Q&A: Jodi Petersen


Jodi Petersen. Photo via johnsoncenter.org

Editor’s note: Each Q&A in the Influential Women enewsletter will feature a woman from the region who’s influential, a rising face in her industry or doing interesting work. Submit tips on potential Q&A subjects to tgortsema at grbj dot com.

Jodi Petersen serves as the director of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy’s Community Research Institute at Grand Valley State University.

Petersen’s work focuses on helping organizations use data to inform decision making and improve community outcomes.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in crime and justice from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree and doctorate in ecological community psychology from Michigan State University.

Biggest career break?

It was something that seemed like more of a setback than a break at the time. I was working at a small liberal arts college on a one-year visiting professor appointment. I was hoping to get a tenure track position there after the first year. Part way through the year, it became clear that it just was not a good fit for me. It totally shook up my ideas about where my career was headed. It forced me to really re-think what was important to me, what work was most satisfying and how I wanted to prioritize the aspects of what I was looking for in my next steps. I got creative for a year or two and did some consulting and some adjunct teaching, while applying for jobs and decided that I’d rather piece together several part-time positions than settle for something full-time that wasn’t fulfilling. That decision is what led me to my position at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy’s Community Research Institute, or CRI, at GVSU. In the moment, it was a very stressful time, but looking back, it was the unexpected turn of events that led me to get serious about finding my passion.

Proudest moment?

It isn’t something that will ever show up on a resume. We do a survey each year at CRI called VoiceGR. It combines demographics with perception/opinion data from local residents. I led the charge to revamp the survey in 2013. We changed the methodology and made it much more community driven. In 2015, Grand Rapids made a couple of national lists for great outcomes and a national list or two that called out major racial disparities. Since VoiceGR data also showed some of those disparities and equity is a major passion of mine, I followed the news and local conversations after national news called attention to the concern. I came across a social media post where residents were debating if the disparities really existed or not. Someone I had never met cited VoiceGR statistics to back up their position on what disparities exist. My goal behind VoiceGR was to provide data to help increase objectivity and credibility beyond personal anecdotes. To see a person using the data to inform and support their lived experience as informally as on Facebook was the highest level of success I could imagine for VoiceGR. It truly was data that was needed by the community, put back into the hands of residents and being used to inform the conversation.

Best advice you’ve ever received?

All of life comes in seasons. Before you make a rash decision based on a being in a rough spot, look at long trends, put in the effort to change things and give them time.

How did you make your first dollar?

Probably babysitting. There’s a six-year gap between my little brother and I, so my mom used to pay me to keep an eye on him, while she was at home but needed to be outside or needed to get housework done.

Most-treasured possession?

I’m not sure I have one. I have lots of great experiences and memories with some amazing people. I can’t imagine my life without my husband, daughter, other family and friends. I don’t have a lot of actual possessions that I’ve accumulated though.

Dream job?

I’m in it! My dream is to help people have better outcomes across the board through systems-level change. I want to help change the way organizations and systems function, so that they can increase their impact. My role at CRI allows me to do that.

If I were president for a day, I would . . . ?

Reduce income inequality. I don’t think trickle-down economics work. I’d put a mandate in place that people at the highest income levels had to donate a certain proportion of their income to government-designated charities that focus on social service provisions, education and workforce development, or face a higher tax rate. It wouldn’t be popular, but it would take a big step to insuring that those needing the most help can receive it — plus if I were only president for a day, then I wouldn’t need to be too popular!

Last book you’ve read?

I commute and listen to audiobooks. So if that counts, then I prefer books that are relatively mindless fiction as a break from some of the heavier things that I do in the rest of my life. I read roughly one book a week and am currently on a series by Jeaniene Frost about vampires.

The last physical book I read was Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team.”

Last thing you Googled?

Grand Rapids African American Health Institute’s data resources

Your worst habit?

I’m a Diet Coke addict.

To unwind, I like to . . . ?

I have a two-year-old daughter, and I love to walk around the lake in our town with her. It’s tree lined and quiet and at about two miles per loop, it’s a perfect distance for her to stay content.

Dream vacation?

I’d love to walk el Camino de Santiago. It follows the route of a 500-mile pilgrimage across France and Spain.

Favorite food?

I’m a local foodie. We have some great restaurants in GR! My personal favorite is the Local Epicurean. They make a chocolate rum pate that is amazing.

Person you most admire?

I most admire my mother. She has a great career, while being a wife and a mom to four children. She is a lifelong learner, taking online classes while she works full-time. She’s working on her doctorate now. She’s a nurse practitioner and works in a rural setting, specializing in the management of diabetes. It’s a huge need in our community, and there’s no way to count the number of people she’s impacted. 

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