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Jay Ackley of CEC: A Minnesotan in Gotham

By day he is Community Environmental Center’s policy analyst, by night he’s an acoustic guitarist playing gigs with his band. Always he’s a Minnesota ex-pat making a life in the Big Apple.

“It sounds like a cliché,” says Jay Ackley during lunch at the LIC restaurant La Vuelta one torrid August day, “but I do love New York. However, sometimes we Minneapple folks get homesick for family and friends, and things like the stupendous Minnesota State Fair.”

He was born in South Minneapolis 23 years ago, to two dyed-in-the-wool Minnesotans. His mother, who works for the brokerage firm Piper Jaffray, hails from near Duluth, where the winter temperatures regularly drop well below the minus-zero range. His father, a musician and guitar teacher (Jay’s mom was one of his students in college), is from Brainerd, celebrated for its hundreds of nearby lakes. Minnesota, after all, is known as “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

From his father Jay developed a love for music. First there were piano lessons, until Jay was about 12, and then his dad bought him an electric guitar. When that happened, says Jay, “I gave up piano and started playing songs with friends in our basement.” Eventually he organized “a garage band” for guitar, saxophone, bass, and a drum set donated by a friend of his father’s.

Then in 2004, when Jay was 17, his parents moved to London—his mother’s firm was setting up a U.K. outpost—and Jay went with them to take his senior year of high school across the pond. He would end up staying four years.

Minneapolis has a population of 400,000; add the “Twin City” of St. Paul and you get maybe 700,000. Still, the town supports a Major League baseball team. It has the third largest theater market after New York and Chicago, and its Walker Art Center is a world-class hub for contemporary art and performance.

But then there’s London. The city’s famous underground and double-decker bus systems carry nearly 14 million people–an extraordinarily diverse populace–to hundreds of museums, theaters, sports events, and schools, not to mention pubs and restaurants that probably number in the thousands.

Moving from Minneapolis to London was like—like what?  Stepping from comparative calm into a maelstrom? Going from a still photograph to a kaleidoscope of rushing images and sensory impressions?

It was “a crazy experience,” says Jay, “because I’d spent my whole life in the same house, and then at 17 I was in a whole new country. But it was a good bonding experience for my parents and me, with the three of us not really knowing what was going to happen. It was exciting.”

Exciting and stirring and stimulating. There he was, living in the East End of London, in a Turkish neighborhood; completing senior year at an international school and meeting the love of his life; taking a dual degree in economics and political philosophy at Queen Mary, University of London (“It was pretty left-wing”); playing gigs at local pubs several times each month. Not bad for a kid from Minneapolis. Not bad at all.

Jay's as-of-yet-unnamed band.

“One of the intriguing things at Queen Mary was how much we talked about Karl Marx in every class,” Jay observes. “Not in terms of whether Communism or Socialism is a good idea, but really respecting the influence of Marxist thought on political theory and economic theory, in a way that’s almost entirely ignored in North American universities.”

“More than anything,” says Jay, at Queen Mary “I developed an outlook on the relationship between economics and society. In Europe there’s a lot more emphasis on the ways in which our society makes us what we are and on how policy has to cope with the institutions that already exist.”  “There’s a lot of good work that can be spearheaded by governments, but it’s important not to think of intervention as a cure-all for market or social problems.”

Back in the States in 2008, Jay moved to New York to propose to Liz Dolfi, whom he married the next year. His plan: take graduate courses and pursue a music career. “I was going to take classes part-time while I tried to be a singer-songwriter,” he says, smiling at the naiveté of the ambition.

Money was an issue, and the New School offered a scholarship, but only if Jay attended full-time. So he enrolled in Milano, the New School for Urban Policy, and asked his professors if they could suggest part-time employment. An organization in Long Island City called Community Environmental Center was searching for an intern, he learned. He applied, and Rick Cherry gave him the spot.

