[COLUMN] Jennifer Punsalan Delwood: Journey to LA City Hall marked by grit, glow and grace

Left to right: Max Reyes, Senior Director of Economic Policy; Jennifer Punsalan Delwood, Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Karen Bass; Anthony Ancheta – Graphic Designer; Rodielyn Aguiluz – Accountant; Jeminnie De Quiros – Accountant; Dr. Janice Lumen Andrade – Community Engagement Manager; and Eduardo Soriano Hewitt, Chief of Public Engagement Strategies, Mayor’s Office of Public Safety Photo by Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz

“I feel that she [Jennifer Punsalan Delwood] fully embodies the best of our people’s values and demonstrates that with her calm, thoughtful leadership style that enables her to be inclusive and to build movements.”- Former City of Cerritos Mayor Mark Pulido, 2023

“Authentic leadership is a type of management style in which people act in a real, genuine, and sincere way that is true to who they are as individuals. Proponents of authentic leadership say this type of leader is best positioned to inspire trust, loyalty and strong performance from employees.” –TechTarget.com

Rose Ibanez mobilized a response from LA City Hall’s Jenny Delwood and Edo Soriano – Hewitt. 20 unhoused Filipino families were in an encampment behind a middle school in Los Angeles, a referral from Cecile Ochoa who was in touch with volunteers who were working with unhoused families. Photo courtesy of Rose Ibanez

When I asked to do an interview with Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, it was the week marking her first year in office. She was doing the rounds of how the Inside Safe Program was taking root in Los Angeles, with 41,000 unhoused folks. She promised to house 17,000 folks by the end of that week, while 21,000 have been placed in temporary housing, some in permanent housing.

L.A. Magazine, Trevor Noah, LA Times, Evan Lovett, CALMatters, KTLA, NBC4, San Fernando Valley Business Journal, LA Business Journal, LA Magazine, ABC 7, NBC 4, KTLA, LA Daily News, Fox 11, Spectrum, and The New Yorker have interviewed her. My slot for that first week in December was rescheduled for 2024.

Though the Asian Journal was sharing communication space opportunities with the mainstream press outlets, LA City Hall’s staffers were gracious, staffers met me at the lobby, and ushered me to the office of Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer Punsalan Delwood.

After 45 minutes of interview, Delwood brought me to the conference room where seven Filipino American staffers at the LA City Hall’s Mayor’s Office joined her for photos. They are Jeminnie De Quiros (Accountant), Rodielyn S. Aguiluz (Accountant), Max Reyes (Senior Director of Economic Policy), and Dr. Janice Lumen Andrade (newly minted EDD, Community Engagement Manager) and Anthony Ancheta (Graphic Designer). That impressed me in how inclusive she is, sharing the space with her fellow kababayans, one of whom is my community-adopted nephew, Eduardo Soriano-Hewitt, whose deceased parents were our long-time friends. Eduardo is the Chief of Public Engagement Strategies, Mayor’s Office of Public Safety. Another Filipino, Ebony Cobb (Accountant), was covering a work assignment.

Jennifer “Jenny” Punsalan Delwood is the deputy chief of staff to LA Mayor Karen Bass. She oversees a portfolio of constituent services, public engagement, legislative and governmental strategy, international affairs, budget and innovation team, operations and scheduling. She served as the former Executive Vice President at the Liberty Hill organization providing oversight on programs, grant making and strategic planning. She served as chief deputy for children, youth and families for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and was Bass’ legislative director, according to the LA City website and her Linkedin. She has done many tours of duty with Bass.

While describing her core duties, Delwood described her two other colleagues, Solomon Rivera and Celene Cordero, who are also deputy chiefs of staff.

Her self-described traits are curiosity from community learning sessions, listening and asking questions, learning, understanding the political landscape and leveraging her knowledge and understanding community organizations and shareholders.

She speaks of her solid relationship with her boss and role model, Mayor Bass, who puts a very high value on relationship building as a collaborator and former organizer.

