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Janet Jernigan, BA’66: From activism to advocacy–a lifetime of caring

Posted by on Friday, August 16, 2019 in Profiles.

A&S alumna and former head of Nashville nonprofit FiftyForward looks back on 50 years of work in the community

Portrait of Janet Jernigan, BA'66


Janet Jernigan has never seen herself as exceptional. As an undergraduate English major at Vanderbilt in the mid-1960’s, she saw herself as simply a reflection of all the other young women on campus.

“I guess I was pretty much your typical Vandy co-ed, with my little penny loafers and pleated skirt,” she with a laugh.

However Jernigan attended college at a time of great change in the South. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, integration was still a hot-button issue on campus and in the community, and she was one of the few students participating in the movement. She was definitely not your typical Vandy co-ed. She saw wrongs and worked to right them. She cared deeply—and she has carried this quality with her through more than five decades of nonprofit work.

Jernigant enrolled at Vanderbilt to get her bachelor’s degree in English. She saw it as a safe degree that could “serve her well” if she decided to pursue a career. But it was opportunities outside of the classroom that would ultimately influence her professional path.

When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, Jernigan was midway through her time at Vanderbilt. Nashville had been a hotbed of civil rights activity and a stop for Freedom Riders on their journey through the South. Jernigan saw what was happening around her and felt a need to do something about it. A longtime family friend, Susan Wilbur, had attended the George Peabody College for Teachers, now the Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, and faced some of the worst moments of integration’s tumultuous struggle in Nashville. Joining the Freedom Riders on a bus from Nashville to Birmingham, Ala., in 1961, Susan was one of three white students onboard. When the bus arrived in Birmingham, Susan and her fellow riders were beaten by an angry mob. Being a white student offered her no protection.

Knowing this story, and realizing the struggles ahead to enforce the Civil Rights Act, Jernigan wanted to contribute to the fight for racial equality. So, she helped integrate restaurants off campus. “Most of my role was to go along and just make sure that nobody was mistreated by the police,” Jernigan said. “If we were working on integrating Cross Keys restaurant, we would just go like regular customers and get in line and keep our eyes peeled to make sure that nobody was getting hurt.”

It may seem like a small thing to sit at a lunch counter and eat a meal, but for Jernigan, it was an introduction to advocacy. It was stepping up and being a voice for those whose voices were ignored. It was the start of a lifetime of work improving her community.

After graduating with a B.A. in 1966, Janet continued community service work for decades here in Nashville. Her career ranged from leading programs for at-risk children and children with disabilities, to her most significant work helping the 50+ population enrich their lives through FiftyForward, the organization she led for nearly 30 years.

At FiftyForward, she was instrumental in building resources and funding for senior citizens in Middle Tennessee. Whether opening senior centers across the state, helping to pass legislation, building a foster grandparent program, or delivering meals to the elderly, Jernigan improved the lives of more than 20,000 people each year.

But it wasn’t only through her own organization that she made an impact. Jernigan shaped the landscape of nonprofits throughout Middle Tennessee by helping to create the Center for Nonprofit Management. The organization connects more than 800 nonprofits and community partners to resources that amplify their work.

Following the announcement of Jernigan’s retirement from FiftyForward in December 2018, The Tennessean quoted former Nashville mayor Bill Purcell, who said of Jernigan, “I don’t think there’s any nonprofit that she hasn’t touched or changed either by her involvement or, frankly, by her example.”

For her, the work has been an extension of one simple idea: “I really like pulling together large groups of people to accomplish a common goal. There’s a lot of joy in that, and a lot of fulfillment,” Jernigan said.

From her days as a young Vanderbilt student keeping vigil at a lunch counter with her classmates, to her years sitting at the head of the table in the boardroom, Jernigan has remained an example of how commitment and passion can make a difference. Now six months into her retirement, Jernigan sits in the sunroom of her home on a 500-acre cattle ranch in Bradyville, Tenn., and still has ideas about what remains to be done.

She’s contemplating going back to work to sit on a corporate board. Her drive is indomitable, even in retirement. Perhaps her work with the elderly has inspired her to keep moving. At FiftyForward, she met seniors who embraced life and youthfulness when it was least expected. From the 105-year-old who optimistically chimed, “See ya next year!” at a birthday celebration, to the 92-year-old who arrived at a church picnic on a jet ski, Jernigan had no shortage of people to inspire her over the years.

As the elderly population continues to grow, she sees the need for FiftyForward and organizations like it to grow as well. Jernigan believes the future of senior care needs to combat isolation. “It’s the number one health crisis in a lot of people’s minds,” she said. “Longevity and quality of life and the contributions that older people make” are all affected by isolation, she noted. It’s an issue she hopes the next generation of leaders takes up.

In every role, Jernigan always stuck to the belief that she could make a difference and channeled a dogged determination to advocate for the people who needed it most.

“It’s just a matter of persistence,” she said. “As long as you think you’re going to make a difference and you believe it, other people are generally going to see that confidence and go along with it.”