Mali Jeffers, smartly dressed, is sipping tea while light floods into Pearings, the restaurant where we’ve met to talk. I find out she’s thinking about bio-technology stories she’s read lately, microchips under skin people use to pay their bills and get in and out of buildings where they work in the US, Northern China’s biometric tracking of its people, the Black Mirror episode where your rating as a person leads to access to jobs, options for living, etc.
She’s wondering how this all will affect everyone in the future — not just the rich but the struggling. She thinks a lot about things like this because she’s spent most of her life in these different divergent realities.
When Jeffers was 10, her parents moved her and her siblings from Broad Ripple and a house by the woods where they could walk to the Red Giraffe video store, to 36th & College in the Watson McCord neighborhood.
“When we went to visit the house, the neighborhood wasn’t what it’s like today,” says Jeffers. “Through my 10 year old eyes, it was the ghetto. So me and my siblings were like, ‘No, we don’t want to move here. We can’t ride our bikes here, you won’t let us go anywhere and we’re scared. It’s weird and we don’t want to go.’”
But my dad said, “We’re going to go and we’re going to turn that neighborhood around. Watch, we are going to start a neighborhood association and you’ll see.”
Jeffers’ parents were a unified front when it came to moving. Her mother was a scientist at Methodist Hospital and her father had retired early from Firestone. “Dad was very much the one who was determined to improve it once we got there. I think maybe, for mom, it was more of a foresight — like ‘this neighborhood is going to change, so it’s a smart business move, this is a good investment type of thing.’ They both wanted the same things but for different reasons. “
Jeffers father, David Woodrupp, was a community builder, a placemaker before it was even a word. And he had a huge influence on Jeffers’ career trajectory. “Dad is Caribbean, he is from St Croix. So he’s like Mr. Loverman and community guy. He never wanted to be at home watching TV. But was always in the neighborhood park grilling ribs for anyone who wanted to walk up and get some,” says Jeffers. “And he had us out picking up trash and painting trash cans.”
At the time Jeffers did not appreciate the experience. She saw the work her family did on the community as a chore. “It wasn’t fun,” says Jeffers. “It was like, “Great! Now we have to do more stuff. We have to pick up other people’s trash. We have to wear gloves. Why are people even putting trash on the sidewalks?”” Why do we have to do stuff for people who aren’t doing it for their own neighborhood? I don’t think we understood or even welcomed the idea for a long time, not until high school.”
During school, Jeffers found herself in a whole new world. She attended a private school, St. Richards, and then Brebeuf High School. At both, her fellow students were from predominantly white and wealthy families. Expectations from her peers varied from place to place. And what it meant to fit in was different at home in the neighborhood and at school. For Jeffers, it was easier to find her place at the school than with the neighborhood kids.
“Everybody in my neighborhood went to Broad Ripple or Tech. They got on the bus. Even my little sister went to Broad Ripple. Dad drove me to Brebeuf in the mornings. So, in the neighborhood, I was a private school girl. I was Black White girl. I had to prove myself in both places, which was draining. Like, at Brebeuf, having to prove that I am a cool girl too. We live in a white house on a hill. I can afford to go here too. Then, at home, having to prove that I knew slang, that I wasn’t afraid to ride my bike around the neighborhood — but I really was. And that I’m a cool person. And that was interesting. Having to prove my value in both places and those being different worlds. My little sister, Dani, made friends with black kids a lot easier than I did. She would introduce me to the people in the neighborhood so there were friends around.”
At that time in her life, Jeffers found it easier to fit in at school with white people than with the black neighborhood kids.
“I think, because I went to St. Richards and started there so early, I was just more comfortable around white people. Our neighborhood is predominately black. So it was just kind of scary. Even at church, I was comfortable there and everyone was black but I was still the ‘black white’ girl. I remember we used to go to MCL at Lafayette Square Mall on Sundays after church. Walking through the mall seemed scary to me because guys would whistle and it would feel strange. My sister would respond. But I remember literally running through Lafayette Square back to MCL because I was nervous about what was going to happen. I know that sounds ridiculous now. But — just becoming a woman, having a new body — I was like, ‘what do they want?’”