“I try to emulate her by always acting from a place of value and integrity,” Delwood said.

Grit: Passion and perseverance towards social justice and equity

Angela Duckworth wrote a book on grit, wherein she studied the traits of over 67 geniuses. While their traits were varied, she synthesized what was common to all: passion and perseverance to a long-term goal, not deviating in attention, a persistence of motive, a degree of will, and perseverance to stay the course. In the face of obstacles, grit is acquired by overcoming the struggles, akin to climbing mountains, powered by experiences, and after ascending a summit, a confidence is gained to try something new.

One might surmise that Pulido’s assessment of Delwood’s leadership might be overly kind, yet when one considers her ascent to important organizational leadership roles, there is verifiable proof to Pulido’s evaluation. Every climb up the ladder has been climbing a growing tree, with branches of equity, justice and progressive inclusion and unity. I was struck by the sustained commitment of her professional choices.

That period of the 1980s to the early 1990s was marked by turmoil and vigorous student activism, Pulido asserted as UCLA student body president. Delwood became the university’s second Filipino American student body president, serving from 2005 to 2006.

“Previously, we saw the largest social upheaval, the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black Power movements, following that, a progressive student movement evolved from these social justice movements, as well as the farmworkers’ movement, the anti-martial law struggles against Philippine dictatorship of Marcos, Sr. to the 1980s fight against apartheid in South Africa and the defense of affirmative action.

“It saw the rise of Third World Coalition at UCLA, a coming together of students of color organizations. Each of these diverse organizations maintained their unique voices, as together we built a coalition that emerged stronger following the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion/Riots. At the start of the unrest in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, we called for a moratorium on campaigning during the student elections that were already underway, as other universities and schools throughout Los Angeles had suspended classes, while UCLA stayed open,” Pulido shared the context at UCLA.

He continued, “When the elections for student council resumed a week later, I was elected, the first Filipino American elected to that position. Further, the largest contingenet of Asian Americans ever was elected, 9 out of 13 seats available.”

He added, “Student Power was the name of our slate and our rallying slogan.”

“There was a new sense of urgency in that decades of the 1990s: from Mandela getting released, the fight for affirmative action, to 1986 when Marcos Sr. was ousted, the Black-Korean crisis in 1992, etc. UCLA’s student organizational politics became increasingly concerned about the politics of Pico-Union, South Central and Filipinotown. After the 1990s in the mid 2000’s, coalition began to facture and by 2005, Delwood and Samahang Pilipino reached out to [me], she helped revive and restore what was at risk of being lost, I believe because of her deferential and humble style,” Pulido asserted.

Delwood, who was pursuing her bachelor’s degree in international relations and sociology, jokingly said to me during an interview: “I majored in international relations and sociology, but I studied activism.”

Delwood credited Samahang Pilipino for “ground[ing] me to my identity and in the organization, I deeply explored my identity, including how to be in solidarity with people of color and queer student activists.”

Delwood ran with a slate of folks of color and queer students “to exert our student power within the system.”

“Our fight for diversity, outreach, and just retention policies included divestment of retirement investments from Sudan [who was at war], to protect these pension funds. Mark is a dear mentor, Glo and Mark are dear mentors of mine. Mark is a foundational student leader who built foundations for subsequent generations to build activism in student government, Samahang Pilipino has been part of that coalition, [grew] into a stronger form of being active in student government,” Delwood recalled her UCLA college days.

Delwood made a mark at UCLA in changing hostile academic policies of excluding folks of color in large numbers for admission, according to a history written by Pinoy Bruins. During the period when UCLA had a hostile anti-affirmative action policy, the university accepted only 99 Black students. Delwood learned to be an activist, participated in die-ins, rallies, marches, workshops in campus and inside the administrative offices. She credited a number of student of color organizations: “Mecha, Asian Pacific Coalition, African Student Council, whose friendships lasted my entire life.” They advocated for reforms, towards a more wholistic criteria to be applied and after, more students of color were admitted into UCLA.

