking that the meeting must be explosive. Whenever I watched cable news, there was such an emphasis on partisan fighting, and neither had a kind word to say about the other. When I walked into my first meeting, I could tell that not only was everyone incredibly collegial, but they actually liked one another.

That dissonance between what I saw on cable news and what happened in the meeting room was a powerful moment for my understanding of the world. Rather than thinking of myself as part of a particular team and carrying that identity everywhere, I was inspired to listen and seek collaboration. Now, I recognize that the loudest narratives are not always true. We all crave connection and joy, and that is possible when we open ourselves up to the power of common cause. While we might disagree on policy solutions or political candidates, we all share a love for an institution that has given us so much, which is an excellent foundation for our shared work.

What are you working on right now?

Growing up I played ice hockey, and let’s just say I was a slightly below-average player. My mother was convinced that if I worked on my flexibility, I could improve my game, and she took every chance she could to insist that I take up yoga. Like most teenagers, however, I did not take my mom’s advice. The summer after my junior year of college, after returning to New York from a semester abroad in Brazil, I was jobless for about two weeks and spent that time exploring the city. One day, I saw a sign for a donation-based yoga class, which to me as a broke college kid meant free. There are three things I remember from that class: I was wearing jeans, the class kicked my butt, and I walked out of the studio with immense mental clarity.

My yoga practice has been a great way for me to enhance my mental presence while pushing my body to its limits. A few years ago, I picked up a new yoga practice called AcroYoga, a partnered practice that combines elements of yoga and acrobatics. Certainly, the practice requires some basic strength, but more than that, it requires your full mental attention and openness to a childlike connection. I love the expressions and sounds of newcomers (whom we affectionately call "muggles") when they take flight for the first time. Witnessing someone placing trust in someone else with their body despite their fear feels like witnessing magic.

What is giving you hope? What positive visions do you have for our future?

For nearly a decade, I worked in direct student service, focusing on college access. I founded a college bridge program and a scholarship program aimed at identifying talented young people, particularly those from communities with limited opportunity, to provide them with tools and resources to gain access to higher education. Now, many of those young people have graduated and are in the workforce. It brings me so much joy to see the goofy kids I met who demonstrated such promise at the age of 15 or 16 now doing their part for younger members of their families and through their careers. One of my former students works in healthcare and is trying to eliminate health disparities within the Hispanic population. A different former student works in private equity to support nonprofit causes nationwide. Another of my students is in law enforcement and is putting his life on the line to protect some of the same communities where he grew up.

In a coffee shop I frequented for several years, I recall seeing a sticker that said, "What if the cure for cancer was trapped inside the mind of someone who can't afford an education?" Talent is around us everywhere, but opportunities can often be determined by factors outside of our control. I have always been so excited by the prospect that there are things I can do today, tomorrow, and the day after to help people flourish. Young people give me tremendous hope because I think the best investment we can ever make is in people.

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