A New Face in the City: Dr. Jeneise Briggs Starts Role as New EDI Coordinator
listening, learning, and having compassion are at the core of Briggs’ position with the city, county
Dr. Jeneise Briggs attributes her success as a community leader to a series of good people and fortunate happenings that led her to where she is today: starting her work as the first-ever Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordinator for the City of Eau Claire and Eau Claire County. Despite her new position and broad experience, Briggs says she started with nothing more than “a little girl with big dreams” and a supportive mom, who encouraged her daughter to follow those dreams.
‘A LITTLE GIRL WITH BIG DREAMS’
When Briggs puts her mind to something, she is determined to make it happen. And no one knew this better than Briggs’ mother, Eda May Higgins – a single mom and former high-school dropout, who encouraged her daughter to be unapologetically herself.
Born and raised in the rural suburbs of St. Ann, Jamaica – the largest city in the country — Briggs recalled her family home was always filled with laughter and love, despite not having amenities like an indoor toilet.
Despite adversity, Briggs graduated high school as valedictorian, and school officials encouraged her to pursue a college degree. But Briggs didn’t know where to start; she could hardly afford the application fee to the university – Northern Caribbean University – which cost the equivalent of about $1 in U.S. currency. Nor did she know how to navigate the jargon of applications, financial aid, housing, tuition, and so much more – obstacles that makes access to higher education challenging.
I had a dream. I just kept my eyes on the prize.
Dr. Jeneise Briggs
EAU CLAIRE’S EQUITY, Diversity, and inclusion Coordinator
Out of kindness, the university’s coordinator paid for her application fee – something Briggs still remembers to this day – and Briggs received grants and student loans that enabled her to pursue a mass communications degree.
“I had a dream,” she said. “I just kept my eyes on the prize. I knew I was going to graduate. My mom, even though she didn’t have the education, she said, ‘I know you can do this.’ ”
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Briggs was employed at a local TV station, where she quickly learned her passion for people. “What brings me real joy is interacting with people,” she reflected, “hearing their stories, having conversations across differences.”
She later shifted gears to work at the Half Moon Resorts in Jamaica, a luxury hotel known for its celebrity guests (including Lil’ Wayne, Queen Elizabeth II, Eddie Murphy, and John F. Kennedy). She admits to being something of a jack of all trades – engaging in charity work, public relations, and environmental work, and even launching an employee newsletter that highlighted the stories of staff members, making them feel more included and heard in the company’s culture.
But everything changed for Briggs when a wealthy family’s sponsorship enabled her to travel to the United States to pursue a master’s degree at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Her road to learning, it seemed, was not over.
A GENERATIONAL IMPACT
The spring before Briggs was supposed to leave for the U.S., however, her mother – who still lived in Jamaica – became seriously ill.
Worried and distraught, Briggs was prepared to push back her program to the winter to return home and care for her mother. But Higgins said, “No. I know that you can do this.” She encouraged her daughter to stay in the States and finish her degree.
Not long after Briggs began her program, her mother passed away – just two years after the loss of Briggs’ grandmother.
“I remember their joy and the values that they instilled in me,” Briggs said, wiping tears from her eyes. “And it’s like, how can I pass on some of these values?”
It's those values – kindness, compassion, love, and support – that inspired Briggs to combine her passion for people and her love of listening to justice and equity work.
“I’ve dedicated my life to giving back and being a voice for the otherwise voiceless, and helping to educate around justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
Dr. Jeneise Briggs
“I’ve dedicated my life to giving back and being a voice for the otherwise voiceless,” she said, “and helping to educate around justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And just having conversations across differences or different experiences or insights or perspectives because it’s what enriches the learning for all of us – because you don’t know what you don’t know!”
And learning, it seemed, was an integral part of Briggs’ life and professional career: In 2014 – after a tough divorce, still grieving her mother’s death, and just about as broke as a person can be – Briggs decided to pursue her Ph.D.
She applied for a graduate assistantship at Edgewood College in Wisconsin and, in 2017, she received her doctorate degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, only to later work as Senior Assistant to the President at Marian University of Fond du Lac shortly after graduation. In 2020, she took a position for the State Bar of Wisconsin as their Diversity and Inclusion specialist.