Jeffers graduated and started school at Ball State focusing on advertising with a photography minor. “I fell in love with the way advertising incorporated design and words and could make people do things.” This was also where Jeffers finally felt she had comfort moving between different social stratospheres.
“My best friend also went to Ball State. Because there were two of us, it was easier to meet other people. So we met three other black women on our floor in the dorm and the five of us became really good friends. We were hanging out with both black people and white people. I felt comfortable. We were all in college and had that in common versus it being like ‘I live in a low-income neighborhood but go to high school with higher-income people.’
“With race, with economic class, there are all these layers, all the time. You feel like, are you welcome anywhere? Or are you always trying to prove yourself in all these circles. It’s probably the case for everybody— especially as teenagers. I just think, in my case, it made me aware earlier of the differences or similarities.”
After graduating and working a year a half at a sales job, Jeffers hoped to work at something that did more than make money for the company. This led to a position at the Arts Council of Indianapolis. There, she worked with staff members directing the public art and artist services programs. And she soon found herself again asking questions. She noticed many opportunities for visual artists but not for performing artists. And she began managing the Art and Soul program, giving her the opportunity to work with artists of color — with a focus on poets and artists like LaShawnda Crowe Storm, who were trying to get attention from more mainstream arts leadership in Indianapolis.
“I realized I can help artists who don’t currently have a voice or a channel or direction into getting support for their art. I was like, ‘This is my lane. This is where I want to live,’” Jeffers says.
She began working even more with literary and performing artists, starting events like The Sanctuary and The Cypher — an open mic at the Starbucks in Broad Ripple. This lasted six years before they couldn’t use the space because other customers couldn’t fit in the door. This experience gave Jeffers her direction.
“I felt I had at least found my baseline,” says Jeffers. “I should live in the arts and culture world. I feel good here. I’m only 50 percent artist brain. So I’m not an artist. But I can speak the language. I can be a liaison between mainstream stakeholder Indy and artist Indy and people who want more of the arts in Indy. And I can play conductor between those three audiences.”
Then one day when Jeffers was typing in the Arts Council newsletter, her eye caught a job posting for the executive director of the Madame Walker Theatre Center. Though she was only 27, she felt compelled to try for the position. She called A’lelia Bundles, the great granddaughter of Madame C. J. Walker and spent an hour on the phone with her during her lunch break. The call led to Jeffers getting an interview for the position.
“I thought oh my goodness! I have this big interview. I came up with this big presentation for the board and gave it. I was really, really sweaty,” Jeffers laughs. “I just laid it all out there in front of the board. I gave this whole big presentation and they said ‘great, thanks, bye.’”
Months later, she read an article in the paper that the Madame Walker Theater had filled the position of executive director. The same day the story came out though the chair of the Walker’s board e-mailed her and offered her a position of Director of Marketing and Programs.
“I kind of figured that I had no business running that organization,” says Jeffers. “It was one of those shoot for the moon and land in the stars type things.”
Soon after leaving the Arts Council Jeffers started her new job but felt a bit alien. Not only was it run very differently than the Arts Council but the Walker came with a history and high expectations from the Indianapolis black community.
“Eighty five years worth of history, that was black history and with a whole slew of people in Indianapolis who had very strong opinions, very strong memories, very strong emotional attachments to this place. So they would call and say, I hear you’re only 28 and you are a director at the Walker, what are you doing, what’s your plan here? Do you know what the mission is? The mission in their mind is keep this black organized, black programmed, know your history. So that was an interesting moment over the span of a couple of years. There were all these different invisible constituents. You are caring for a place much bigger than the physical building. It came with huge history that you have to care for.”
So, at that time, Jeffers had the arts and culture foundation of her work with the Arts Council — at the Walker — a heightened awareness of being black and conversations about diversity and equity among people and organizations alike.
