Alumni Profiles Series: Jeannine Carpenter
Jeannine Carpenter received her Ph.D. in English from Duke in 2009. She is currently Director of Research and Policy at the Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga, an organization made up of advocates, volunteers, and philanthropists who work to improve the lives of women and girls in the state of Tennessee.
Can you talk about your research at Duke and your career path since graduation?
When I was at Duke, I was on the linguistics track within the English department. My dissertation looked at the impact of the Jim Crow era on African American English in the South. I investigated how the different levels of social segregation in various cities during this major socio-historical period impacted the frequency of different kinds of dialect features in the African American English of that era. To do so, I used a collection of audio tape interviews from people who lived during the Jim Crow era held in Duke’s special collections library. I will never be able to overstate how important my education and time at Duke was to me.
My career path has been very non-linear, but that’s something I’m grateful for. When I graduated it was 2009, it happened to be part of an Olympic and Paralympic cycle. As a coach for the U.S. Paralympic swim team, a career priority for me was maintaining flexibility in order to finish the four-year cycle in 2012 in London with the athletes I had started with, one of whom was in medal contention. I interviewed for a few academic jobs; then a job teaching at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee—with one of the best high school swim teams in the country—opened up. This role was amazing and also gave me access to the facilities and flexibility needed to continue with the Paralympians through the cycle. Baylor was a phenomenal school with a phenomenal swim team. I was teaching high school while I coached, and the opportunity to share knowledge with students was really enriching. But it wasn’t where I was meant to be long term.
When I left teaching in 2012, I started working in communications for non-profits. When I was at Duke, I had taken classes on the language of politics and power and researched dialects, so working in communications for non-profits made sense. My training meant that I knew how to use language to communicate effectively. I started working for a HIV-AIDS medical resource center. It was here I realized that I loved working with a mission to improve people’s lives, and I loved helping people get their voices heard and accomplish things in the advocacy space. Then the 2016 U.S. election cycle started. As someone who is passionate about the power of language, the misogynistic messaging that we were hearing at the time was unacceptable. I had a conversation with my husband and said, “I need to find somewhere where I can focus and do good for women at this time.” And so, I did! I started working at the Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga, which is where I still work as Director of Research and Policy. Part of my role also includes teaching the local community about the issues facing women, how to effectively advocate, and how to get involved in the civic process.
You spoke about how your doctoral training, specifically your understanding of the influence of rhetoric in political contexts, informed your work in advocacy communication. Can you speak more about how you use the skills gained in your postgraduate training in your current role?
I use those skills every day! I tell the interns that I supervise at the Women’s Fund that it isn’t the degree you get that qualifies you for the roles you’ll have in the future; it’s the skills that you gain. Each year, I am required to be an expert on between a dozen to fifteen women’s issues in Tennessee. The only way that I can do that is by utilizing the same skills I was taught in my graduate degree. In my role, I have to be able to dedicate a limited amount of time to mastering a policy issue, and that involves conducting research, determining relevant information, distilling that information, and communicating effectively. I absolutely credit the English department with empowering me with the skills to do the work I do.
Can you speak a bit more about your current role? What does an average day look like in your role, if such a thing exists?
The Chattanooga Women’s Fund came together with the goal of addressing the root causes of inequity facing women in Chattanooga and in Tennessee state-wide. The way that the Fund did that for the first years of its life was to follow the legislation that was being introduced in the state and to do things that I still do: educate the local community, send out calls to action, and ask people to call their legislators to get their voices heard. When my position was created, the decision to increase the level of our advocacy work was made primarily because of the national climate around women’s issues and rights in 2016. When I started, I continued the work the Fund had been doing but I was also able to change the game when we became a lobbying organization. Writing legislation now falls under my responsibilities. I am present in Nashville during the legislative season (January through April) actively lobbying our legislature. For half of the year, I am engaged in bill writing, communicating, collaborating, and trying to make positive change.
A great example of the work I do is the Child Marriage Bill. In 2017, we realized there was no minimum marriage age in Tennessee. We were able to track down very recent marriage licenses for children as young as eleven. We worked with legislators to write legislation resulting in a minimum marriage age of 17. We also wrote and passed laws so that Tennessee now has the strongest penalties for forced or coerced marriage in the country.
Tennessee is ranked 49th nationally in the status of women, an empirical rank that is based on a series of data points. We work on all the issues that can elevate women in those rankings. From violence and safety, health care access, wellness, and mental health to representation in industry, equal pay, as well as child-care and elder care. These are all things that I could be working on in a given year.
It must be extremely rewarding to see change come out of the work you’re putting in.
It’s amazing, but the reality of my job is that it’s always a long game. Most legislation does not pass the first year you introduce it, and while I love telling people about the Child Marriage Bill, that’s not the norm. For example, this year we finally passed the Tennessee Pregnant Worker Fairness Act, which legislates that pregnant employees be given reasonable accommodations in the workplace. This was an issue I’ve been lobbying for since 2016, and we finally passed it in 2020.
Is this the reason you describe yourself as an “ironically realistic pragmatist” on your LinkedIn profile?
Absolutely. The pragmatism is forced by the work that I do! But I’ve always believed that I can make change and I’ve always believed that things can be better. I do believe that I have a unique skillset that makes me effective in unpredictable ways. Legislators often expect someone who’s studied political science to walk into their offices. But I communicate in a really different way thanks to my training and research. When I was doing field interviews during my graduate studies, I learned how to let people talk and how to establish relationships. Because of that, I’m able to forge productive relationships with many different folks.
It’s inspiring to hear how your skillset from your Duke education has directly translated into your current role. English graduate students in particular aren’t always aware of how our skills can be applied in different contexts.
It’s so true. Both myself and many in my cohort went to Duke thinking that we were on an academic path to teach, research, and eventually get tenure. However, I never mourned the loss of that path. I’ve always been excited to learn about the many different opportunities for those with our skillset. There is a tremendous need in a variety of sectors for people who can both do research and accurately and clearly share their findings with others. And that’s a huge part of what we learn in the English department. I challenge you to go out and find a cohort of students that hasn’t developed phenomenal research skills from the Duke English department.
What’s the best career advice that you’ve received, both while you were at Duke and beyond?
I have two very good pieces of career advice. One is from Dr. Walt Wolfram, my dissertation chair, who said, “If you ever do work in a community, you have an obligation to leave it better off than you found it.” I think of that advice every day because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do here at Chattanooga. I feel a strong obligation to leave it better. The second is—and I know it’s cheesy to quote your dad—but my dad always told me that if I could go home and sleep well at night, then I was probably doing good work!
Do you have any advice you’d like to share with current graduate students at Duke?
The best advice I can give is that your academic interests and your personal passions overlap somewhere. Find that intersection because that will be a more fulfilling path than anything that seems predictable or expected. I spent the first two years of my degree thinking that my academic interest in language had nothing to do with the rest of my life. And I missed opportunities to think about how to meld that passion with a profession. Now, of course, I’m using language, conducting research, and giving lectures about the things I really care about. I would also like current graduate students to remember that your first job doesn’t determine where you go; it just gives you a place to rest until you decide where to go next.
Ph.D. candidate, English
Kimberley Dimitriadis is a graduate student in Duke’s program in English and serves as the Assistant Editor for NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. She received her M.A. from Duke in 2020. Her research interests include nineteenth-century literature, politics, and culture; the history of demography and population science; and the novel and novel theory.