Saying Goodbye to Jenny: an Interview

I think that we are an organization that attracts very heart-forward people—heart-forward people who are full of integrity.

—Jenny Chu

Interview by Write Around Portland program & operations coordinator, Emily Garcia.

Jenny Chu, our Community Engagement Manager, is moving to Denver with her partner, and her last day working at Write Around Portland will be August 13. Jenny has been on staff overseeing our volunteer program since 2014, and she has been part of our community since 2007.

We sat down with Jenny this month to learn more about her Write Around Portland journey and where she’s headed next.

Jenny, an introvert, studies astrology and has been doing chart readings as a student astrologer. She has a 14-year-old indoor cat, Dubbies, who has never moved out of state, but will be making the move to Denver as well, camping halfway between Oregon and Colorado in a pet tent—what Jenny’s roommate dubbed “the most Portland thing ever.” Jenny’s partner has a job in Denver, and Jenny is going to take a couple months off to land and get acclimated. Once in Denver, she plans to pursue flight lessons and her pilot’s license and hopes to be a part-time flight instructor one day. She and her partner are also researching community land trusts to figure out more just, equitable and community-forward ways to live intergenerationally as Queer Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

When did you first come to Write Around Portland and what led you here?

After I had just graduated undergrad and was feeling really nervous, as I think most undergrads do, around finishing school and not having any structure around writing or a built-in community, so I quickly started researching writing in Portland. Write Around Portland popped up immediately, and I started looking at the website. I was like, This place seems so cool, and applied for an internship. I remember doing my first selection committee and just feeling so excited and floored by the pieces that were being submitted. I don’t think I understood quite the scope of Write Around Portland’s work at that time when I was in my twenties. I didn’t know how many people we reached, but I just thought that the quality of the writing, and the stories and the diversity of the stories during selection committee was so interesting.

This was at the time when we were in the old Write Around Portland office, so it was like super small. I remember reading submissions quietly with a bunch of other people, and going up the elevator that was pretty rickety, and just feeling that this is this organization that I really, really want to get involved with.

I applied for an internship, and I remember working at a computer tucked away in the corner with Robyn, Beth and Sara (Guest) at the time, so this was 14 years ago. So much was new to me—doing administrative work and data entry, but I still felt really motivated and inspired. Even if the work I was doing like filing wasn’t all that exciting in of itself, I knew that I was fulfilling this organization’s mission, and that really helped me. I also think that working with the people that I was working with showed me what a good working environment could be.

I was so young. I was like 24 or something. Yep. I remember I was very speedy. I felt like my attention span back then was quite different to now (laughter).

You’ve worn many hats at Write Around Portland over the years. You started as an intern, were then hired as a program coordinator and finally moved into a community engagement manager role. Can you share what work has been closest to your heart or had the biggest impact on you?

To be honest, I love our volunteer program; I can’t take any responsibility for it, though. I feel like the volunteer program was baked in with a lot of amazing systems in place, with job roles that were already done before I came. This program was already pretty foundational and well-structured, and then I just kind of came in and just kept carrying it forward.

Some of my most rewarding work has been with our interns. I think some of that has to do with the fact that our interns get to be with us on a more regular basis, and it feels definitely more like a mentorship role. It has always brought a lot of joy to me to see how interns develop over their time with us and even after—even though the time is pretty short—but three months is not insignificant.

I’ve loved the different opportunities that Write Around Portland offers in terms of volunteering. Scribing, I think, is a really intimate volunteer role, and being able to support our scribes supporting our participants has been really rewarding in seeing the ways in which our volunteers are so compassionate and so tender and then also able to keep professional boundaries.

The internship program has always been kind of my favorite, but I think as an introvert—or an ambivert/introvert—I’ve really liked those opportunities where we’ve been able to get to know people with more touchpoints, like with our volunteer facilitators. That being said, though, another thing that I really love is seeing the ways in which our volunteers can build that over time—meaning someone who comes in for an office shift once a month over the year kind of has that similar touchpoint—and being able to learn about someone over time.

Everyone has their own Write Around Portland journey and Write Around Portland frequency, and I love that we have that. I love that we’re able to bring on volunteers that want to come in more regularly, meaning that they want to come in once a week, and we’ve got volunteers that come in and support our readings but that’s all; it’s all great.

What is one thing you are most proud of in your work at Write Around Portland?

This question is always so hard for me! I think to be honest, when I started, Write Around Portland didn’t have a racial equity plan. We’re a team, so I’m not the only person that has done it, but I think I was, oftentimes, the catalyst in starting a lot of those conversations that really helped us to pursue our racial equity plan and to really help integrate our racial equity work in a way that feels like it’s actually, truly, authentically and sincerely integrated into our work.