His graduate education has been two-fold. CEC spurred his awareness of environmental issues, although, says Jay, “that’s a really strong theme in Minnesota politics.” Milano delivered urban policy courses and results-oriented projects. “I didn’t do as much as I could have in terms of strict policy,” he says. “I took statistics and data management classes, because I always like excuses to work with numbers. Milano is a place for students who want to do good things but are also looking for structure and skill sets.”

His thesis was about bi-level lighting, a topic for which he credits Thelma Arceo. One half of the paper was dedicated to the practical benefits; the other half to policy, in terms of programs that make installations easy and affordable for multifamily building owners.

The topic “got a little dry” toward the end, Jay admits. But he received an award for the best departmental thesis, and at the end of October 2010 he travels to Kuwait (that’s right, Kuwait), to deliver the paper to the 10th International Conference on Enhanced Building Operations.

CEC hired Jay full-time in June 2010, shortly after he graduated from Milano. Since the start of his internship he has written ten proposals, four of which have garnered contracts for CEC, and he was especially satisfied to help bring in the stimulus money for the multifamily weatherization contracts. “I love the diversity of the place,” he says. “And I think a lot of that is a testament to how really decent Rick is as a boss and manager. Getting to work directly with the CEO,” he adds, “is a really great way of learning the business.”

It is impertinent perhaps to ask someone who has recently married, recently settled in New York, and moved into a new job about long-range aims. Indeed, Jay avers that he really has none.

“I think part of moving to London, and knowing I wasn’t going to be there long-term—having no idea what’s going to happen—forced me to take things as they go. So I just try to make good and responsible decisions month by month and see how they play out. I feel if I had a job title or a specific goal in mind, then I would either be frustrated or I would accomplish it and not be satisfied (just based on a lot of novels I’ve read). People don’t necessarily want what they set out to accomplish.

“So when people ask me what I want to do, I flippantly respond, ‘Folk star.’ ”

Flippant, maybe. But Jay is serious, if modest, about his music. Now that school is finished, in fact, music is his primary pursuit outside of CEC. “I’m not an excellent guitarist by any stretch of the imagination,” he says, “but I like to write songs that have some substance to the lyrics.” His influences are the folk songs of the 1950s and ‘60s, Pete Seeger especially, mixed with punk groups from the ’80s and ’90s. “I write a three- or four-chord progression and write three or four verses over it,” he explains. “I invite people over to our apartment every week, and people write parts for their instruments. We jam and play a song for a few months, until it sounds like something a little more put-together. Just sitting around drinking a lot of wine and having fun with our instruments.”

Jay’s core band (as yet unnamed) includes his good Minneapolis pal David on bass, a young woman on violin named Jen, and Jay’s wife, Liz, singing. They have recorded a demo and are just starting to get the tracks back. Of course a recording studio does not come cheap, so Jay opened a “Kickstarter Account” on line, for pre-ordering CDs, and has raised enough money to cover the cost.

Rich though his life feels at this moment, he hankers periodically for Minneapolis. Not surprisingly, Minnesotan émigrés to New York City have found each other. Jay describes them as “a lot of friendly and displaced people who are not used to not being able to smile at everybody on the street.” Once a month they congregate for a Happy Hour, and they have set up a Web site called “Minneapple in the Big Apple,” for which Jay has just taken over the blogging duties. In honor of Minnesota State Fair Day, August 22, Jay participated in a food crawl to Manhattan eateries serving State Fair specialties such as cheese curds, fried Twinkies, and every true Minnesotan’s favorite—that unparalleled treat–the corn dog.

Taking time to celebrate a Minnesota event perhaps encapsulates Jay personally and professionally at this time in his life. “I’ve managed to get myself married to a terrific woman and set up a nice home. My résumé looks a lot better than it did a couple of years ago. So whatever happens,” he says, “I’m just trying to make sure that, on the way to what happens, I’m enjoying my friends and enjoying my family.”

A. Greene

agreene@cecenter.org
Alexis is the public relations coordinator at CEC.