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Academia’s Storyteller: Meet Jenn Lilly, Ph.D., Newest Faculty Member at Fordham GSS


As humans, stories comprise our connections. A story is a source of intrigue or nostalgia — a ball of yarn with a thread loose, or snapshots hung to the fridge.

Jenn Lilly, Ph.D., has searched for stories her whole life.

“Stories invoke human empathy,” Lilly said. “Throughout time, they’ve been the way we communicate who we are and what our values are. This is all embedded within stories.”

The search for narrative threads is what got her interested in film, and how she could use that medium to promote social justice. Now, as GSS’s newest faculty member, she wants to unearth a different type of snapshot — the unsmiling ones, those which slipped from the magnet’s grip, or didn’t make it to the fridge at all.

“Uncovering these stories that are more marginalized or not part of the dominant discourse is really important,” Lilly said. “[It helps us] understand the ways that oppression is functioning, and the ways in which we can dismantle racism and other forms of oppression, and ultimately get to a place where we’re making progress in social justice.”

Growing Up With Nonprofits

For Lilly, it started in Houston. She got her first job at twelve — teaching swimming to kids in the area — which snowballed into an interest in nonprofit organizations.

“I always worked in nonprofits with children in community growing up,” she said. “I wish I were one of those people who had a clear direction and followed it through life, but it was more a meandering path for me.”

Once her path hit high school, Lilly took extra shifts at a local Mexican restaurant to earn some spending money. Due to its location, Houston plays home to many undocumented Mexican immigrants, and the family who owned this restaurant fell into that demographic.

“I was the only person who worked there [whose first language wasn’t Spanish],” Lilly said. “I had this community of friends and heard their immigration stories. A lot of workers were undocumented, and I came to understand more of their struggles than I previously did, and what it was like to live life in the shadows.”

The stories Lilly heard in that restaurant struck an important chord. They reminded her of her grandfather, another storyteller and influence in Lilly’s life, an Italian immigrant who came to America looking for something better. Hearing those same dreams after a double-shift brought back memories.

“[Those immigration stories] stuck with me,” she said. “[My grandfather] always told those same kinds of stories; he was my hero growing up. I connected his experience with this contemporary experience of the Latinx population. It’s a social justice issue I really care about.”

From Filmmaker to Researcher

After high school, Lilly found a love for film. She realized the medium was a powerful tool to raise awareness, and grew particularly interested in social justice documentaries.

“Social work has that natural fit with documentary,” she said.

Lilly went to the University of Central Florida for her Interdisciplinary Studies undergraduate degree, and stayed in Orlando after graduation ready to hit the job market running. She landed a job at a local youth program and was ecstatic. This was her chance to get back in the nonprofit sector and make a difference.

However, once she got there, her optimism slowly began to fade, and she questioned how much of a difference she could actually make.

“[It wasn’t] my first experience working with a racialized group of young people, but it was the most intense experience of that for me,” she said. “I found myself going into the job optimistic out of college, but then felt like I was ill-prepared to meet the needs of this community.”

However, Lilly wasn’t going to give up. She kept working in youth programs and met with those she knew attending graduate school for social work. She began to ask questions. Her path found its next turn.

“I saw social work graduate school as an opportunity to gain the analytic and practical skills I needed to make a better impact if I was going to continually work on a community level,” she said.

With that, it was off to Illinois to get her M.S.W. degree at Loyola University Chicago.

International Work

During our interview, Lilly took some time to show me a few decorations acting as her Zoom backdrop — gifts she received from her time spent abroad working with indigenous communities in both Mexico and Guatemala.

Lilly’s international work began through her migration and immigration sub-specialization at Loyola Chicago. In this sub-specialization, Lilly participated in a summer placement immersion program, which took place in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. She spent the summer working with indigenous communities, women cooperatives, and girls who attended a residential educational program.

The experience proved transformative. When the summer ended, Lilly went back to Illinois; however, part of her stayed abroad.

“I knew I wanted to go back and live in Latin America,” she said. “[I wanted to] work on issues precipitating migration.”

But first, she concentrated her efforts at home. After graduating with her M.S.W., Lilly stayed in Chicago and worked for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. She had great success organizing a program for immigrant families in the city, but her desire to help those abroad kept calling.

“I got to a point in [my]life where I was going to either make the jump and move to Latin America,” she said, “or there were going to be things that piled up and prevented me from ever doing it.”

She made the jump. For two years Lilly lived in Guatemala, working with youth and integrating that work with her filmmaking. She wanted to help people at the source of their struggles.

Her grandfather would be proud.

Academia’s Storyteller

Just because her days are now spent in the classroom or hunched over a research paper, doesn’t mean Lilly has forgotten the importance of stories. In fact, she uses that knack for narrative to enhance her everyday creations.

“I think of my academic writing as academic storytelling,” she said. “It’s just writing a story for a different audience with a little bit different structure. I’m always thinking about how narrative plays a role in all things I do.”

And she doesn’t limit that creativity to her writing. Lilly said film and digital media play a large role in communicating messages to her students, and getting them to interpret different viewpoints as part of their learning process.

“Film and stories are relational approaches to working with people and trying to see from their perspective,” she said.

That relational approach is part of the reason Lilly chose to teach at Fordham. As someone who has a Jesuit education herself, she’s experienced the Jesuit devotion to connectivity.  Fordham proudly displays this through the University’s commitment to cura personalis, or “care of the whole person.”

Lilly said she felt this attitude on her visit to campus last year (in the before times).

“I felt like I was embraced as a colleague right off the bat, and people were really supportive,” she said. “[Everyone was] open in terms of reaching out, telling me about other opportunities or things going on that might help out my work, or just being available to answer questions. [Fordham] felt like the right home.”

This semester, Lilly is teaching Social Work Practice with Families and Groups Across the Lifespan. She’ll teach about group facilitation — something upcoming social workers can find themselves navigating often early in their careers.

“I want my students to feel confident in facilitating groups and working with families,” she said. “I want them to walk away feeling like they are effective group facilitators. I feel like that’s something a lot of social work grads are thrown into without really anticipating it.”

Most of all, Lilly wants to bring to her students the feeling she experienced that first day on campus.

“The main word that comes to mind is supportive,” she said. “I want to be remembered as someone who supports not only my students’ learning, but also the myriad of other things going on in their lives — and I want them to feel supported through their learning experience in the classroom. I want them to feel challenged, but also supported in taking on those challenges.”


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