Sonoma disaster expert Jennifer Gray Thompson makes Forbes’ 50 over 50 women impact list

Jennifer Gray Thompson was recognized alongside Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson and bestselling author Brene Brown.

Sonoma nonprofit leader Jennifer Gray Thompson was listed on Forbes’ 50 Over 50 2022: Women Stepping Into Their Power In Life’s Second Half, and she didn’t even know it.

As she checked her phone with sleepy eyes on the morning of Oct. 11, Gray Thompson was confused by a congratulatory text message from a friend until she looked up the list herself.

She scrolled down the page past Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson and New York Times best-selling author Brene Brown, and there it was, her name and photo.

“It was so surreal,” Gray Thompson said. “I just feel like I’m punching so above my weight here with a lot of names on that list, and I’m honored.”

When the 53-year-old filled out the application for Forbes’ list, she didn’t even mention it to her husband because she didn’t consider it a real possibility.

She was tapped to lead the Rebuild North Bay Foundation, a nonprofit founded with donor dollars in the wake of the 2017 wildfires. Three years later, she became CEO of After the Fire, an initiative launched by the nonprofit to help communities across the country recover from disasters.

Gray Thompson also serves on the board of La Luz Center and First Responders Resiliency Inc, is co-founder of CANVAS for Disaster Recovery and Resilience and hosts the podcast “How to Disaster: Recover. Rebuild. Reimagine.”

Gray Thompson moved to Sonoma with her mom and sister when she was 4 years old. “Sonoma is such a cradle,” she said. “You can still blow up as a child and find your way back because there are so many interested parties.”

She dropped out of Sonoma Valley High School, ran away from home and became homeless before she could finish her senior year. She struggled through poverty as a single mother before she found her footing.

At 21, she was living in Sausalito and working as a waitress and a restaurant manager. She returned to Sonoma where she found work in restaurants.

Gray Thompson enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College and eventually got her degrees in history and English from Dominican University.

At age 31, Gray Thompson taught AP English at Ursuline, a Catholic high school in Santa Rosa — a future her younger self never could’ve imagined. She also taught at Upward Bound, a federally funded educational program that mainly helped low-income students prepare for college.

After 10 years of teaching, she decided to pivot toward her goal of working in government. She got her master’s in public administration from USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy in 2013.

“People don’t know what to do with a former teacher,” Gray Thompson said. “People want you to stay in your lane.”

She started as a part-time aide for Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa on the Board of Supervisors, and was hired full-time within a year. It was a role she held when the 2017 fires decimated much of the county.

She was moved to act in the ashes of that disaster. She slept in her car, stayed close to those on the front lines and did whatever she could think of in her role as a county employee.

“I hated the feeling of being afraid, but we did such a good job as a community and we just figured it out,” Gray Thompson said.

Today, Gray Thompson is a leading national expert in recovery from wildfire, working from ground zero to the federal level to empower local communities. She speaks on panels and assists municipalities in putting the pieces back together post-tragedy.

She assisted officials in Southern California during and after the Woolsey Fire and headed to Paradise in the wake of the deadly Camp Fire.

“We do humanity, that’s what we do,” Gray Thompson said.

Her organization lobbies legislatures, educates, raises funding and organizes anything that has to do with disaster relief. It helps when flames are still burning, and continues to contribute years after, and the communities don’t pay a dime.

“Disaster is a uniquely beautiful thing,” she said. “People show up in their most authentic ways to help.”

Gray Thompson is a “firm believer in amplifying cool women” and thinks that women over 50 are in their prime.

“I thought when I was 50 I wouldn’t be able to contribute as much,” she said. “I love this particular award because it’s women over 50.”