“People know the Walker is a place you should respect, a place that is important. But white Indianapolis doesn’t know why or what happens there. They just know we should respect this place. It means something to somebody. The Walker is very much insular, it felt isolated from the rest of the community and it was like its’ own little world but with this enormous amount of fabulous historical context,” Jeffers says. “There’s a dichotomy between wanting to acknowledge where the Walker is now. We are around all these students and they have no clue that we are here, what we do or why it’s important. Then also we have all this history we are trying to preserve and educate folks on. So I tried to turn it inside out and do some reputation repair, do some friend building before we could even consider what programs people would come to then trying to start the conversation about us being on IUPUI’s campus which is different than being on Black Row – which is what it was in the 20s through the 40s and trying to find a balance between the two.
“That was tough because you’re wanting to respect both. I would get phone calls from 80 or 90 year olds who would say you better not let IUPUI take this place again. So there was a fear in the air again also.”
Soon Jeffers was becoming more outspoken about diversity and people were coming to her to ask advice. It was when Chris Gahl at Visit Indy asked her to do a diversity audit on their marketing efforts that, she decided to start charging for her advice. After a lot of consideration, she left the Walker to become a consultant in 2012.
“I thought OMG people keep asking me these same questions that have to do with diversity and the arts, what if I say, ‘I charge for this now?’ What’s going to happen? Will that completely take my soul away; will people think I don’t care as much and now I just want the money? What’s that going to do?”
From there on out Jeffers helped the Cultural Trail, Visit Indy, Connor Prairie, Plan 20/20, the Benjamin Franklin Funds at Central Indiana Community Foundation, Eskenazi Hospital, Indy Go Transit Center, and more. These projects required a person with the skills she’d developed moving between all the different social realms of the city. Along the way, she took on projects like “I Am Artist” which featured large photos of artists of color placed in high-traffic areas.
“I was able to deliver in a way that people understood. I was uniquely positioned where I’m kind of respected from both sides, white, stakeholder Indy and my peers: young professionals, people who wanted opportunities,” Jeffers says. “Also I was able to talk about inclusion in a way that people could get. Because I was speaking from experience.”
In late 2016, Jeffers was starting to feel concerned because she didn’t have much consulting work lined up and she had two daughters in school at St. Richards. She saw a description for a position at Midtown Indy that revolved around community engagement. She took the position.
“I tried to build trust with the neighbors at Butler Tarkington and Meridian Kessler and Crown Hill. Again I felt like I was walking behind my dad and doing the same things he did 20 years ago. And people would say, ‘Hey aren’t’ you David’s daughter?’ Also I literally just helped write our city’s bicentennial plan and decided what should happen in neighborhoods. And now I’m on the corner with neighbors and they are saying, ‘What plan? What are you talking about, I never agreed to that.’ And I’m like: ‘No, we already said it was going to happen, guys. This is happening, we already wrote it down and it’s been approved.’ And they are like, ‘Approved by who? This is my neighborhood.’ It gave me a glimpse of the contrast between being so on the ground and doing actual community work and being a real advocate for people versus the Plan 2020 work and what it was saying from the 24th floor of the City County Building. It was a stark contrast.”
About a year and half into working at Midtown, Jeffers received an offer to be part of a huge effort at the former GM stamping plant along the White River on the west side of Downtown. She’s now leading the marketing and community outreach and placemaking efforts. “The plan for the site is to create a thriving new downtown district. We’ve got 103 acres of blank-slate on the downtown portion of the river. It’s the best of both worlds for me. It joins my three career focus areas; civic pride, arts and culture, and equity,” says Jeffers explaining her move from the non-profit to for-profit sector. “In this role, I get to work on Indy’s largest and most visible project of our lifetime and be the driver of conversations on people and community. It’s perfect.”
And Jeffers, living in so many different Indy’s simultaneously throughout her life, and thinking of the future, equity and technology will continue to shape the city, ensuring it stands on not just in the region but also internationally. “Now I understand why we moved to 34th and Park. My mom paid attention to the future of Indy and my Dad was intentional about community organizing. Without realizing it, I’ve been doing the same for 26 years; paying attention to what’s next for our city and being intentional about inclusive growth. And that’s the cool thing about Indy, when you raise your hand it calls on you.”
Follow Jeffers on instagram @MalinaSimone