Living in Her Purpose: Giovanni Jones

By Leo Adam Biga

Giovanni Jones has boldly made a life and career helping others realize their potential through her work as an educator, human resources professional, and community advocate. She’s found her purpose in doing all this while navigating her own personal trauma.

Before coming to the University of Nebraska Medical Center for the first time in 2007 to coordinate its then Summer Medical and Dental Education Program, she was a Lincoln Public Schools teacher. Then after teaching one summer for Upward Bound, she left LPS to work in student support services for that federally funded TRIO program because, she said, “I fell in love with having all the time you needed to nurture a student.”

As an educator, Jones wasn’t shy about challenging prevailing procedures she found wanting, even biased. For example, she chafed at outcome-based teaching that taught to the test rather than to the individual, she objected to labeling some students gifted and talented when she saw every young person possessing gifts and talents, and she criticized racist classroom lessons that denigrated Black people.

“I saw things a different way. I taught a different way,” she said. “I was popular with the students but unpopular with other teachers. I was basically told a few times to stop rocking the boat. I wasn’t really trying to be a rebel, which is what I was labeled as. This is funny because I am so much of a rule follower it would make your head spin. But it’s got to make sense.”

After earning her master’s degree in educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln she left UNMC for Building Bright Futures (now Avenue Scholars) as college talent advisor and financial planning facilitator, only to return to the university in 2017 as coordinator of the Interprofessional Education Program in Academic Affairs.

In that UNMC role, she said she enjoyed “meeting all the incoming students from the various programs, recruiting volunteer facilitators, and securing space and supplies.” She added she also counted as a “blessing” being in a position “to connect postdocs to resources for them and their families.”

Today, she’s UNMC’s Manager for Employee Training and Development in Human Resources and feels where she’s meant to be.

“There are just some things that are such a part of your purpose that they choose you in life,” she said.

“I knew this was supposed to be my job. So much so that I applied for it three times in five years. I was just waiting for the rest of the campus to get a hold of the vision. This platform has allowed me to collaborate with other people on this campus or to bring in things that may not have been done or seen that way before. I am allowed to use my full creativity to either add onto something or create something out of nowhere, and it benefits the entire campus.”

The gregarious, fun-loving Jones brings a different flavor to that academic setting. “I’ve been blessed with joy and with that joy comes humor. Sometimes in my presentations, I’m the only one laughing. Other times the audience decides to laugh with me. What I hope I bring is the energy and excitement and connecting and learning and even sometimes just straight-up fellowshipping with one another. There’s this idea that everything must be drab and dreary because we’re an academic institution.” But not if she has anything to do with it.

“The great thing about it is I get to be who I am in every room. It doesn’t matter if the chancellor or the president of the university is in that room.”

She credits Aileen Warren and Linda Cunningham, African American women she’s served under at UNMC, for having “paved the way for someone like me, so that when I walk into a room, I get to be one-hundred percent Giovanni – I get to my authentic self, and I hope I can inspire other people to do that.”

Jones considers Warren and Cunningham mentors, and she said while many others have helped her find her potential, she reserves special shoutouts to Christopher Wiley, Vaughn Robertson, Ross Dirks, and Millie Hodges Lemon.

Her UNMC duties include leading Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice, and Accessibility (DEIJA) initiatives across campus for the entire employee roster.

“I do hope they see the genuineness of where I’m coming from,” she said, “especially when we’re talking about DEIJA. You cannot have continued success without it leading the way and I am blessed to work on a campus that knows, supports, and models this. UNMC has made significant strides in our DEI journey over the years and there have been many gains in hiring, programming, and engagement.”

As a workplace, she said, UNMC offers “not only opportunities for professional development and advancement but opportunities for personal development.”

Where once Jones assumed everyone was eager to explore DEI issues, she said, “I’ve come to understand everyone isn’t excited to hear about it. I don’t want them to walk away with blame, shame, or guilt. Now, you will walk away challenged. You may walk away feeling there’s a wound there that needs to be dealt with. However, I won’t leave you open and bleeding about these challenging subjects.