Liz is the one who’s really systematizing things because she’s the Executive Director, but I think in the initial stages I was the one that sparked a lot of those initial conversations in thinking about doing the work. So when I think about that over 7 years—and also just recognizing that racial equity work happens in perpetuity—I feel really grateful to have been at an organization that has listened, taken the feedback and has really turned that feedback into action in the ways that matter––changing or starting the work to change Write Around Portland’s DNA through systems and policies so that equity is always at the forefront no matter who is working at the organization.

I know, having had various conversations with people in the arts sector, that we are not the rule. We’re actually quite the exception when it comes to racial equity work and being able to authentically integrate it into all aspects of our work. At other organizations, it isn’t practiced in the same ways that we practice it; it isn’t at the forefront of conversations like it is at our staff meetings. And so, I feel really grateful to be the person that I am, and to have been able to be the person I am at Write Around Portland. I have felt really well supported which is why I’ve been here as long as I’ve been here. It makes me sad to think that I’m leaving, but also excited that that opens up spaces for other people to be a part of this work on staff too.

What is one dream you have for Write Around Portland?

We’ve been talking about this so much, but one dream I have is for our volunteers, staff and our board to reflect the people that we serve. That would be incredible to have the people that are making decisions also from the communities that we serve. I think that’s what real and true equity looks like.

I know that we have a lot of work to do still––and it would be incredible to reach a place where it’s something that we don’t have to strive for anymore, as in equity is just commonplace at Write Around Portland. Like, for example, I know that our volunteer program isn’t very racially or ethnically diverse. That’s something that we are thinking about a lot, but for diversity in all of its forms to be integrated in a way that feels like any other sort of big city. To have our organization be much more integrated with culturally-specific organizations, and for those relationships to be much deeper and less at the beginning stages of like, Hey, you don’t know us, but we’ve been here for 22 years, but actually be fully mutually supportive. For our definition of community to expand beyond Write Around Portland’s community. And I think we’re starting to do that work with our advocacy work.

What are you going to miss most?

That’s so hard! To be honest, I’m going to miss all of you. I’m going to miss the culture; I’m going to miss the ethos that every single person who comes to Write Around Portland carries. I think that we are an organization that attracts very heart-forward people—heart-forward people who are full of integrity. I really I don’t want to believe that Write Around Portland is the only place where this is possible, but again, having worked at other places and also being pretty integrated in the arts sector in general, I just know that who we are as a community—and I’m talking beyond the staff, beyond the board; I’m talking about our Write Around Portland community in general—that we are an exception in the way that we do this work, and in the way that we treat each other, and the values that we hold and how we practice them. It’s exceptional, and it makes me really sad that its exceptional. It shouldn’t be exceptional in the sector, but it is.

I think I’m really going to miss the ability for us to hold both really nuanced and emotional conversations while still doing the work. Still being able to authentically bring ourselves and to give people the space to be fully who they are, and respecting that too, while also not having that get in the way. While also being able to move forward.

I think, in professional spaces, especially professional spaces that subscribe to white supremacy, this idea that you can’t be both a full person and do your work is just so constricting. The way that we do our work together, and who our volunteers are and how they do the work and hold spaces for other people, actually makes us better at our jobs. It makes our relationships stronger, it also makes us more resilient. It also makes us able to come work, time and time again, because this work is not easy—it takes a lot of heart, and sometimes it is heartbreaking.

And so I think the culture of Write Around Portland is something I’m going to miss the most, and, of course, the culture is created by the people, and so I guess in longhand–shorthand, it’s the people that I’m really going to miss—everyone—the people who make Write Around Portland who we are. But luckily, because you all have also helped make me, I will hopefully be able to bring that to other places wherever I go.

Anything else you would like to share?

This was completely unexpected. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to move, didn’t know I was going to fall in love—definitely didn’t know I was going to get married (laughter). But I think at this point in my life I do feel ready—that this door is opening, and I feel fully excited to start this new chapter, even though I’m so sad to leave something that I wouldn’t have left if this opportunity didn’t come, if I didn’t fall in love with my neighbor. But he’s so amazing and he’s totally Write Around Portland worthy (laughter)!

We will deeply miss Jenny, and we are also happy for her new adventure! To say farewell to Jenny, you can email jchu@writearound.org or mail the Write Around Portland office (133 SW 2nd Ave #304; Portland, OR 97204). Our heartfelt thanks to Jenny for her years of dedicated service to Write Around Portland and for always bringing her full self to this work.