Courtesy of the Fond du Lac Area Women's Fund, Dr. Jeneise Briggs speaks about having courage in leadership and the impact her mom had on her own path to success:
“Diversity is so broad,” she said. “We’re talking about socioeconomic, we’re talking about family, we’re talking about age, race, gender. We’re talking about geographic locations, like coming from Jamaica to snow! We’re talking about political ideology, thinking styles, and education. All of this is what really makes the human dignity of us so beautiful.”
AN EXCITING OPPORTUNITY
“Are you looking for an exciting opportunity?”
That’s the question that popped up for Briggs’ on LinkedIn, which pulled her into the application for the City of Eau Claire and Eau Claire County’s new Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordinator position.
The position was developed last year during the budget process, according to Interim City Manager Dave Solberg, but city officials anticipated hiring a new city manager first. After the search for a new city manager paused, officials knew this position was too important to put on hold.
Throughout the review process, all personally identifying information was removed – any indication of gender, ethnicity, school, or address – to ensure the initial review was based on experience and qualifications.
After Briggs’ application drew attention because of her prolific experience, city officials scheduled an interview, and were immediately captivated with her passion and positivity.
“Equity, diversity, and inclusivity is a very emotional topic,” Solberg said. “There will be a lot of opportunities, a lot of instances where people will become naturally defensive. And she has a very positive relationship, and she has a history of … going through difficult conversations and difficult situations in a positive manner, to have people realize through positivity the value and the benefit that diversity, equity, and inclusion has on not only the work organization but for the community.”
A NEW ROLE IN THE CITY
The new position of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordinator is split between the city and county, though many of the fundamental ideas are shared, including: spearheading equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, observing metrics, hiring and improving retention of people of color in the community, implementing EDI plans, recruiting talent, organizing training initiatives, fostering a culture of inclusivity, overseeing external partnerships, creating a task force, and – perhaps most challenging of all – developing a strategic plan to improve EDI efforts within the city, county, and community.
It's not a one-person job. It's all of us putting our hands together to make lasting and impactful change.
Dr. Jeneise Briggs
“It’s not a one-person job,” Briggs said. “It’s all of us putting our hands together to make lasting and impactful change where members of our community feel integrated, they feel like they’re part of the city. And they have the tools and resources that they need to thrive, grow, and be happy.”
Solberg said when the position first opened for applications, he fielded a number of phone calls from concerned citizens who worried about the hiring process. There was a lack of trust with the government as a whole among community groups, he said. Solberg quickly realized it was because there was “cycle after cycle of initiatives beginning and then not going anywhere,” he said. Briggs’ position, however, is action-oriented, he said, and will be a constantly forward-thinking role.
“I come at it with my engineering hats on,” said Solberg, who is also the city’s engineering director. “Where engineers, naturally, if there’s a problem, you try to identify the problem, you identify ways to fix it, but then you methodically go through and you fix it, and when you’re done fixing it, you verify that all the objectives were met and you go on to the next effort. So I’m trying to bring my engineering mindset into the social-cultural problem. So I’m excited to make sure that this is successful and that it is lasting, it does improve the city for generations to come.”
BEYOND THE ROLE
Briggs is excited for more than her role of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordinator; she’s excited to be a part of the Eau Claire community.
When she first toured Eau Claire, she was immediately drawn to the sense of community, she said – as well as the food, noting a delicious blue cheese burger she recently had at The Informalist and a desire to check out Ramone's Ice Cream Parlor. “It was like, wow,” she said. “I look forward to really being integrated in this community. This is the fabric of who Eau Claire is. We’re in this together.”
She and her husband, Russell, and two children – Brianna (age 2) and Brittany (age 6) – will make the official move to Eau Claire in June so that their two daughters can finish out the school year. Like any children moving to a new place, the girls worry whether they'll make friends or whether they'll fit in. But – just like her mother before her – Briggs encourages her daughters to excel in school, to follow their passions, and to do what their hearts tell them to do (even at 6 and 2 years old)!
I can only be me. This is what you get. Who you see right now – and hear me talking – is who I'm going to be. I honestly believe in authenticity and transparency. I want people to hold me accountable.
Dr. Jeneise Briggs
Briggs wants to get involved with nonprofits and volunteering work – particularly with issues of food insecurity and domestic abuse awareness – in an effort to give back to different marginalized populations.
Most importantly, though, she wants people to see her as her: Dr. Jeneise Briggs.
“Everybody’s different,” she said. “I can only be me. This is what you get. Who you see right now – and hear me talking – is who I’m going to be. I honestly believe in authenticity and transparency and accountability. I want people to hold me accountable.”