“I hope to show people biases are best left behind.

Judging a book by its cover doesn’t even get you the highlights. It doesn’t give you the best chapters.

You’re missing out on so much.”

She uses herself as a prime example of how someone can be unappreciated or misunderstood at first glance. “I’ve been described as loud, not educated. Please, child, I’m one of the smartest people in the room.”

Knowing her starts with knowing her late mother,

Pearline Jones Brodsky, and the profound impact she had on Giovanni, who was named after poet Nikki Giovanni. It’s a name the daughter didn’t always care for growing up, but over time she came to embrace it and the work of her namesake. “In her writing, she could be writing about me,” said Jones, who’s seen the poet in person a few times.

Pearline gave birth to her Giovanni days after turning 16. She dropped out of school. “When people talk about growing up together, that’s what it was,” Jones said. “You wouldn’t see one of us without the other. Then my mother went to prison for manslaughter. She and my biological father were arguing. He was very abusive to her. She was scared and got a gun. I was standing next to them when the gun went off. Then she went away.”

While her mother was behind bars at then-York State Prison for Women Jones was raised by her stepfather, grandmother, aunt, and other family members.

“I had a very traumatic childhood. Part of that was being molested by a close family friend. I told my mother and godmother about it, they believed me, and they did something. It happened two more times (another man and a woman). Those last two times I didn’t say anything because I saw how hard my mother took it the first time. I don’t want to say it broke her, but as a parent when something happens to your child, and you feel like you cannot protect them … I did not want to hurt her.

“I learned very early my job was to take care of other people – my siblings, my mother. I blamed myself even though she said it’s not your fault.”

Jones grew up fast dealing with “things” she said, “that a child should not have to grapple with, and for whatever reason I took it on, and to this day I’ve not been able to take it off.”

“PTSD, depression, these things are real,” she said. “They’re a fight for people. I just kind of dealt with it though I didn’t deal with it until I became an adult and sought some counseling. We’re all dealing with   something.”

Her mother dealt with her own demons, and she became a productive citizen after her release from prison. “It was her life mission that her children would not follow in the same footsteps,” said Jones. “And I don’t mean just the children she gave birth to.”

The daughter inherited the mother’s generous spirit and magnetic personality.

“Her positivity and fortitude were unmatched. My mother got her GED in prison. That was the first graduation I ever attended. It was the first time I ever witnessed someone receive a diploma.” Then-Fontenelle Elementary School principal James Freeman hired Pearline as a paraprofessional when others wouldn’t. She shined in that role.

“It was not uncommon for my mom to carry a suitcase to work. It blew my mind the first time I understood what she was doing. That suitcase would be full of underwear, socks, snacks, and books. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ And she said, ‘The kids come to school without those things.’ So, she would bring those items for them to give as gifts to their families. My mother was so much about other people. I almost feel she gave her last breath doing for others. She wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Once Jones became an educator, she drew inspiration from the intrusive caring style her mother displayed. But the strong-willed daughter originally had her sights set on the U.S. Marine Corps, not college or teaching – until Pearline nixed the idea. After graduating from Benson High School, she enrolled at Nebraska Wesleyan, dreaming of being a TV newswoman or talk show host until an adviser told her nobody in the media looked like her.

She became a first-generation college student and graduate in her family. Her example led her younger siblings to get college degrees as well. Before learning to deal with her past, Jones acted out. “I got into a lot of fights in college. Actual fistfights. Trauma unfortunately is not uncommon. I don’t have a unique story. It’s what we do with it. It’s how we grow and how we just not survive but thrive. At that time though I was angry and not yet able to process and deal with these things.’

School officials laid down the law. “They told me, ‘One more fight, and you’re out of here.’ My mom came down and said, ‘We worked too hard to get you here for you to be messing up.’ She had Brenda Council and Christopher Wiley write letters on my behalf.” Jones believes their intervention kept her in school.

