Jessica Jackson

COO & Chief Advocacy Officer, The Reform Alliance

“Trust your voice, know that there’s brilliance to everyone and that it’s okay even if what you say falls short of brilliant, it’s fine. You just have to put your voice out there.”

In your opinion, what qualities make a Power Woman?

I think a woman who is honest with herself and others. I think a woman who is confident. When I say honest with herself and others, I think one of the things in my career that helped me the most was really being honest with myself about, “This is where I’m really, really good, this is where I excel. This is where I’m not as good.” And then how do you either work on that for yourself and get stronger or how do you hire around that?

I think being really honest with yourself and with others and being willing to say, “Hey, that’s not my area, but I’m going to make sure that I’m still strong there.” Being able to advocate for yourself and others. I say, “and others” because I think it’s very important to lift up other women around you. That might be as simple as telling somebody afterward, giving them positive feedback.

I think the willingness to advocate for yourself and others and to challenge yourself and others. To take on new challenges, even when it’s scary. So confidence, but also courage.

What do you think is the number one action we as a society can take today to empower women and gender equality?

I think reproductive justice is important. The lack thereof is an issue, and I don’t just mean access to birth control. I’m in my forties now and I’ve got a lot of friends who felt maybe 10 years ago that they had to make a choice between “Should I have a child or should I advance my career?” and now they’re in their forties and regretting that and want to have kids and I think that’s hard.
As a woman you have such a narrow window to have kids, you also have that same window [when] you’re really focusing on your career, right? That’s really when you’re building your career, your twenties and thirties. So I think access to reproductive justice so you don’t feel like you’re in that choice. But then also for the women who do have kids access to funding for daycare, right? There’s no reason that our daycares can’t be free like some of the European countries. I have friends in Sweden who have maternity leave, like real maternity leave. Not the six weeks we get here in the US if you’re lucky, but like actual time home with your child so you can not just stop bleeding and get back to work, but actually breastfeed your child and maybe get to the point where you’re having a few more hours of sleep before you go back to work so you don’t feel like an absolute zombie and have all those stresses and just not have to be heartbroken leaving an infant with a stranger.

Interviews contribute to the pay gap between women and men, which we all know still happens, and New York State outlawed this practice. Should this be a nationwide ban in that you can’t ask what your previous salary was?

Yeah. Just because your previous salary was lower at another company, there’s so many factors that go into that, like the funding of the company itself, maybe you were willing to do less for other reasons. I one hundred percent think it should be banned all across the nation. There’s no reason to ask that question, you can do your own independent evaluation on the candidate. You can judge what you think the duties required by that position are worth to you as a company. And you can go from there. You don’t need to ask what they used to make.

What do you feel was your defining moment or experience that led your life to where it is today?

I have a pretty clear “aha moment.” I had a little bit of a difficult childhood and certainly teen years. I ended up dropping out of high school, getting my GED and went on to live down in Georgia and became a bartender and was working on a grassroots campaign for clean air and clean water. I got married very young, got pregnant very young. I had my daughter when I was 22. Then just a couple of months after she was born my husband ended up getting sentenced to prison for his drug addiction. And here I am: 22, I’ve dropped out of high school, I’ve quit bartending because I now have an infant, I’m holding this two-month-old baby, and I’m watching my husband get sentenced to 15 [years], serve six. He was the breadwinner. He was the one providing for the family. I was absolutely devastated: I was terrified for him, I was overwhelmed at being a single mother now, and just literally didn’t even know how to get myself home from the courtroom – I didn’t even know how to drive his truck which we had driven there. We weren’t expecting him to go to prison that day, the lawyer was telling us he was gonna get probation and not to worry about it. So I end up going into the bathroom and – this is 2004 in Georgia, you can’t exactly nurse a baby in public – and I’m sitting on the bathroom floor in this dirty, gross, cold bathroom in a Georgia courthouse, and I’m nursing my daughter and I’m just looking down at her and I’m crying, and I’m crying, and I’m watching my tears hit her face and she’s just peacefully nursing and staring back up at me, batting at my hair. And I just remember looking at her in the eyes and thinking, “I have to do something now. I don’t have a choice. I have to do this because I have to support you, I have to support me, and I have to be a better role model for you so that you don’t end up in a situation like this.” That really was my aha moment. I think it took me a couple of months to really articulate what that something was, but a few months later, my mother asked me “What’s next? It’s been two months since he went to prison. What are you doing now?” And I just looked at her and was like, “I’m gonna be a lawyer now.” And remember, I dropped out of high school. Nobody was expecting that answer. She’s like, “Okay, well you have to go to college, you have to take the LSAT, you have to get accepted to law school, you have to take the bar, and then you have to apply to be a lawyer somewhere.” And I was like, “Okay.” And so the next day she went to work and I found my SATs that I had thankfully taken before I dropped out. And I got my GED certificate and I called one university that was right by his [my husband’s] parents’ house in Florida, and I said “I need to apply for college.” And they said, “Fax your records to this number.” A few weeks later, they told me I’d gotten in. I went to college and ended up doing well and did well on the LSAT and went to law school and then became a lawyer.

