(J. the Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — Though she calls herself an “art kid” at her core, Christina Jefferson is no stranger to contact sports.
Recently hired by the San Francisco 49ers to lead the NFL team’s diversity and inclusion efforts — a newly created position — Jefferson has a long history with a quite different, yet still bruising, athletic pursuit: roller derby.
In that sport, players in full pads and helmets race around an oval track in roller skates, jostling and jockeying for lanes, blocking and body checking each other along the way. Roller derby traces its roots to the 1930s but was revitalized on television in the 1960s with the help of Jewish Bay Area showman Jerry Seltzer. In a 2017 interview, Seltzer called the game a “symbol of women’s empowerment.”
Jefferson took to the sport living in Ohio in her early 20s. The activity would prove pivotal not only by demonstrating to an artistic soul the “magic” of team sports, but it’s also how she met Julie, her future wife. And it got her rolling on a path toward converting to Judaism.
“There’s something in me that loves the challenge of something brand new,” said Jefferson, a member of Congregation Sherith Israel, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco.
Her new position with the 49ers as director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, marks an exciting opportunity for the 41-year-old human resources professional, who worked at several retail stores before climbing the corporate ladder. She earned a master’s degree in human resource management before becoming a senior manager at the cosmetics company Sephora.
DEI directors have seen a surge in demand across academia, in the nonprofit sector and in the corporate world over the past 10-15 years, inspired by changing attitudes toward race, demographic shifts and studies showing a diverse workforce can improve companies’ bottom lines. An influential 2015 report on financial performance from the consulting firm McKinsey showed companies with greater ethnic and racial diversity among staff performed “35 percent better than companies whose staff demographics matched the national average,” according to Forbes.
In the National Football League, initiatives to increase minority hires have existed at least since the 1980s, to varying degrees of success. Powerful positions in coaching, general management and ownership still do not match the diversity of the players, nor of the fans.
Still, the league has accelerated its efforts to make workplaces more inclusive just in the past year. The police shootings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake spurred an unprecedented wave of national protests, ignited calls for reform and transformed the sports world. Players across major professional leagues sat out games and practices on Aug. 26 in response to the shooting of Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, forcing the NBA to postpone its playoffs.
Amid the national reckoning, the 49ers become one of a batch of NFL teams — Jefferson estimated about nine — that have added DEI directors to their corporate offices.
“While our organization has long demonstrated a commitment to modeling the diversity of its fan base and society in our employment practices, there is always more we can do to attract diverse talent and ensure all employees feel respected and valued on a personal level,” the team’s president, Al Guido, said in a statement on April 1. “Christina Jefferson brings extensive knowledge and experience implementing best practices that will help us be a more successful organization in creating an inclusive environment where all people are excited to work and empowered to contribute.”
As a Black, lesbian Jew (with a bunch of tattoos), Jefferson described herself with a chuckle as a “unicorn” in the world of corporate America.
“As I moved up in my career, I noticed I was often the only person who looked like me,” she said. “It made me kind of stand out.”
To some, working in retail is “not a real job,” Jefferson said — but she’s been “damn-well determined to show people” otherwise. She was drawn to the endeavor as a form of service and a vehicle for mentorship.
“You catch people in college, in high school. You’re getting brand new people. I’d always tell my employees, even if you don’t stay in retail, you’ll be a better person after you work here,” she said.
Jefferson became a customer experience manager at Banana Republic in 2008, then a general manager. She worked for David’s Bridal and Gap before moving to Sephora, becoming a senior manager of inclusion and diversity at its North American headquarters in San Francisco.
The move to diversity and equity work was a natural one. Throughout her career, Jefferson often found herself mentoring those who looked like her, or fellow queer people.
“I’ve always been in diversity work, I just didn’t realize it,” she said.
Jefferson grew up in a Baptist family in Indianapolis, though her mother did not push religion on her or her brother.
“She felt like we should wait until we were adults to decide,” Jefferson said.
She attended the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, a city with a meager gay and lesbian scene. The school is located just a short drive from a “sundown town,” where Blacks historically were not allowed after sunset. Jefferson called it “Kentucky-ana.”
“It was a very interesting experience growing up in Indiana as a Black person,” she said. “When people don’t understand racism still exists in this country, you have to kind of laugh.”
Jefferson spoke with J. on April 20, the day a Minnesota jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd. The news loomed over the conversation, particularly as Floyd’s killing on May 25 of last year helped catalyze the reckoning on race that upended the sports world and brought us to the present moment.
On the guilty verdicts against Chauvin, Jefferson said they brought a modicum of relief, “some hope in this world.” Despite all the evidence, “so many folks out there, we just held our breath.”
Her journey to Judaism began near Columbus, Ohio, where she spent her early 20s working in retail and playing roller derby. Many of her friends were Jewish, and one Friday night she joined a friend, a referee in her roller derby league, at Shabbat services.
“He could say all the prayers so eloquently,” she remembers thinking. “I thought, one day maybe I’d be like that.”
Even though her friend had never been in that particular synagogue before, he fit in.
“The moment you start to say the v’ahavta [prayer], everybody knows all the words. It doesn’t matter what the cadence is, everybody can say them,” Jefferson said. “There was something about that … I was like, wow.”
She would study and convert in Ohio before moving to San Francisco in 2008, but not before meeting Julie Driscoll, also a roller derby referee. Driscoll’s family is Catholic, but she wasn’t raised with religion. The two became friends and stayed connected even as Jefferson moved around the country for work, including during a stint in Washington, D.C.
They started dating in 2012, and were married at Sherith Israel on Oct. 20, 2015. The officiant was Rabbi Larry Raphael, then the senior rabbi, who passed away in 2019.
Driscoll took classes on Judaism before the wedding and learned a bit of Hebrew. She attends shul with Jefferson and is active in community service efforts at the synagogue, including the food service program, HaMotzi.
“You don’t need to be Jewish to be a hardcore volunteer,” Jefferson said. “That’s how we roll in this household.”
She’s quite active in the San Francisco Jewish community herself, serving on the board of directors at the Jewish Community Relations Council and as the membership committee’s chair at Sherith. She’s the shul librarian, too.
“I’m a giant nerd,” Jefferson said, laughing.
Though the 49ers and staff are working remotely now, when they return Jefferson will have an office at Levi’s Stadium. For players, voluntary offseason workouts began on April 19, but are being conducted remotely because of the pandemic. Mandatory minicamp begins in June, and preseason starts in August. Jefferson said she is honored to be working for a historic franchise.
In meetings outside the Jewish world, Jefferson often describes her life’s work – helping people of diverse backgrounds reach their professional potential and feel included in the workplace – as a form of social justice.
“Really it’s just tikkun olam,” she said. “How we can repair this broken world.”
49ers pick a Jew of color to lead diversity efforts