Vivian Jenkins-Nelsen: a modern day renaissance woman


Black History Month Profile

In celebration of Black History Month,  for over a decade, the MSR has sent writers into the community to find elders with stories they are willing to share and to record them for posterity’s sake. For this year’s Black History Month, we are highlighting individuals who have been pioneers in education, struggled to raise families, been supportive of their community and worked to diversify the corporate landscape. Their stories highlight contributions to their own and the broader community. 

We hope you enjoy the stories of triumph offered in this 2016 Black History Month edition.

Vivian Jenkins-Nelson
Vivian Jenkins-Nelsen

The dictionary’s definition of a renaissance person — someone who is well-educated, sophisticated, and talented and knowledgeable in many fields of study — describes Vivian Jenkins-Nelsen to a tee. And if you ask anyone who actually knows her, they’re likely to agree.

Jenkins-Nelsen was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1946, to Reverend Rockefeller Jenkins, a Lutheran minister originally from Alabama, and Beatrice Jenkins, a nurse and longtime school teacher originally from South Carolina, who lived to be 106 years old.

Arriving in Minnesota in 1967, and currently residing in North Minneapolis, Jenkins-Nelsen is the co-founder, along with her late husband George, of INTER-RACE, a diversity think tank located at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Jenkins-Nelsen and her late husband met at Dana College in Nebraska, where she was a distinguished alumni and a Bush Leadership Fellow at Harvard University. In 1969, two years after leaving Dana College and living in Minnesota, the Nelsens were married and stayed together for 41 years, until 2010 when George Nelsen passed on.

When Jenkins-Nelsen was asked to summarize the progress of Black people in Minnesota, since her arrival in 1967, she replied, “Well, there has been a lot of changes and not all of them good, of course. For the most part there has been more progress than not. The progress, I’ve seen is in the jobs that people have.

“Since I’ve come here, I’ve seen people of color become police chiefs, become superintendent of school districts, make viable runs for mayor, and ultimately becoming mayor. So there has been a lot of progress. The jobs in corporate America have changed for the better as well,” she said.

Jenkins-Nelsen is a nationally and internationally recognized and highly sought-after diversity consultant, trainer, planner, researcher and lecturer, who speaks to thousands of people about life, leadership, change, grief and diversity. As a consultant, she works directly with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Her list of corporate clients include United Health Group, The St. Paul Companies, The Federal Reserve Bank, The Mayo Clinic and Children’s Hospitals, just to name a few.

Four United States presidents have recognized Jenkins-Nelsen for her work. Presidents Carter and Reagan invited her to the White House to provide her expertise on urban policies during their administrations. President Ford recognized Jenkins-Nelsen’s work with Southeast Asian refugees. “My favorite award is from President Barack Obama,” confided Jenkins-Nelsen, who was recognized first by the Department of Veteran Affairs for her longtime advocacy of African American veterans. Jenkins-Nelsen was nominated, then vetted, and finally in 2014, received the award from President Obama.

Currently, Jenkins-Nelsen juggles a schedule that would seem to belong to more than one person. She is the co-president of the Diversity Institute, Inc, in Minneapolis, the owner of The Hypatia Group, Inc., and the adjunct professor and consultant for Luther Seminary. Yet she still has enough time to serve as vice president and secretary for Clearway Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that has a mission of improving the health of Minnesotans by reducing tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke through research, action and collaboration.

What might surprise people the most about Jenkins-Nelsen is that throughout her Minnesota journey, she found the time to author 11 books, many articles and essays. Some of the books where published through one of her companies, the Hypatia Group, Inc. Jenkins-Nelsen teaches and has published on group facilitation, diversity, conflict and grief.

However, the publication that she is most proud of is Ethnic Variations in Death, Dying and Grief: Diversity in Universality; which was published in 1993 by the largest text book publisher in the world, Taylor and Francis. This book takes a close look at ethnic variations in dying, death and grief by understanding cultural difference. In the last 20 years, this book had a total of 17 revised editions and is still relevant and popular in the world of academia.

Jenkins-Nelsen’s résumé is impressive with prominent titles and positions, but more impressive is her volunteer work. Since her arrival to Minnesota in 1967, Jenkins-Nelsen has held 28 board of director seats with Minnesota nonprofits. She has been involved as the president of the League of Women Voters and many other board roles.

One accomplishment not found on Jenkins-Nelsen’s résumé is her degree in piano performance. She is classically trained. When asked why it wasn’t listed on her résumé, she reflected on how she and her brother loved playing music and how she felt discouraged by elders from thinking about music as a main focus.

Jenkins-Nelsen’s eyes lit-up while sharing a story about playing in an Omaha jazz club and restaurant with her piano teacher— a gig that led to Jenkins-Nelsen meeting singer Eartha Kitt. During that time, Jenkins-Nelsen was fresh out of college and still living in Omaha, working as a counselor for the Job Corps program. After a brief encounter with the famous singer, Jenkins-Nelsen was able to persuade Kitt to come to the Job Corps campus to speak with the young ladies about show business and dancing as a career.

When asked is Minnesota a good place to raise a child for Black parents, Jenkins-Nelsen says, “absolutely, but you have to be very intentional about what you want for your child. It is one of the most segregated places in the country.” She added that you have to be careful not to set your child up for becoming culturally incompetent.

Still, the issues that a Black family or interracial family face are very different than 20 years ago. Jenkins-Nelsen said she believes it is good to have balance and expose your child to a variety of people and experiences.

Given Jenkins-Nelsen’s grand history, it seems fitting that she lives in a house in North Minneapolis that seems historic. It is the very first, and at one time, the only house for miles. According to neighbors, during the summer months, when cars drive down her block to her house on the corner, they stop, but there is no stop sign there. It is mainly the beautiful rock formations, lawn and flower arrangements in Jenkins-Nelsen’s yard that have drivers doing a double take.

From immaculate yard care, diversity consultation, research or lecturing, Jenkins-Nelsen does it all and is a true modern day renaissance woman.


James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader comments to or Twitter at @JamesLStroudJr.