What would you say is your mantra?

It’s sort of my way of life: “Turn anger into action.”
[My husband’s incarceration] was a situation – obviously, I was angry, he got taken to prison, and anger, while it’s a very natural feeling, is not really a productive feeling. But you can channel it into actually being productive. So that would be an example of when in my life I had to turn my anger into action. Another example is when I moved back to my hometown while I was in law school and was planning on raising my daughter there and one of the things that I quickly realized is that there was no affordable housing in the town I grew up in. I needed to be there because my mother was there and I needed help with my daughter while I was in law school. So I ended up finding an – extremely expensive but good deal for where it was – apartment in the town. It was like 600 square feet, it was tiny for my daughter and we lived there. A couple years later there was a city council seat that was open, and I decided to run for it to actually create some affordable housing. And although I had never been on a commission or a board or anything like that and I was the youngest person to ever run for the city council in my town, I ended up being elected and went on to serve for six years and served as the mayor of the town which gave me the opportunity to start an affordable housing fund that was based on an impact fee around new construction homes and remodeling homes that now has actually grown enough that it’s turning into affordable units. They’re building affordable units. And then on top of that, we were able to enact a policy for inclusionary housing. So if you’re building four apartments, one of them has to be an affordable apartment for somebody like me, when I was in that position, to live in. So that’s sort of my mantra is just like, anger is not really a productive feeling. Let’s turn that anger into action.

How would you describe the change in the political landscape for women over the past five years?

I mean, the last – it’s funny you say the past five years, because just today I was looking at some tweets from Senate Republicans and I was like, oh my God, things have changed so much, literally in the last five years. Politics as a whole has gotten nastier and way more divisive. There have been even more attacks on women. It’s disgusting, I hate that it happens. I’ve seen women attack women in politics, I see men attack women and it’s just not good for the overall movement.
I think that it will spur things like this, right where we see the value, even more so, in having women’s networks, where even when you disagree ideologically, from woman to woman that can be had. Right? And I wish that was true throughout all the politics. But I will say I think that change can begin with women. I think men can own that change and men can follow as they do in many areas of our lives. I think I’m hopeful that because things are so nasty and so divisive at this point, that it’ll be sort of the catalyst for a change in how politics are conducted, because at some point the American people are gonna get fed up with this and everybody is going to be kicked out of office, right? Like, you can’t be this nasty and not get things done for too long before people say, “Okay, we’re done with you guys.” So I’m hoping that the bridge building, the nicer politics that women can bring to the table are, are gonna prevail quickly.

If you could have somebody’s job for a day, whose job would you like to have and why?

I would love to have the job of Speaker of the House and just be able to sit people down and pull them together and take a different approach. I look at so many issues that have gotten so divisive in our country. Take an issue I’m not even working on at all, like gun control, and I talk to my friends who are on the left, and I always start with a very basic, like, I just wanna understand people’s perspectives, right? What is your relationship to a gun, for example? And, and folks on the left are like, “Oh, I’ve seen them in movies and tv, and they’re scary, and they kill people. I read about how they kill people every day.” I sit down and talk to a friend who maybe lives in Georgia and is a conservative, and “What’s your relationship to a gun?” “Oh, I used to go hunting with my dad and my grandpa, and I remember we would have these great hunting trips and we’d camp out and we’d make s’mores and would sit there and talk to each other about life or I remember we kept one behind the door because there was this pesky snake that was in the backyard that might bite the dog so we had to be ready with the gun and had to know how to shoot in case to tried to kill the dogs.” So for them, it’s like, oh, it’s, it’s a fond memory of like, bringing the family together around a hunting trip or it’s protection, like of course you’re gonna have different policy solutions, right? If you don’t start there and really share your perspectives on issues, and then from there move into sort of the common ground, “Well, have you ever been worried that something might happen to your child from being around a gun or at their school? Or don’t you wanna make sure that your child’s protected at school, right?” Then you can start, sort of find the common ground and then you can talk about the solutions, right?

I would love to be Speaker of the House for a day, sit everybody down, find the top five issues and just have some real conversation about perspectives and like, how did we get here? I know what policy solutions you want, but let’s talk about our perspectives and what personally drove you to that solution.

What advice would you give an aspiring young power woman today?

Trust your voice. I feel like I wasted literally years doubting “Should I raise my hand and say this thing and like, I don’t know, are people gonna laugh at me?” Trust your voice. I wish I would’ve earlier.

