Jessi Snyder: Where Water and Community Development Meet
[This is interview part of RCAP’s series to celebrate Women’s History Month and highlight the leadership and wisdom of the wonderful women who support this network]
Jessi Snyder is the Program Director for Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) and an RCAP Board Member. SHE is a nationally recognized community development organization that works with low-income families to build and sustain healthy homes and communities in the San Joaquin Valley of California.
Jessi has lived a life of service woven with a common thread of access to water. She has worked with SHE for fourteen years, beginning as an employee in the housing program and working her way up to Director of Community Development. Jessi has served on the RCAP Board for two years.
Can you share a bit about your background, the environment you grew up in, and the influence it played in your career choices and path?
I grew up in Phoenix Arizona, where water is at once an all-consuming concern and a totally opaque mystery. It is a mega-city and all anyone there knows is that they can turn on their tap and water will come out, like magic. I always found water to be incredibly alluring but also intriguing.
After college and few years in social services, I served in the Peace Corps in Malawi. There, I went to the other side of the spectrum in the water supply world. It was a situation of one central borehole where everyone went to fill up their buckets then carry them home. It was the complete opposite of the metropolitan U.S. city. This experience abroad brought home the way other people live and the challenges they face in a tangible way.
One of the projects I was involved in there was to fund money to drill a new well. Malawi also had a problem similar to what happens in small systems in the U.S.: a well would be built but left without any support or maintenance. There was no one around to fix small things like a handpump when it breaks. Boreholes, which are an incredibly valuable resource, would sit unused because of this.
These experiences were profound and perspective altering in every way. Upon coming home, I had the good luck of working for Self-Help Enterprises in our self-help housing program, but almost immediately a position opened up in our water & wastewater program. We call our water program “Community Development.” Like RCAP, we work on rural drinking and wastewater issues in the context of community development.
When you started your career, what environment in the workplace stood out to you? Can you compare the workplace from when you began your career to know?
Self-Help Enterprises’ values stood out to me. I went to a Quaker college where I was exposed to Quaker values, which include equality, peace, integrity, community, and simplicity. When I moved to the San Joaquin Valley, I sought out the Quaker meeting and learned about SHE through the meeting. The organization was founded on Quaker values by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). They looked to improve the lives of farm workers, many of whom were without resources. Farm workers asked AFSC for help building homes, and so a group of six families came together to build six homes. 55 years later, SHE is still building homes.
This beautiful origin story really drew me to SHE. The organization’s work and the people who truly believe in its mission captured me. The people who are there love to be there and are passionate about what they do. This, and the impactful work I get to do has kept me with SHE for all these years.
Have you had any female professional mentors or close colleagues who you look up to?
I really admire the CEOs of the RCAP Network – I look around and I am blown away. These five women (along with Mike Brownfield, Midwest Assistance Program) are beyond compare. I cannot think of a more diverse selection of personalities. They are each directing their own giant organization while influencing RCAP as a national organization.
I want to be like every single one of them! You have Ines (Ines Polonius, CU) who is so capable and smart. Then you have Hope (Hope Cupit, Treasurer/Secretary, SERCAP) who is bubbly, kind, and again so incredibly capable. Ruthann (Ruthann House, GLCAP) is a bit more soft-spoken and has razor-sharp insight. Karen (Karen Koller, RCAP Solutions) is the most direct and powerful person I’ve ever encountered. Suzanne (Suzanne Anarde, RCAC), is our newest CEO. She is an unstoppable woman who has worked her way up through affordable housing to lead an extraordinary organization. They are an incredible rainbow of amazing people with remarkable traits. I’m so lucky to be among them.
What advice would you give yourself from earlier in your career?
I would tell myself to be patient. I remember feeling such feelings of panic. I remember thinking “there is no way I’m going to learn all of this.” You have to give yourself the patience to work through it and trust that the knowledge will come. You will learn things here and there and connections will form. It will all start to make sense. Just relax and trust your own intellect.