Quick-Witted. Museum Chief. Social Justice Leader.

photo by Justin Barr

By Diane Kline

At every turn, Jean Cavender has thrown her parents a curve ball. Raised in a Catholic conservative family, she worked for Reproductive Health Services, at one point lobbying in Jefferson City to keep abortion legal. She converted to Judaism, a religion that allowed her to reconcile her faith with reproductive freedom. And she became a liberal whose life’s work has been to end social injustice.

Along the way, she has survived cancer and worked at Saint Louis Effort for AIDS and at the Forum for Contemporary Art (now CAM). For the past 14 years, she has been director of the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center, where she encourages people to become change agents by speaking out about social injustice and preventing future atrocities from occurring.

Cavender, who was named “most witty” in her high school yearbook, relies on her humor and intelligence to win people over, especially when addressing complex and emotionally challenging subjects. Here are some thoughts on how she does it.

This political environment has led to a perfect storm.

Today, people are politically entrenched on both sides. There’s a lot to be worried about, but it gives me pause when people make comparisons to Germany in 1930. We still have the right to assemble, vote and speak our minds, all of which was shut down in Germany. And now young people are becoming activists, too. We just have to be vigilant.

It wasn’t a straight shot that got me here.

College wasn’t in the cards for me after high school because there was only money for my brother’s tuition. My parents planned for me to be a nurse, but working a few months in the hospital ended that idea! At age 28, I decided to go to UMSL, studying political science. My parents helped out as they could—they bought me groceries and they bought me a car, a brown car that looked like a nun should be driving it. They didn’t always understand my choices, but they always loved me unconditionally.

Don’t demonize people for attitudes that are different from yours.

I spent time in Jefferson City talking to legislators about reproductive rights. It was a tough sell. Only 12 people in the statehouse were pro-choice. Talking to opponents, I had to find common ground—for example, that women needed jobs and financial security, which could impact their decision on whether to end a pregnancy. Even though people disagree with you, look beyond their political beliefs and talk as human beings.

Just listen more.

Being the museum’s director has taught me not to jump in with my opinion, but to listen first. The board, the volunteers and the visitors have great ideas, and my job is to make sure they’re being heard, while still managing the work of the museum.

I want people to understand what it’s like to be “the other.”

What happens when you see social injustice occur? Do you speak out? I want to teach children and adults to say something. This is how we plant seeds of compassion and understanding. There’s a lot to work to do on hate, freedom of speech, pay inequity, medical ethics and myriad other issues. You have to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves.

My conversion to Judaism was hard on my mother.

My mother was devoutly Catholic, but I didn’t practice any religion after going to an all-girls’ Catholic high school. Then I worked at Reproductive Health Services, where most of the employees were Jewish, and I liked how they could question God—even argue with God. Being Jewish gave me a sense of community, especially at my temple, Central Reform Congregation in the city. My parents eventually came to understand my decision.

Keep your cool and keep them laughing.

Growing up, it was my sense of humor that got me through everything. I was able to say things to people, so they didn’t get offended. It’s about tone and delivery. People have asked me why I don’t become a comic, but it’s too hard.  It’s much easier to work for reproductive rights!