“I was at a private institution, there is no due process.

They could have just kicked me out and done away with me and that would have been it. But they chose to give me another chance and it shed a lot of light on a lot of things.”

The women in her family tend to die young, and so it was with her mother, who passed at 58 from cancer. “Losing my mother was a very difficult thing for me. I never understood what people meant when they said I feel like a motherless child. But I get it now.” Despite that loss and a history of hard knocks, Jones chose to live in light, not dark, and she’s made herself a beacon for others.

“My mother worked very hard to give me a sense of normal life and God just gifted me with joy. Despite it all, I have joy, I didn’t always. A lot of things happened. People told me you’ll never be anything. I was called the ’n’ word, illegitimate. People told my mother I was going to be pregnant before the ninth grade. But the more someone said to me, you can’t do it, it was like, I’m going to show you. Part of that is my makeup. Part of it is my mother. There was never a moment when she wasn’t on the sidelines cheering for me. Someone said to me once, ‘Not everybody’s had a Pearline in their life.’”

Losing Pearline was almost too much. “But I got some good counseling that helped me heal. Now I want to be the best version of myself for others. I’ve been called the ‘hostess with the mostest.’ For me, it’s not being over the top, it’s just what I do. I do like to see people enjoying themselves. Maybe it’s because I had a lot of traumas. Where I could have easily been swallowed up, I chose to be light, I chose to give joy. My purpose is to spread joy.”

She occasionally expresses joy in doing live theater.

She was in the cast for staged readings of “Unfinished Women Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage” at the Union for Contemporary Art and for “Coco Queens” at the Great Plains Theatre Commons New Play Conference. “I love theater. I wish I had more time to do plays.”

Other ways she gives back to the community include mentoring with Teammates and the College of Saint Mary, volunteering with EPIC for Girls, I Be Black Girl, the multicultural church she attends in Benson, One Hope Lutheran, and Clyde Malone Community Center in Lincoln.

Then there’s her support for all the causes her nieces and nephews are involved in. She loves being an aunt and often travels with family. “My favorite role of all is Auntie.”

Her live-out-loud style extends to her love of adventure and travel. Excursions have taken her to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Mexico. She has on her bucket list a visit to Greece. She’s helping plan a 35th high school reunion destination trip, site yet unknown.

She’s tried rappelling, parasailing, snorkeling, canoeing, tubing, skiing, and zip lining, but still hasn’t gotten around to tandem skydiving. Add it to the bucket list. She’s also been up in a hot air balloon. Her adventures are part of her self-care regimen, as are cooking, staying fit (she works out and bikes), laughing, and making others laugh.

As an Omaha Women’s Fund Circles group member, she said she’s part of a cohort that “cultivates authentic relationships and leverages a community that supports and empowers each other.” She was “humbled” when fellow members found out she was unable to drive due to a torn tendon in her thumb and feted her with rides, food, et cetera.

Living her purpose may soon find her following a call to share her gifts and her testimony on a larger stage.

“A little-known fact about me is that once upon a time I was a licensed evangelist. I won’t say what church or denomination. What I understand now that maybe I didn’t understand years before is that all of this is a gift. I want to step onto the scene and spread joy and light and help define, redefine purpose, and inspire. I want to grab pom poms and cheer (the way her mother did). That is what I want to do. I want you to walk away not just feeling but knowing you matter, have a purpose and a reason and a light, and even on those days when you don’t feel one hundred, you still mean something to a lot of people.

“I just want to love on people. I want to love on people in the most unexpected ways and moments and share my heart with them.” She just doesn’t want to do that through the auspices of a church. “Definitely not as a pastor,” she said. “The work of the evangelist is done outside the church. Some people call it motivational speaking. But I’m going to call it purpose speaking. I’m ready.”

Meanwhile, Jones will keep dreaming, manifesting, and “loving on” herself and others while honoring Miss Pearline’s legacy and her own authentic self in the process.

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