I think something clicked – I remember sitting in that college classroom, I felt like an imposter. Right? You have to remember, I had spent the last four years before – I was older than them, I’d spent the last four years bartending and now having a child and raising a child and I felt like I had nothing in common with them, I had forgotten everything I had learned in high school. And I remember I got called on by the psychology teacher and I literally had a panic attack. Like my heart rate’s doing this, I’m getting the like closed in like blackness. And I was just so scared to speak and whatever it was I was saying was great I’m sure, but it took a very long time for me to feel like, “kay, I’m smart. I know what I’m talking about I might be wrong and that’s okay.” Right? Even if I say something wrong, that’s okay. I say wrong stuff all the time. Everybody does. and being okay in that and being confident in sharing my journey of learning publicly. So that would be my advice.

Trust your voice, know that there’s brilliance to everyone and that it’s okay even if what you say falls short of brilliant, it’s, it’s fine. You just have to put your voice out there.

What steps do you feel you take to obtain a health work life balance?

This is an area where I have had to very much focus. I could be a workaholic and just work all the time. I have kids and I’ve always had kids, pretty much my whole life, I’ve had kids since I was 22. So that inherently forces some work-life balance, right? Like you have to step aside from work and, and focus on the kids. One thing that really helps me is consciously being present. So when I’m working, I’m working. When I’m with the kids, I’m with the kids. That said, obviously I don’t have a job that turns off at five o’clock, I have my phone. But putting aside my phone for dinner, sitting there engaging. “What did you do in school today?” Taking that full 30, 45 minutes. Actually having conversations with them to track what’s going on in their lives, making sure that they know that I care. Making sure that they know that I value and, and want to hear about their lives, then I’ll check in on my phone. “Mommy needs 10 minutes,” right? Look at the clock, check in on my phone, check emails, check text messages. What’s happening? If there’s something going on, I have a bill going up for a vote, something like that, telling my partner like, “Tonight is gonna be a busy night. I need your help with the bath. I need your help with making sure dinner time goes smoothly. We’re gonna order Uber Eats tonight because I don’t have time to clean up after dinner and cook and all that, right?” Telling the kids, “Hey, tonight’s a busy night for mom and I wanna talk to you about this, but instead you’re going to talk to Chris and tomorrow I will talk to you about this.” Just really being upfront about my expectations.

Another one is making sure, for me, I have to get my exercise. Like I am not somebody who is a happy person if I don’t exercise. So that means five, six days a week, I’m in the gym for an hour. I plan it into my schedule, I don’t let anything get in the way, it’s like, no excuses. It’s like taking a shower every day. You just do it, right? Unless I’m sick, of course, obviously that would be the one excuse. But making sure that I’ve built it into my life. So I will take a call on the way to the gym, then I have my hour at the gym, and then I will take a call on the way home from the gym, but like, that hour is my hour. I also feel pretty strongly about like just walking and moving and getting my steps and that is something else that I do if I’m at the office or if I’m at home, like I have a pair of sneakers in my bag or on my feet, and when I hit – the moment that it doesn’t need to be a Zoom call and it can just be a phone call, I’m outside and I’m walking and talking on the phone. In the height of the pandemic, I think it was like the only thing that kept me sane. I would pack up once the weather got a little bit better, we’re April or May-ish of the pandemic in 2020. I would pack up a little backpack with my water in it and my snack and my charger, and I would just go walk and take calls during the day, and that was like my ability to both keep my physical okay and keep my mental okay.

So I think you have to really lean in and know what that thing is. Maybe you need to meditate every morning. Maybe you need to read a book. Maybe you need to have a call with a friend. Maybe you need to talk to your therapist. Like whatever it is, making sure you have that protected me-time.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Probably to speak up more, and lean into the truth.

Best book read that you’ve had or you are having right now?

Right now I’m actually reading a really good book called Stolen that my friend Elizabeth [Gil[pin] wrote. But it’s about the troubled teen industry. I was actually sent to a boarding school. But just in terms of overall books, I read a bunch of books about healing trauma and just trying to figure out how to… The Body Doesn’t Forget is one that I really liked that sort of, kind of connected the physical and mental for me and helped me understand a lot more about myself.

What do you value the most in friendship?


What trait do you most deplore in yourself and in others?

In myself, I probably – I get frustrated with myself when I feel like I’m being lazy. That’s, that’s what I like – if I feel like I’m letting laziness take over… and with others, again, I come back to just, I don’t like dishonesty. I like it when people are just straight. Even if it’s gonna hurt my feelings, just tell me. Be real.

What do you consider as the most overrated virtue?

I think loyalty is often misunderstood. I think people mistake loyalty for somebody who will tell you whatever you want to hear or do whatever you want. I think what’s more important is having friends who are willing to have courageous conversations with you and willing to push back and help you grow and help you learn and, and who are just honest with you. So I think loyalty is the most misunderstood virtue.

“I think that change can begin with women. I think men can own that change and men can follow as they do in many areas of our lives. I think I’m hopeful that because things are so nasty and so divisive at this point, that it’ll be sort of the catalyst for a change in how politics are conducted.”

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