JJ Sheffer thrives on bringing new experiences to York City.
If she sees an event that needs to happen in York County, she won’t wait for someone else to make it happen. She makes it happen. Look no further than York Story Slam competition, the I Love York City campaign and Kable House Presents events. Sheffer was key in helping to bring them to York after seeing other communities launch similar projects.
Her back story is only beginning, she said. This active mom and entrepreneur is looking at new ventures as she sends her only son off to college in less than a week.
I sat down with Sheffer in one of my favorite York coffee shops recently and we talked about her contributions to the York community.
CPBJ: No one can say that you have taken the traditional path when it pertains to your career goals. Why do you think this path has worked for you? Where do you see it taking you?
Sheffer: The best thing about York, for me, is that it’s a welcoming, supportive place for people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved. I’ve had the great fortune to be in a place where people have gotten to know me, my interests, my skills and track record, and my career has sort of unfolded naturally from there.
I definitely do not feel as though I have realized my career goals; I feel like I have only begun to identify them. I am highly motivated to channel my background and skills into my newest, most ambitious goals, now that I’ve finally, as I head into my 40s, decided what I want to be when I grow up.
CPBJ: You have initiated a lot of creative outlets for the York City community. Some might say you have an entrepreneurial startup spirit. Why do you push for these creative activities? Why do feel York needs them?
Sheffer: I tell my students that I hope they will never be the sort of people who say “they should have xyz in my town,” or “they should do this differently.”
Who is “they” in that scenario? If there is something you think your town needs, or something that could be improved, go figure out what it would take to bring it to fruition and make it happen. The hypothetical “they” required to make a community run are actual people, and they’d probably be happy to have your help and your initiative.
The programs I run, which I do as a volunteer, by the way, are arts and humanities programs. My focus, and the two things I’ve become good at, is giving smart people an audience and a microphone, and connecting people who don’t know each other, but should, and seeing what happens.
Those two overarching priorities are how I help to build community. Strengthening our individual and collective voices is more important than ever in these divisive times.
CPBJ: I see that Twitter is one of your favorite social media outlets. What are the advantages and disadvantages to this platform as an active user?
Sheffer: I get most of my news from Twitter.
Some of my deepest relationships – both personal and professional – began on Twitter. It’s a powerful tool for building community, and allows you to connect with several communities at once.
For example, I keep up with what’s going on where I live, with the music communities I’m connected to, and with economic development trends there simultaneously. You build your timeline according to your interests, and can participate in multiple conversations at the same time. You get out of it what you put into it, and have full control over what you share.
It’s the social media platform where I share the full range of what’s going on in my life, and I think that’s part of why people interact with me there. I share the good, the bad and the ugly, so I think people trust that anything I post is straightforward and honest.
CPBJ: If you could improve one area of the arts community in York, what would that be?
Sheffer: I always say that if I won PowerBall, I’d start an endowment to provide fellowships to people like me who provide arts and humanities programming to benefit the community.
It’s not sustainable to do it the way I’ve done it, and I know I could have a more significant impact if I didn’t have to worry about how to pay my mortgage. I’ve been able to secure grants to start some of my programs, but ongoing operational support is difficult, especially when I have to have a day job to support my social entrepreneurship habit.
There are others like me in York, and I wish I could give them funding to cover the time they put into planning programs that don’t have a traditional institutional home at an existing nonprofit.
CPBJ: Who are some of your favorite mentors locally? And why do they make a difference in your life?
Sheffer: I am fortunate to live in a town where people are very generous with mentorship. Any time I have wanted to see something new in York, I’ve called on people who have been willing to share their time and expertise so that I could move my projects forward.
There have been so many people who have mentored me and helped me tremendously, so I’ll just give you a few examples – when I have a new idea I’m fleshing out and I need feedback that I know will be critical and honest, the people I usually call on first are Eric Menzer, Carolyn Steinhauser, and Josh Carney.
I’ve known all three of them for a long time, and have always appreciated how forthright they are, and their ability to see the 10,000-foot view of any given situation. They challenge me and push me to do better, and my world would be very different today, had I not had their guidance along the way.
CPBJ: If you were able to give your 25-year-old self some career advice, what would that be?
Sheffer: The same advice I try to give myself every day right now: Be open. Be patient. Calm down and trust that you’re going to end up right where you’re meant to be. Eventually.
JJ Sheffer’s bio, at a glance
JJ Sheffer is president of New Muse Entertainment, a company that produces special events. She spent the last five years running CoWork155, York’s first coworking site.
She is an adjunct faculty member at York College, where she teaches a course on special events. She is also a freelance writer, primarily for music-related blogs and publications, and is part of the teams responsible for the I Love York City campaign; Kable House Presents, a concert series hosted in York’s historic Central Market; York: Crafted, a series of events featuring brief lectures on what it means to be a craftsman in York; York Story Slam, an open mic storytelling series; and several other arts and humanities programs for specific audiences.
She serves on the boards of the York County Economic Alliance and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.