J. the Jewish News of Northern California on JTA – Although she describes herself as an “art kid”, Christina Jefferson is no stranger to sports.
Jefferson was recently hired by the San Francisco 49ers to lead the NFL team’s diversity and inclusion efforts – a newly created position – and has a long history with an entirely different, but still bloody, athletic pursuit: the roller derby .
In this sport, players in full upholstery and helmets on roller skates race along an oval track, jostle and jockey around the tracks, block and control each other. Roller Derby has its roots in the 1930s but was revived on television in the 1960s with the help of the Jewish Bay Area showman Jerry Seltzer. In a 2017 interview, Seltzer described the game as a “symbol for empowering women”.
Jefferson started living in Ohio when he was in his early twenties. The activity would prove crucial not only in demonstrating the “magic” of team sport to an artistic soul, but also in how she met Julie, her future wife. And it set them on the path to convert to Judaism.
“I have something inside of me who loves the challenge of something completely new,” said Jefferson, a member of the Congregation Sherith Israel, a reforming synagogue in San Francisco.
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Her new position with the 49ers as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is an exciting opportunity for the 41-year-old human resources professional, who worked in multiple retail stores before climbing the corporate ladder. She completed a Masters in Human Resource Management before becoming a Senior Manager at the cosmetics company Sephora.
DEI Directors have seen a surge in demand across the academic, nonprofit and corporate worlds over the past 10-15 years, inspired by shifts in attitudes towards race, demographic changes and studies showing that a diverse workforce is the Can improve business results. An influential 2015 financial performance report from consulting firm McKinsey found that companies with greater ethnic and racial diversity among employees “do 35 percent better than companies whose employee demographics match the national average,” said Forbes.
The National Football League has had minority recruitment initiatives with varying degrees of success since at least the 1980s. Powerful positions in coach, general management and ownership still do not correspond to the diversity of players and fans.
Nevertheless, it was only last year that the league stepped up its efforts to make workplaces more inclusive. The police shootings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake sparked an unprecedented wave of national protests, sparked calls for reform and changed the world of sports. In response to Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, players from the major professional leagues suspended games and practice on August 26, forcing the NBA to postpone their playoffs.
Members of the Milwaukee Bucks kneel down as they kneel during the national anthem prior to an NBA first-round basketball playoff game against the Orlando Magic on August 29, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (AP Photo / Ashley Landis, File)
Amid the national reckoning, the 49ers are part of a number of NFL teams – Jefferson estimated about nine – that have added DEI directors to their corporate offices.
“While our organization has long sought to model the diversity of its fan base and society in our employment practices, there is always more we can do to attract diverse talent and ensure that all employees feel respected and valued on a personal level.” The President of the team, Al Guido, said in a statement April 1. Christina Jefferson brings extensive knowledge and experience of implementing best practices that will help us be a more successful organization, creating an inclusive environment in which all people are enthusiastic and empowered to contribute. “
A black, lesbian Jew (with a bunch of tattoos), Jefferson laughed and described himself as a “unicorn” in the world of American companies.
“As I rose in my career, I noticed that I was often the only person who looked like me,” she said. “It kind of made me stand out.”
As I rose in my career, I realized that I was often the only person who looked like me. It kind of got me noticed
For some, working in retail is “not a real job,” Jefferson said – but she was “bloody determined to show people something else.” She was drawn to the venture as a form of service and a vehicle for mentoring.
“You catch people in college, in high school. You get brand new people. I’ve always told my co-workers that if you don’t stay in retail, you will be a better person after work, ”she said.
Jefferson became a Customer Experience Manager at Banana Republic in 2008, then General Manager. She worked for David’s Bridal and Gap before moving to Sephora where she became senior manager for inclusion and diversity at its North American headquarters in San Francisco.
The change to diversity and justice work was a matter of course. Throughout her career, Jefferson has often found mentoring those who looked like her or other queer people.
“I’ve always been concerned with diversity, I just wasn’t aware of it,” she said.
Christina Jefferson serves matzah ball soup at a 2019 Passover event in Sherith Israel Ward. (Julie Driscoll / via JTA)
Jefferson grew up in a Baptist family in Indianapolis, although her mother never forced the religion on her or her brother.
“She felt like we should wait until we grow up to make a decision,” said Jefferson.
She attended the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, a town with a barren gay and lesbian scene. The school is just a short drive from a “sunset town” where blacks were traditionally not allowed after sunset. Jefferson called it “Kentucky-ana”.
“Growing up black in Indiana was a very interesting experience,” she said. “If people don’t understand that there is still racism in this country, you kind of have to laugh.”
Jefferson spoke to J. on April 20, the day a jury in Minnesota found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd. The news stood out through the conversation, especially since Floyd’s assassination on May 25 last year helped catalyze the reckoning of the race that turned the sports world upside down and brought us to the present moment.
Regarding the convictions against Chauvin, Jefferson said it brought some relief, “some hope in this world”. Despite all the evidence, “so many people out there just held our breath.”
Jefferson’s journey to Judaism began near Columbus, Ohio, where she worked in retail and roller derby in her early 20s. Many of her friends were Jews, and one Friday night she joined a friend, a referee in her roller derby league, for the Shabbat service.
“He could say all the prayers so eloquently,” she recalls. “I thought maybe one day I would be like that.”
He could say all the prayers so eloquently. I thought maybe one day I would be like that
Although her boyfriend had never been to that particular synagogue, he fit in with it.
“The moment you start saying the V’ahavta [prayer], everyone knows all the words. It doesn’t matter what the cadence is, anyone can tell, ”Jefferson said. “There was something to it … I thought, wow.”
She would study and convert in Ohio before moving to San Francisco in 2008, but not before meeting Julie Driscoll, also a roller derby referee. Driscoll’s family are Catholic, but they were not raised religiously. The two became friends and stayed in touch even as Jefferson moved across the country to work, including while in Washington, DC.
They started dating in 2012 and were married on October 20, 2015 at Sherith Israel. The official was Rabbi Larry Raphael, then the chief rabbi, who died in 2019.
Christina Jefferson and Julie Driscoll were married on October 15, 2015 in the Sherith Israel Ward, San Francisco. (Chloe Jackman / via JTA)
Driscoll took courses on Judaism and learned a little Hebrew before the wedding. She visits Shul with Jefferson and is involved in community service efforts at the synagogue, including the HaMotzi food service program.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to be a die-hard volunteer,” said Jefferson. “That’s how we roll in this household.”
She is very active in the San Francisco Jewish community herself, serving on the board of directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council and chairing the membership committee at Sherith. She is also the school librarian.
“I’m a huge nerd,” Jefferson said with a laugh.
Although the 49ers and their staff now work remotely, Jefferson will have an office in Levi’s Stadium upon their return. Voluntary off-season workouts began for players on April 19, but will be conducted remotely due to the pandemic. The mandatory mini camp starts in June and the preseason starts in August. Jefferson said she was honored to work for a historic franchise.
In meetings outside of the Jewish world, Jefferson describes her life’s work – helping people from different backgrounds fulfill their professional potential and feel integrated in the workplace – often as a form of social justice.
“Really, it’s just Tikkun Olam,” she said. “How can we fix this broken world.”