NORFOLK NAVAL SHIPYARD, Portsmouth, Va. —
While some historical strides are made with fanfare, others are made quietly with just as much impact. As the first Black female to serve in a GS-13 senior leadership position in Code 700, Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s (NNSY) Lifting and Handling’s Special Projects Division Head (Code 701S) Jennifer Freeman is familiar with making such steps. She possesses multiple degrees, has a passion for helping people, and prides herself on being a hardworking mom and wife.
Among her many responsibilities, she is Code 700’s Management Analyst Performance (MAP) Team sponsor, and her code’s representative on the NNSY’s Innovations Policy Working Group (IPWG) and the Performance Consultant Group (PCG). Moreover, she provides support and advises other shipyard groups and initiatives.
Born minutes away from NNSY at Portsmouth General Hospital, Freeman grew up in the neighborhood of Cavalier Manor. After graduating from I.C. Norcom High School in 1999, she attended Tidewater Tech where she graduated in 2003 with her associate’s degree in paralegal law, while working full-time as a single mom of two. Upon graduating, she started a career in real estate; unfortunately, the market collapsed and she was laid-off while pregnant with her third daughter. “The demand of the work took me away from home a lot. At that point, I decided it was a good time for a career change,” she said.
The future division head knew a few people who had worked at NNSY, including her grandfather, and had heard good things about the shipyard. Although she had no prior experience, she applied for the NNSY Apprenticeship Program, and was hired as a Rigger Apprentice (Code 740) in Aug. 2008. “In my initial interview, I stated that I was looking into three other shops outside of rigging; hence, I was not completely sure what I was getting myself into when I was selected as an Rigger Apprentice in the Lifting and Handling Department,” Freeman recounted, “but I was excited to take on the challenge and do something different.”
She worked her way up to become the Special Projects Division Head in 2020. Her journey enabled her to identify program weaknesses and improvement opportunities. “To me, the greatest value in my job is that it gives me the opportunity to help and positively impact a larger group of people and the overall mission,” she said.
Like many other leaders, Freeman said she would not have succeeded this far without a support system behind her. “Many individuals have not only helped me develop in each position I have held, but also never defined my abilities by the time in my position or the years of shipyard experience I had,” Freeman said. “They never allowed gender or race to dictate my individual value, and always allowed my abilities and strengths to speak for themselves. They saw the potential of what I could do and helped me grow to reach it.”
One pivotal member of Freeman’s support system was former NNSY Executive Director Barbara “Lisa” Downey whom she met while representing Code 700 on the shipyard’s Learning Organization Steering Group (LOSG). The division head added that Downey was one of the few Black women in leadership at the time when she met her as a third year apprentice. “I was in absolute awe to see someone who looked like me in her position,” she said. “It gave me a different outlook on what I could achieve at NNSY and truly inspired me.”
While reflecting on the importance of Black History Month and its impact on NNSY, Freeman said, “The history of Black Americans in the shipyard goes back to those who were initially employed at the then ‘Gosport Shipyard’ to build Dry Dock 1; from there we strived to learn beyond our initial roles. This allowed us to maintain our presence and continue to evolve and branch out into other areas and positions. This is a standard that should be held close by all. It is as tied to the NNSY’s C.O.R.E. values and its mission as much as the workforce’s efforts to progress the shipyard itself.”
From her first supervisor who saw her skills and abilities before her gender, to Downey who saw the opportunity to develop people like her, Freeman is proof that the shipyard is working to ensure an actively inclusive team.