“I wanted to engage the students. I was in campus from 2001 to 2006. I stood on the shoulders of students of color activists before me, like the Samahang Pilipino. I was part of PCN (Pilipino Cultural Night), I was dancing, stomping my feet, in a circle, when the beads of my necklace broke during the performance, we had to stomp on those beads, and it hurt as we danced,” Delwood recalled.

Grit: ‘It hurt as we stomped our feet on those beads’

Jenny Delwood graduated from Temecula High School with her grandparents.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Delwood

Typical of her deferential style, Delwood responded to my question about her life’s journey likening it to a growing tree with branches of equity, social justice, progressive inclusion and unity, as coming from the examples of her grandparents and parents, who taught her public service with integrity and passion.

The fruit does not fall far from the tree, as the saying goes.

Her grandpa, Lt. Col. Leon Flores Punsalan of San Simon, Pampanga, lived to 91 years. He retired after 31 years in the U.S. Army, having served in WWII. He was the talk of the town, a graduate of West Point’s Class of 1936, whose academy graduates included General William Westmoreland and General Creighton Abrams.

Jenny Delwood in San Simon, Pampanga Photo courtesy of Jenny Delwood

He was the only one from the Philippines, out of 500 who took the exams, to go to West Point in 1932, with only one slot allotted. His mother went around the province to solicit financial support, as they had no means to send him to the U.S. The provincial folks of Pampanga responded with generosity, despite their very limited resources. He endured racial insults and hazing, yet excelled in physics and engineering. “It was the depression, so I had to suffer,” as reported in The Virginian Pilot, entitled “The Untold Battle Leo Punsalan Faced Envy at Home, Bigotry Abroad.”

He also received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and got a patent for his rifle cartridge ejector invention.

Her grandma, Rosario Macrohon Punsalan, born in Zamboanga City, lived to 103 years and raised six children, 15 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren. Her “legacy is compassion and grace. Grandma was there for all of their life’s milestones and day-to-day adventures in between,” Delwood wrote on her Facebook post.

Jenny Delwood with her parents, Frances and Daniel Wood, prior to her graduation at Harvard
Courtesy of Jenny Delwood/Facebook

Her mom is Frances Punsalan Wood, who taught at Val Verde Unified District, as an elementary school teacher. Her dad, Daniel Wood, worked as assistant superintendent. This photo was taken prior to her graduation at Harvard Kennedy School in May 2015, where Delwood earned a Master’s in Public Administration in the one year, mid-career program. She also continues to be involved in CORO fellows, a graduate of their leadership program.

Delwood paid homage to her ancestors, more than describing her own accomplishments. It was only after I raised more questions that she shared more of herself. I asked: “How did you manage to have your wedding, recalling three photos of an artsy image inside Renwick gallery, a photo in front of Culture House and two pairs of heels with ONLY sign, to become a community affair, mobilizing Metro DC?”

Glow of mutual love

Two beautiful women, Jenny and Christine Delwood, at their wedding.
Photo courtesy of Amy Gray Photography/Facebook

With a huge smile, Delwood shared that then-Congresswoman Karen Bass officiated her wedding to Christine Delwood, which The Blade reported on. They had their first date four years prior, with a bike ride and later, attending Taste of DC food fest.

Inspired by that first date, they got married in a similar fashion, exchanging vows in front of family members and friends in attendance, with a reception at Taste of DC food fest. There, a special booth was prepared for them with a huge banner announcing their marriage, including getting up on a crane to get an overview of the entire food fest. That combination of intimacy and a broad overview must have solidified the ‘sense of purpose’ of their relationship.

They bought entrance tickets for their guests to the Taste of DC food fest, and they received a gift from the organizers, a giant Jenga game, which Delwood and Christine are fond of playing. Delwood simply sent an email to the organizers, a cold-call so to speak, and the organizers responded generously.

Their first dance was to their favorite, ‘Brown Eyed Girl, ‘ by Van Morrison, some lyrics excerpted here.

