Navigating through Minnesota Nice

Black woman coach finds it difficult to have ‘the racial conversation’ here

Jennifer Jacobs
Jennifer Jacobs

On a typical school day, students file to and fro past her corner office at Si Melby Hall. Jennifer Jacobs maintains a busy day as well.

Jacobs is perhaps the only Black female athletic administrator among its conference members, often seen as the “Midwestern Ivy League,” says a Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Association spokesman. She joins Mary Dana Hinton and Faynesse Miller — St. Benedicts and Hamline presidents respectively — as the only Black females in key non-academic leadership roles.

The St. Paul native is the school’s assistant athletics director of compliance and the assistant women’s volleyball coach, the only Black female among the school’s coaches. She joined the department in 2012, hired under the NCAA Division III Ethnic Minority/Women’s Internship grant. Two years later she was promoted to assistant director of external relations and inclusion and diversity under a Division III strategic alliance matching grant.

A 2004 Minnesota State University Mankato graduate with a psychology degree, Jacobs also earned a master’s degree in educational administration from Saint Mary’s University in 2009. She was a high school dean of students and a college and career center coordinator at her alma mater, St. Paul Harding High School, before coming to Augsburg, located in the city’s Cedar-Riverside area.

Her present position is paid through a five-year NCAA diversity grant, explains Jacobs. She was a speaker at the 2013 NCAA Inclusion Forum and has served on several local and national committees. A member of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators, Jacobs says increasing the number of Black female athletic administrators is an ever-present concern.

“The problem, and we know this, [is] that people in general will hire people that look like them. The only way to counteract that is you have to be intentional in your hiring practice,” she notes. “You have to find the pocket of people that don’t look like you and are willing to have a discussion and value different life experiences.

“I would guess volleyball is right behind women’s basketball; [there are] many men that coach women in volleyball,” continues Jacobs, who also is an assistant coach with the local Northern Lights Volleyball Club. “I think it comes down to ADs and presidents being very intentional [when looking] at hiring this next woman volleyball coach or next woman basketball coach.

“We need to make sure that there are women in our…interview candidacy pool. If you as an AD or president don’t know how to find the women, you need to ask and not be afraid. They can’t be afraid to ask.

“I fundamentally believe that women can do the job amazingly, and I would like to see the research that women can do the job better,” says Jacobs. “I think that too many people are afraid to even ask or don’t even think about it at all.

“It’s all about building a pipeline from within. [Schools] need to find and foster the female student athletes that would want to get into coaching, administration — you name it, all the way up to the presidential level.”

There are many more White males “than anybody else in every industry out there,” she points out. “You have to not be afraid. You have to be open to asking people [and] stop doing what [you’ve] always done. It’s an uphill battle.”

Racial equity is too often a difficult conversation, especially in Minnesota, says Jacobs. “You got to be able to navigate through Minnesota Nice to be able to have the racial conversation here. People in Minnesota don’t want to talk about race in general, don’t want to talk about anything uncomfortable,” she points out. “If you’re from here [and a person of color], you understand how to navigate and can start to have that conversation.”

Jacobs says being an unofficial advisor to Augsburg’s Black students and other students of color is equally important. “I go where the need is,” she says proudly on currently serving as a mentor to several student-athletes at her school and at other institutions as well.

“I believe why I am at Augsburg is that I have this calling,” she admits. “I think that is why I ended up here. Everything I’ve done, whether it’s K-12 education or coaching volleyball or whether it’s here at Augsburg in athletic administration, I always go back to students of color and helping students figure out what they want to do in their lives. I love working with youth to bring them up.

“Right now I am getting a men of color group together around racial and social justice,” continues Jacobs. “We have a very strong social justice group on campus, and we are trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between our athletes and our athletes of color. They want to be involved to have that conversation with their athletic counterparts.

“That’s my passion.”


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