Make time for as many games, matches, and competitions as possible. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire…It speaks to youth in a language they understand.”
As part of our series about ‘Social Impact Heroes’ I had the pleasure to interview Jacqueline Jodl at Special Olympics.
Jacqueline Jodl is the Chief, Global Youth and Education of Global Youth and Education at Special Olympics, where she is responsible for youth leadership and education programming across the globe.
Prior to her role at Special Olympics, Jackie was an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development focusing on education innovation, EdTech, and race and education. More recently, Jackie was the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, where she oversaw the strategic planning, financial management, and operations for one of the Institute’s most critical endeavors in education. Her early career began at Unilever PLC in marketing management where she led both established brands and new product innovation. In 2016, Jackie was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow, a leadership program for advanced degree professionals in public policy and was awarded the Alumni of Notable Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota.
Jackie earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota; MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago; a master’s degree in politics and education from Teachers College, Columbia University; and a PhD in education policy and social analysis from Columbia University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Neuroscientists tell us that “natural aptitude” is fundamentally influenced by one’s life experiences. Looking back, my career path was shaped powerfully from the family setting in which I grew up — the middle sibling among six girls whose temperaments were profoundly tested by sharing a single bathroom. I learned to listen, negotiate, compromise, and above all, advocate — skills that have remained relevant throughout my professional life. I also learned to appreciate education as the best mechanism we have for social and economic mobility. As a first-generation college graduate and the daughter of a teacher my childhood in a small working-class community in the Midwest profoundly shaped by my life’s experiences in ways that fueled my passion for education — which in turn drove my decision to put myself in a position to advocate for those children who are most marginalized within our education systems.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you became Chief of Global Youth and Education at Special Olympics?
One of my most interesting experiences has been participating in a recent meeting with His Excellency, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, the President of Egypt. President el-Sisi has a member of his communication team who has down syndrome — Dina. As I watched the President and Dina interact during our discussion regarding the government’s support for inclusive practices in Egyptian schools, I realized what true commitment to inclusion means in daily practice. His Excellency valued her contributions and embraced the diversity that she brought to the conversation.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made when I was first starting was assuming everyone works the same work week! In some countries in the Middle East the weekend starts on Thursday night and the work week starts on Sunday. I made the mistake of scheduling meetings with our MENA region on Fridays until someone nicely explained to me that I could have the meetings, but I might be the only attendee.
The lesson learned is that you can’t assume all cultures are the same, including something as basic as a work week!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
For over 50 years, Special Olympics has pioneered some of the world’s most powerful tools for the inclusion of those with intellectual disabilities. On racetracks, ball courts, and football pitches across more than 190 countries and territories, Special Olympics has created moments of inclusion and joyous acceptance for untold millions of individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families. To drive greater inclusion in education, Special Olympics has created a simple but powerful tool: Unified Champion Schools (UCS). Designed and refined in over 140 countries, reaching over 30,000 schools and nearly 4 million young people. The program rests on the premise that inclusion is a learned behavior that can be taught alongside academic skills. UCS holds that teaching inclusion through the transformative power of sport enhances learning and prepares young people for success in an increasingly connected and diverse world.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are millions of young people around the world who have had their lives transformed by Special Olympics. Sadly, one of the most heartbreaking challenges for those with intellectual disabilities is facing bullying. In fact, they are three times more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers. So, you cannot overstate how truly life changing Special Olympics can be for those with intellectual disabilities. A wonderful example is a member of my team, Hannah, who supports our storytelling efforts. For Hannah, Special Olympics has given her voice — to advocate for herself and her peers. Through her role, she has become a leader in our organization, and in the process, she has found a place where she belongs, and her differences are valued.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Special Olympics works with governments and communities around the world in a range of cultural contexts. Our research shows dramatic declines in bullying, teasing, and offensive language through participation in one of our flagship education programs, Unified Champion Schools. Educators and parents see the results firsthand: stronger academic outcomes, and a more cohesive school community for students of all backgrounds, where students feel a strong sense of connection to their school and find purpose in their learning.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I try to learn from a network of leaders who represent very different backgrounds and disciplines. Common across them, however, is their ability to convert problems or barriers into solutions and opportunities. These are the folks I turn to for advice. Their ability to discover linkages and relationships allow them to lead in unbounded ways. They also are skilled at backing up a step, reevaluating assumptions, and providing candid feedback. I also place a great deal of value on their ability to translate their vision by leading with humility and empowering those around them. In practice, these are the leaders who lead from behind, supporting the potential and elevating everyone on the team.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Make time for as many games, matches, and competitions as possible. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire…It speaks to youth in a language they understand.”
- Visit Senegal. Not only will you be gifted with a Senegalese dress of royal green, but you will be enchanted by the Special Olympics athletes and their families.
- Listen to our Special Olympics athletes. It is one of the most authentic voices of inclusion out there. They know better than anyone else what the challenges are that people with intellectual disabilities face and how we can fight for a more inclusive world.
- Partner with those on the frontline. Our regional and country experts are the keys to making a difference at the community level.
- Inclusion is about the walk, not the talk. The whole world is talking about inclusion but very few actually live it by creating opportunities like Dina has in the Egyptian President’s office.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, I would brand it “COME TO THE MIDDLE”. My idea is inspired by Tyler Perry’s speech at the Academy Awards when he called on everyone to refuse hate and join him in the middle. In this world where the media focuses on and exacerbates division, we need a movement that calls on all of us to focus on what we share and how those commonalities can be a bridge to compromise.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Share our similarities, celebrate our differences.
This quote guides me as a mother of three boys, a sister among six daughters, and an advocate for those with intellectual differences.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!