A Powerful Journey

A Conversation with D’Lynn Jacobs

Steppingstone 1997 / Thayer Academy 2003 / Spelman College 2007 / Simmons University 2012

D’Lynn Jacobs and fellow Scholars at 1997 commencement

Even halfway around the world in Vanuatu, Steppingstone Alumna D’Lynn Jacobs can’t help but think of today’s Scholars and what their futures hold.

Her passion for the “soul-satisfying” work of international development has led her to offer to mentor Scholars remotely from her post as Director of Programming and Training for Peace Corps Vanuatu. “The world is so big and so small,” she adds. Her advice: go forth and experience it.

She smiles to think back to her own Steppingstone days. Recounting her 1997 graduation, “I love the photo that I have of me in white pants,” she says with a laugh. The girls had been asked to wear white dresses. “I had to fight my mother to wear pants.” She can still hear one of the teachers she loved saying, “if that’s what you believe you need to do, do it. If you want to fight that fight, go on.”

In ways small and large, Steppingstone “fortified my grit,” D’Lynn reflects. “I think successes like that have informed my ability to continue to fight the fight when things don’t feel equitable or just right inside.”

D’Lynn and her parents after a ’70s-themed Steppingstone talent show for which she was emcee

INDELIBLE MEMORIES
D’Lynn remembers, too, the weekly drives to Steppingstone classes, then held at the Massachusetts College of Art. Her mom would make the trek in her old car from Dorchester to Newton, where D’Lynn attended school through METCO. They’d stop on the way into Boston at a Starbucks for a treat. “I know it was a lot of money for her,” she says. Some days, “it’s what got me through my classes,” she gratefully recalls.

D’Lynn still gets emotional thinking about all her mother’s sacrifices for her education.

One Steppingstone lesson that’s stayed with her is the value of “putting in the work.” Doing the hard work—after school, on Saturdays, in the summer—helped her not only keep up with a potentially faster academic pace but also be ahead of the game.

When D’Lynn started 7th grade at Thayer Academy, she fully believed she was ready for 8th. Jumping into an advanced track, she knew the work. “That confidence was huge,” she notes. Having been a Scholar, she felt seen as “coming from a program that afforded excellence,” as she puts it. “So thank you, Steppingstone!”

UNDERSTANDING DIVERSITY
D’Lynn also appreciates how Steppingstone helped get her ready for schools that weren’t yet fully prepared for her as a student of color. “I believe schools are getting much more ready, especially seeing the crescendo of dialogue about race and equity in the wake of George Floyd and others being murdered,” she says. She’s encouraged to see the work being done.

In middle and high school, she didn’t have the language yet to express the daily toll of going between a predominantly White school and her predominantly Black neighborhood. In retrospect, “the code switching felt exhausting.”

After Thayer, she went to Spelman College, drawn by the promise of a living and studying at one of the premier historically Black colleges. “I got there, and I said, what is this diversity!” She hadn’t realized how “all of the other aspects of identity would become so much more salient because of being in that seemingly homogeneous space.”

For the first time, “I understood diversity in a more expansive way,” she says.

“DEFINING YOUR JOURNEY”
Her path since college has affirmed the power of “defining your journey as your soul tells you to define it.”

After Spelman, D’Lynn’s journey took her to Malawi. There, as a Peace Corp volunteer, she became deeply inspired by projects focused on gender equity. She initially joined in leading a camp called GLOW, Girls Leading Our World. To sustain its impact, she also helped to create a leadership program to pass on the tools to local Malawi girls.

“I learned so much from the girls,” she says, “and that’s translated into the leader that I am today.”

Graduating from Simmons University

“THE MOST AMAZING WORK”
Joy drives her. When it comes to what brings her joy, “continuing to learn” and “challenging what I know” are high on the list.

Returning stateside from Malawi, D’Lynn immediately went to graduate school at Simmons, diving into dual master’s programs in communication management and in gender and cultural studies. She then went back to the world of independent schools, serving for two years as director of diversity at Nashoba Brooks School.

Yet she never stopped feeling the tug of the Peace Corps’ mission, and a job offer at its Office of Civil Rights and Diversity lured her to D.C. A year later, in 2015, she joined ICDEI, the Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training team within the Peace Corps, “the most amazing work that I’ve ever done.” 

As part of a six-member team, D’Lynn traveled to many of the 65 countries served by the Peace Corps. She worked to provide staff around the globe with the intercultural tools to understand volunteers’ identities and communicate across difference.

D’Lynn, seated front left, being welcomed back to Vanuatu by her Peace Corps team

“DIFFERENCES THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE”
As much as she loved the role in ICDEI, she began to feel ready to settle in one place. An opening in the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific won her over.

Her work there continues to teach her about the world and about the nuances of her own identity. Diversity is everywhere. “To simplify it,” she says, “diversity is the differences that make a difference.”

Learning to speak the local language, Bislama, has helped her bridge the divide and challenge some of the privilege that she’s afforded as an American. She loves how it’s reminiscent of African-American Vernacular English, the language she enjoys whenever she’s home with her cousins and in her comfort zone.

For all the joy that her work brings, navigating the political climate of recent years has been painful, at times, especially amid a call in 2020 to stop diversity training in government agencies.

“I don’t identify as a disrupter, but I do identify as a visionary,” she explains. “I believe I need to see the space that we are going towards, the space that doesn’t have this systemic oppression, and be able to speak to it, without fear.” The thought brings to mind a favorite quote from Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.” She nods as she speaks the words aloud, pausing to let them linger in the air.

“Loudly humanitarian.” That’s one way D’Lynn imagines others would describe her. It defines how she challenges systems in support of access for opportunity.

“That’s the work that I feel I’ve been challenged to do my whole life,” she reflects.

1997 Alumni and “life friends” D’Lynn Jacobs and Geordan Johnson

“UNSTOPPABLE”
Looking ahead, “I know that Steppingstone will continue to keep doing the good work that it’s doing.”

Amid its 30th anniversary celebration, she’s welcomed seeing more and more from and about fellow Alumni. She cherishes the gift of lasting relationships, including “life friend” and fellow Scholar, Geordan Johnson. The 1997 classmates first met in kindergarten. “To this day, whenever I go through a challenging situation, I know he’ll be there.

She sees herself as part of a generation of Alumni, now mid-career, who should be stepping up to help sustain an organization that they love. “I hope it will continue to grow and become this ecosystem that is unstoppable.”