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March 3, 2017

Meet Jessi Olsen

As a Community Relations Specialist in the Community Relations Department, Jessi Olsen works with the Community Engagement team to develop and implement initiatives and partnerships that bring WNET’s content out into our viewers’ communities. “Our goal is to strengthen our pre-existing ties and reach those who may not know about us,” Jessi says. “I also provide administrative support for the WNET and NJTV galas, and the WNET/THIRTEEN Community Advisory Board. Another large part of my role is maintaining and creating content for the “THIRTEEN in the Community” webpage and the Community Relations newsletter.” Read on to learn about the events Jessi is working on to promote the new American Masters film Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, her very personal connection to Sesame Street, and more.

Jessi Olsen

Jessi Olsen

What is your background, and how did you land at WNET?

My background is in live event production and community programming, predominantly in live music. I have worked freelance and full time for a number of incredible organizations over the years, including Friends of the High Line, BRIC Arts Media House, Bang on a Can, and spent seven years at Lincoln Center as the production coordinator in their Public Programming Department. I also worked as a booking agent and tour manager for local and international music groups, but after a while, the seasonal freelance life wore on me. After a year at Friends of the High Line and an incredible summer as an Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellow with the Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute, I stumbled upon the Community Relations job opening here at WNET. I was attracted to the fact that this position is a combination of the community organizing work that drives me and the event production work that I love. The rest is history!

The Community Relations Team recently produced two very successful events promoting the premiere of American Masters: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. Can you talk about your work on these events and share some memorable moments from them?

Yes, we had two incredible preview screenings the week before the broadcast premiere that were a continuation of our partnership with the New York Public Library. The first event, on February 16th was spearheaded by Mary Burke, and was an action-packed and star-studded screening and panel at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. There were many incredible speakers, but there were two big highlights for me. One was getting to meet Elizabeth Alexander, who I admire very much, and the other was that Secretary Hillary Clinton complimented my outfit, which was very nice considering I wasn’t even wearing a pantsuit!

The next day was my main project. We brought the film up to the Bronx Library Center for a screening in their beautiful auditorium for 150 students from the Bronx Institute at Lehman College. Filmmaker Bob Hercules and American Masters’ Michael Kantor joined us to speak with the students who were incredibly engaged and had lots of empathetic and thoughtful questions. I put together an in-depth recap of the Schomburg event on the THIRTEEN in the Community page if you would like to see videos and get more information!

Is there another current or upcoming event you’re particularly excited about?

There are still many free community screenings of Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise coming up at libraries throughout the city and on Long Island – maybe there is one at your local library? I’ve had a great time talking to librarians from all over New York about how much they love Maya Angelou’s work and how thrilled they are to present the film at their library. I’m also very excited to be coordinating the creation of our first ever online journal for the NJTV Gala with the company Event Journal. I think it will be a great asset to the event!

For our Media with Impact campaign, we’ve been asking viewers to share stories describing how THIRTEEN has influenced their life. How has THIRTEEN (or the PBS station of your childhood) inspired you?

When I was very young, I lived on Long Island with a lot of my extended family all under one roof. I used to spend hours with my grandfather watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Keeping Up Appearances, Fawlty Towers, and Great Performances on WLIW. Dinner was almost always cooked with The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on in the kitchen, and for some reason our whole family would sing the theme song together as we gathered to eat. (It was a great theme song!)

Throughout my childhood, my Dad worked on the production teams of PBS/CTV programs like Square One and Between the Lions. He has worked on Sesame Street for almost 20 years, and is still there as their Set Decorator. Many of my childhood toys have been repurposed as props on the show, the Count von Count’s organ is in my parent’s basement, and I’m sure somewhere on the internet there is video evidence of me in my most awkward tween phase as an extra on an episode or two of Sesame Street looking sullen in the background. Long story short, I grew up on THIRTEEN, and it has had a massive influence on my life, from my earliest experiences with art and music, to the way to get the news, to learning how to let go of my childhood possessions.

Where do you live, and what are some of your favorite places in your neighborhood?

I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The neighborhood is filled with incredible food and super close to the Brooklyn Museum and Prospect Park. My favorite restaurant is Café Rue Dix; they serve delicious Senegalese/French food and wine. The couple that owns this restaurant also owns an awesome boutique next door called Marche that sells vintage clothes and handmade jewelry and fragrances.

What book are you currently reading?

I usually have two books going at the same time, one fiction, and one non-fiction. At the moment, I’m reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty and Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis, edited by Frank Barat. Both books provide some gut-wrenching insight via satire and historical analysis into the current state of the American people, particularly the intersectional struggles for justice in Black and P.O.C. (people of color) communities

Do you have a special interest or hobby outside of work? If so, tell us about it!

I have a degree in opera performance from CUNY Hunter, and although I don’t still sing opera, I do still perform and record from time to time with indie soul and disco bands. I’m hoping to perform much more in 2017 and record some of my own music, as well.

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