From Germany to Gadsden: Jana Pickette new United Way executive director

Jana Pickette has a simple priority as she takes the helm at United Way of Etowah County: “To really listen to my staff and the partner agencies, and see how we can best serve the needs of this community.”

Pickette was introduced as the agency’s new executive director on Monday, at a gathering of its board of directors and staff.

She succeeds Ruth Moffatt, who stepped down in November after nearly two years in the role to join Mayor Craig Ford’s administration as director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“... I want to be what this community needs me to be,” said Pickette, whose official “first day on the job” is Wednesday. “My goals and objectives will depend on the data, and I also want to continue the good work United Way has done in the past.”

She cited the “very strong foundation” left by Moffatt and her predecessor, the late Joanne Hightower. “Those are big shoes to fill,” she said. “I want to come into this humbly, optimistic and positive, and be the best version of myself so I can best serve this community.”

Pickette is a native of Unna, Germany, located in that country’s North Rhine-Westphalia district.

She described “coming of age in the United States,” first as an exchange student with a host family in Mississippi, then after returning to that state to attend Hinds Community College (associate degree in communications and media studies) and Millsaps College (B.A. in communications and Latin American studies).

“Millsaps is where I met my husband (Bennon Pickette),” Pickette said. “He’s originally from Gadsden; his family has been here forever.”

Jana Pickette is the new executive director of United Way of Etowah County.
Jana Pickette is the new executive director of United Way of Etowah County.

Her career since then has pretty much been in nonprofits and nonprofits management. She moved back to Germany for a while, working for the German Academic Exchange Service, then served as dean of education at the Leadership Center in El Salto, Honduras, a small, start-up college aimed at underprivileged women. (Her husband also worked there.)

Pickette then returned to Europe to complete master’s level studies in ethnic, cultural minority, gender and group studies at the Universidad de Granada in Spain and Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

She headed back to her home country for a little more than two years, working first with MW Malteser Welke to assist refugees and facilitate their integration into Germany, then as women’s commissioner with Johanniter Unfallhilfe handling similar duties and managing a refugee women’s center.

Pickette said her husband’s family “has a place ‘on the mountain,’ ” and after “getting our education and work experience under our belt, we always wanted to come back here and start our family.”

They moved back in 2018; the family includes Theodor, 4, and Fritz, 1. The Pickettes also own Black Creek Blueberries Farmstead, where they grow blueberries.

Most recently, she was the grant project coordinator for the Office on Violence Against Women at Jacksonville State University. “I brought different aspects of the community and university together for an antiviolence initiative,” she said.

Tony Smith, local manager for Alabama Power Co. and a member of the United Way board, was on the hiring committee tasked with finding a new executive director. He said Pickette’s passion “in terms of serving others and the underprivileged” stood out.

“She used an illustration of a tree in her presentation,” Smith said. “She showed the components, the roots that made up the foundation. That’s really what stood out the most to us, the passion along with the work she’s done in refugee camps and working with the underprivileged. That’s really going to be an asset.”

This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: Pickette new United Way executive director