In 2018, Jessica was recruited by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (ACDHS) to launch the Office of Equity and Inclusion. Fueled by her passion to be a force for change, she leads efforts to uplift under-resourced communities and reshape systems to set people of all backgrounds up for success. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed even deeper disparities in the systems meant to serve county residents, igniting more urgency in Jessica’s work than ever before. Every day, Jessica embraces a sense of purpose she cultivated over many years and across many institutions, including The Ellis School. She says the principles promoted in her school environment inspire her to be a changemaker in the Pittsburgh community to this day.
Jessica’s excitement for her work is so palpable, one would never guess her path to this role was unplanned. "When I started my undergraduate journey at the University of Pittsburgh, I struggled to find my way,” she said. “I thought I would go into sports medicine but quickly realized it wasn’t for me, so I focused on completing my required core courses. By my second or third year, I still couldn’t figure out what to do.”
While attending classes, Jessica began working in early childhood education with toddlers, and later, infants—an early step on the road to her calling. "Working in the infant classroom was so amazing that I quit school to work there full-time,” she shared. "Part of my job was writing updates for parents about their child’s development. One day, I wrote one for a child whose mother—a member of Pitt’s Education faculty—read it and said, 'What are you doing? We love you as a teacher, but we know you can do more.’ She wasn’t telling me more than what my family was at the time, but just that encounter helped me realize that I did have strong relationship-building and communications skills that could be a benefit while working to help people.”
Newly inspired, Jessica went back to Pitt and graduated in 2006 with a degree in urban studies, setting off a career in which each new role would allow her to grow more and more connected to and invested in the communities of the Pittsburgh region. She completed a year in AmeriCorps helping women start their own businesses, supported children with incarcerated parents with Amachi Pittsburgh, trained and coached emerging leaders through her work with Public Allies/Coro Pittsburgh, and helped support community-based research through her role as the inaugural director of the Social Justice Institutes at Carlow University. All of these roles fueled her passion beyond helping people to strategize to work toward social justice.
"I became frustrated by how systems worked against people,” Jessica explained. "For example, it’s fine to provide mentors to children with incarcerated parents, but how do we address why their parents were incarcerated and separated from their families in the first place, and why these families were disproportionately families of color, particularly Black families? The government has played a central role in the racial inequities that we observe today. It will continue to perpetuate those inequities unless there are intentional interventions to address them.”
"Government plays an important role in achieving social justice, so I went to work for the government. Helping people think critically about the structures at play against people, is what I strive for every day. When we eliminate barriers and create systems that work for ALL people, we all win.”
Jessica said her exposure to the diversity at Ellis laid a foundation for this type of critical thinking. "I went to a predominantly Black elementary and middle school in the historic Hill District. Then I came to Ellis, a school with people of different races, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This first exposure ignited my curiosity and desire to better understand how our society operated and why there were people that had great access and others that didn’t. From my upbringing, I knew that it took more than hard work to gain access. I learned a great deal from my schoolmates and count myself blessed to have learned alongside them. That said, it wasn’t the easiest experience, so I’ve always had a mind to pay back and explore ways in which diverse environments, like the one I experienced at Ellis, could embrace difference, while at the same time fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging.”
At the height of the pandemic, she and her team partnered with leaders who serve Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, refugee, and immigrant communities to ensure that the COVID-19 mitigation strategies, available resources (i.e. technology, food, etc.), and later immunization information, were responsive to community needs and delivered by trusted community advocates on the platforms and in the languages that the communities needed. In addition to equity work, Jessica leads marketing and community engagement efforts for ACDHS, focusing on fostering trust and collaboration between community members and local government.
When it comes to cultivating a positive community, Jessica said that the guiding principle she sets for herself and her team is to act with integrity—upholding our commitment to serving our community and acting responsibly with the trust that we’ve built. It is hard to gain trust back once it is lost.
"It’s not about us, or anything we can gain; it’s about filling a community need, and we all have a role in this, we have to play our position,” she said. "The pandemic is a powerful example of what building community can look like. One of the things that made me proud to be a Pittsburgher was how that natural benevolence kicked in when the crisis occurred. Neighbors didn’t just bake bread, they left loaves on their neighbors’ porches. Communities huddled together where one parent would help support children in virtual learning environments, while other parents worked. Organizations, like churches and schools, developed programming to make sure children and seniors had access to food, the internet, and trusted adults. Cultivating a positive community is all about seeking and embracing opportunities to help.”
In addition to providing direct service, Jessica said another key way she strives to foster a positive community is by leveraging her position of leadership and influence for good. She achieves this not only through her work with ACDHS, but through volunteer and board service.
"I only serve on two boards and they are very meaningful to me,” she shared. "One, Hilltop Alliance, supports my neighborhood’s development—because we now have three generations of my family that were raised in Beltzhoover following the migration of my grandparents, Thomas, Sr. & Juanita Ruffin, and John & Sarah Reed in the 1960s. I feel deeply connected to that neighborhood and am so proud and committed to supporting and maintaining that connection for my family. The other is the Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise (PACE), a capacity-building agency for nonprofits, most of which are small to mid-sized, and are led by or serving Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). I feel helpful in these spaces because of my personal guiding principles and my profession. When identifying your sphere of impact, I think you just have to be thoughtful about how and where is best for you to show up, and build personal connections in advance, if you can.”Her Advice to Community Leaders
Jessica summed up the key to success—especially in a government service career—in a timeless adage.
"Believe in yourself,” she said. "It sounds cliche, but you'll encounter many challenges and barriers. Some will emerge unexpectedly, and some will be caused by decisions you’ve made. Don’t be discouraged, these are the best opportunities to learn. To succeed, you need to navigate those challenges, and the only way to do that is to trust and believe in yourself, and know that you have a lot to offer this world.” Jessica also added, "Even if you're perfect with no opportunities for growth, at the very minimum, don’t forget to vote! Being an informed voter is an act of resistance. Although chaotic and disheartening at times, don’t drown the world out. Please be critical of the information you take in. The facts will make themselves known, you just have to have enough integrity to check them.”
The diversity of the courses at Ellis was foundational to Jessica’s ability to believe in herself and hold herself accountable, even though she said she did not fully realize it during her time there. As an adult, she recognized that the Ellis faculty are experts in their field, an experience that most students don’t get until college. At an early age, they introduced her to experiences and ideas she may not have otherwise explored.
"I remember being in English class and we were reading parts of the Bible. As a Christian, I had never seen the Bible presented as a piece of literature,” she recalled. "I remember going into that course thinking, 'Oh, I’ve got this.’ But then [the teacher (Dr. Free)] pushed me to analyze the text in a completely different way. She inspired me to not simply take what people say about a subject at face value but to be critical and analyze those subjects for myself. This has helped me both personally and spiritually.”
Her drive to be of service to others also has foundational roots in The Ellis School. She caught the 'service bug,’ as she called it, in a two-week mini-course where she and several classmates were tasked with determining how to be of service to a community development organization located where 'The Corner’ is now in West Oakland. Experiences like this taught her valuable lessons about how to lead a team, how to execute the logistics of a service project, and the importance of showing up to make a difference.
Among the many benefits that Ellis offered her, Jessica said she is especially grateful for enduring friendships. "Some of my schoolmates represent the best people in the world to me,” she said. "They’re brilliant changemakers in the journeys that they’ve chosen. They’ve been there for me at the most critical parts of my life. They show up at unexpected times to encourage and remind me that we’ve got each other. Even though we live in all parts of the country and the world, and we don’t see each other every day, when we reconnect, it’s like no time has passed. We support and look out for one another, and I’m forever grateful to Ellis for that.”