Hey, where did we go?

Days when the rains came

Down in the hollow

Playin’ a new game

Laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey, hey

Skippin’ and a-jumpin’

In the misty morning fog with

Our, our hearts a-thumping and you

My brown-eyed girl

And you, my brown-eyed girl

And whatever happened

To Tuesday and so slow?

Going down the old mine with a

Transistor radio

Standing in the sunlight laughing

Hiding ‘hind a rainbow’s wall

Slipping and sliding

All along the waterfall with you

My brown-eyed girl

You, my brown-eyed girl

Do you remember when we used to sing?

Grace of mentoring and working with others

Grace, coming from a Latin girl’s name, comes from the word, gratia, meaning generosity, respect, action, compassion for others and the spiritual energy that catalyzes change, also known as God’s favor or blessing.

To witness organizations transformed in one’s lifetime is grace. A more common definition is the unmerited favor of God toward man or man-made transformative actions towards the common good.

I asked Delwood if she has witnessed organizations transformed, or cultures changed, while in them. She referred to what Bass has done through the Inside Safe program, where out of 41,000 homeless, 17,000 she promised, 21,000 are housed, after her first year in office.

While at Liberty Hill Foundation, Delwood was the Executive Vice President for five years. From a base of private donors, led by Sarah Pillsbury, with a theme of Change, not Charity, the organization engaged tenants in seminars, workshops and allies, educating them on tenants’ rights, preventing homelessness, evictions, and staying housed. Before, the organization was dependent on private funding, and later, expanded to receiving public grants. It grew from 16 to now, 40 plus staffers.

“I have always viewed mentoring others as part of my civic duty, my passion, and it is nice to work with youth in public affairs program. I look to my foundational mentors like Mark and Gloria Pulido, who give back as well. Like CORO, it is an ideals project about what an organization should be, and something I enjoy,” Delwood explained the motivation behind her choices.

While working for the federal government, under Ralph Lopez, during the Obama administration, Delwood participated in full team retreats “where together, we were inspired to do more rapid rule making, focused on runaway youth, child welfare, domestic violence, and always, in a spirit of collaboration and teamwork.”

She formed her workstyle, by collaborating with Bass, who at one time, co-founded the National Foster Youth Institute, with her: “on the belief that organizing foster children, they can lead the changes for welfare reform affecting them and their families. It is how former foster youth are also part now of the oversight body,” she added.

Delwood described that she and her partner have also fostered children and shared a photo of a child on her desk, and above it, a framed kulintang (bronze gong) award from the National Federation of Filipino American Associations as an inspiring young leader. “From shadowing leaders, sitting in meetings, I learned to shift mindsets by working in communities,” she added.

Delwood shared that cultural change happens when everyone participates. She believes deeply that we have to be together, “to step in, to step up,” in order for things to be done. At this point, she informed me that Mayor Karen Bass, through the Inside Safe program, has now housed 21,000 folks.

It was a qualitative change that happened as Bass welcomed strategic advisors, their direct input and feedback, as “Mayor Bass is both visionary and chasing details on that vision,” she continued.

For self-care, she does hiking, camping, biking and “during my wedding, Christine and I rode a pedicab. A large part of my self-care is my relationship with my spouse.”

“Mayor Bass believes in family and a commitment to our personal life, making investments with our loved ones. She has a big picture, her vision, and we need to be able to execute on the little details, and not just talking. It is about getting people housed: of bringing together the city departments,” Delwood reflected on Bass’ leadership style,

“I am very fulfilled and love working with Mayor Bass, locking arms and the whole of government involved,” she added. “I am very grateful to be a small part of what is happening. I feel very fulfilled.”

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 12 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the U.S., in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.


Prosy Abarquez Dela Cruz, J.D.

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 13 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

1 Comment
  1. Very exhaustive article Prosy de la Cruz on Filipino Americans’ volunteerism spirit! No crab mentality tolerated here🥰

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