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    Leadership: Making a Difference

    Jen Andrews

    It’s as easy to imagine Shelby Farms Park Conservancy without the buffaloes as Jen Andrews.

    Working largely behind the scenes as the Director of Communications, she has been a driving force with Laura Adams, now Conservancy executive director, from the days when the idea of a world-class park in the heart of the county was little more than wishful thinking.  

    Jen’s journey to Shelby Farms Park was more serendipitous than strategic, and the detour by the Rhodes College English major with a mastery of post-colonial literature and a minor in film studies was a clear departure from her plans.  Upon high school graduation in Marianna, Arkansas, she thought her future involved the pursuit of a doctorate and the life of a professor in English Lit.  

    Along the way, an offer from Shelby Farms Park changed everything, and it was a fortuitous day for our community, according to Mrs. Adams.  “I don’t think it’s possible to separate the development of the Park from Jen’s professional development,” she said.  “It is simply not possible to overstate Jen’s role in developing, nurturing, and protecting the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy vision.  Jen joined us as the Shelby Farms Alliance office manager when all we had was a briefcase and a dream.  

     

    Changing the World

    It was an approach to life shaped by Jen’s small town background and the strong example of her parents, her personal heroes.  “The town only runs because everyone pitches in,” she said.  “Everyone had a role to play, and Memphis is the kind of city that encourages the same things.”

    That attitude proved helpful in June, 2006, when she signed on as the only staff member at the Shelby Farms Park Alliance headed up by Mrs. Adams.  

    It was a “leap of faith” for Jen, said Laura.  Together, they “scraped, painted, and refurbished an old abandoned little house on the park property,” Mrs. Adams said.  They finished it with second-hand furniture and “set out to change the world – or at least the world of parks.  What’s been remarkable and gratifying has been to watch how Jen has embraced each opportunity that has come our way and has stepped up to each challenge.”

    Expressing an opinion stated by many emerging leaders in Memphis, Jen said she felt that she “was in a certain place for a certain reason.”  “It’s not what I would have thought I would be doing but it felt so right,” she said, “and I liked that many people thought it (a world-class park) could not be done.”

    “It was always important to my dad that I was an independent thinker, making my own decisions and having my own opinions,” she said.  It produced a thirst for education, and as the first member of the family to attend college, she accepted a scholarship at Rhodes College where she was “enraptured by the academics” and competed as a short-distance sprinter.

     

    Kismet

    Her love of post-colonial literature was awakened by the realization that “literature is written by people other than Faulkner or Whitman.  It is written by people who had no voices and then did, and it was an emotional awakening for me.”  Meanwhile, sprinting taught her self-discipline and leadership.  Today, the leadership is often found in developing ways for everyone’s voice to be heard in park programs and plans.

    The pairing of Jen and Laura was kismet, according to many people who watched the evolution of the Alliance into the Conservancy, and from their roles as park advocates leading a volunteer organization into the management of a professionally-run park.  “I love to work with a charismatic, visionary person,” Jen said, speaking of Mrs. Adams. 

    “As much as I love the park, what I’ve really been doing is following Laura.”

    Jen was working as an intern at Ducks Unlimited, the world’s largest wetlands conservation organization when she visited Shelby Farms Park to run.  Later, she sent her resume to an alum of Rhodes College who forwarded it to Laura.   “She told me about her vision, what Shelby Farms could be, what parks mean, and the connection to the environment,” Jen said.  “I thought it was so exciting.”

    She was told about Greening Greater Memphis, the standing room only event at the Goldsmith Botanic Garden, where an array of organizations and individuals signed on to the concept of a “green system” that included greenways connecting parks and downtown Memphis to Shelby Farms Park.  “When Laura offered me the job, she said, ‘Are you ready for an adventure?  It won’t be easy.  It will take a lot of commitment.”

    Jen was on board.  “It was the only offer that I got for an adventure,” she said.  After a few years, the adventure began for real: Shelby County government approved the conservation easement for the park, agreed upon a governance structure and contracted with the Conservancy to manage and operate the park, and the master plan was completed.

     

    Advice to Other Emerging Leaders

    Today, the Conservancy is moving full-steam ahead with the development of a park in keeping with the master plan, but it’s also responsible for the seven-mile Shelby Farms Park Greenline that connects the park to a number of Memphis neighborhoods.

    From her experience, Jen, now 27 years old, offers the following advice to other emerging leaders:

    • Don’t be afraid to take a risk.  “If you have something to contribute and you’re not afraid to answer the call, there is great potential to take your life in an unexpected way.”
    • Don’t be scared of the unexpected.  “Put yourself in a good position by always being prepared.”
    • Surround yourself with good people.  “I hitched my wagon to a woman that’s truly remarkable and I hope some of it rubs off.”
    • Try to not be selfish.  “Don’t be so self-focused and competitive. What I do is about being from a small town and acting on a sense of duty because you are needed.  It’s a beautiful thing to be needed.”
    • Love what you’re doing and where you’re doing it.  “I really like Memphis a lot.  There are a lot of great people here."
    • Come as equals.  “In a city that sometimes feels so divided, it’s beautiful to find ways and a special place for everyone.”