IGNITE is delighted to introduce Jessica "Jess" Riley as our new Austin fellow. We spoke with Jessica to discuss why she is excited to inspire women to step into their political power as a fellow.
IGNITE: It's lovely to meet you, Jessica! We're so excited to have you as our first Austin, TX Fellow. Can you talk about what inspired you to apply for the IGNITE Fellowship?
JR: I had the opportunity to serve as a member of, and eventually President for, the St. Edward's University College Chapter of IGNITE. Throughout these two years, we made significant impacts on our campus and the broader Austin community through voter registration, community-building events, and political advocacy. I am eager to utilize my experiences as a former chapter president and my training as a mezzo/macro social worker, to engage and support participants. I feel I could provide critical insight to the dynamics and needs of the broader Austin community while expanding and improving IGNITE program delivery and engagement in my area. I am extremely passionate about this organization, and I would love the opportunity to continue advancing the fight for gender equity and political representation.
IGNITE: IGNITE Fellows are political leaders in their communities. Can you tell us more about what your political leadership experience has looked like?
JR: In addition to serving as President of IGNITE SEU (2020-2021), I have had many other significant political leadership opportunities on and off-campus. I was highly involved in the Student Government Association, wherein I served as both a Senator, writing and adopting campus policy, and the External Affairs Director, focusing on outreach, student engagement, and voter registration.
I also served as Co-Chair of the College Student Commission at the City of Austin, which has been an instrumental experience for my political leadership development. In this role, I was tasked with crafting recommendations to the Austin City Council and advising them on issues that impact the quality of life of college students in our city. I primarily focused on issues relating to college food insecurity and defunding the Austin Police Department and university contracts.
IGNITE: Anything else?
JR: During my senior year of college, I also completed an internship with the National Association of Social Workers, Texas Chapter (NASW-TX), where I was able to advocate at the state capitol during the 87th session. This work mostly focused on policy that impacted social workers, the delivery of social services, and human rights. I spent the majority of the session fighting to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ Texans on behalf of NASW-TX. In addition to these experiences, I have also worked on political campaigns as a canvasser and assistant field/online organizer. I volunteered for two separate state senate campaigns in Oklahoma and a local environmental board campaign in North Carolina.
IGNITE: Building off the question about leadership, Fellows inspire those around them to exemplify leadership qualities as well. How would you define leadership?
JR: A true leader uplifts the voices of those around her, and guides the implementation of collective planning and action. As a social worker, my definition of leadership centers around amplifying the strengths of each individual and empowering a dynamic team. I have been able to employ this at the chapter level with IGNITE by building a community that establishes a sense of accountability not only to each other but to the organization and our mission-based goals.
I discovered the importance of these leadership traits through my work with the National Association of Social Workers, Texas Chapter (NASW-TX) during my senior internship. That's where I put these traits into practice through an initiative that I spearheaded with support of the national NASW membership office. Being an adaptable and organized leader has become even more essential since the Student Community forum has launched on the MyNASW online platform.
IGNITE: Getting more young women involved in politics and civics is an important part of changing the face of politics. Why do you believe civic engagement is important?
JR: Civic engagement is the foundation of democracy and vital to the political process. Our governments - local, state, and federal - are designed to serve the people, and people can only be truly served if their needs are communicated and valued. Empowering communities to reclaim their political voice and be civically engaged is essential because policy impacts lives. Civic education and engagement is especially important for young people, as we are the ones who will be impacted long-term by policy decisions being made today.
IGNITE: Speaking of political/civic engagement, how do you plan to mobilize other young women to get involved, especially during this time where a lot is still virtual?
JR: As incoming President of the IGNITE SEU chapter for the 2020-2021 year, I struggled with this question quite a bit, as I was coming in with no executive board or recurring members from the previous year. I learned a lot from this experience about community organizing and recruitment and left the chapter with a full e-board of nine officers and approximately 17 general members. As the Austin Fellow, I will employ strategies learned throughout my chapter president role and other organizing experiences. Online events and social media challenges are just a few engagement strategies that have been found to be effective in a remote world. I am eager to make connections with IGNITE leaders and participants to understand how programming could be shifted to improve engagement and mobilize change.
IGNITE: You seem to be very involved in the Austin community. With that said, is there anything you'd want to change in the community? If so, what and why?
JR: The harmful impacts of Austin'sAustin's recent passage of "Prop B," a citywide camping ban, have highlighted the horrific levels of housing insecurity in our community. Basic needs security, specifically access to affordable and safe housing, is not guaranteed - especially in large metropolitan areas such as Austin. If I could make a legitimate change in my community, I would ensure that everyone was housed. This chronic issue has splintering impacts as well and is holistically intersectional. For example, people who menstruate are uniquely impacted by homelessness because of their need for and lack of period products. Social theory tells us that people cannot be empowered (politically or otherwise) until their basic needs are secured. Therefore, access to affordable housing is essential to the mission of IGNITE, and the pursuit of justice.
IGNITE: Thank you for your insightful answers, Jessica! Is there anything you'd like to share as we wrap up?
JR: IGNITE made such an impact in my life throughout college. It is such an honor to continue working with this organization post-graduation, to empower others to be the political leaders they are meant to be. I cannot wait to learn and grow alongside the 2021-2022 cohort! I aim to be a better leader, stronger woman, and more prepared future candidate throughout this fellowship. Thank you so much to everyone who has lifted me up and helped me get here!
More about Jessica
Jessica "Jess" Riley is the IGNITE Fellow for Austin. She is a recent graduate from St. Edward'sEdward's University, holding a Bachelor'sBachelor's of Social Work with a minor in Political Science. Through her time at St. Edward'sEdward's, Jess held many leadership positions, including President of her IGNITE college chapter, Senator and External Affairs Director for the Student Government Association, and Executive Secretary for Social Work Student Association. Jess was also a member of the Model UN team for the International Affairs Society. In her two terms as Co-Chair for the College Student Commission, Jess advised the Austin City Council on issues that impacted the 150,000+ college students in the city. Jess also interned with the National Association of Social Workers Texas Chapter (NASW-TX), where she fine-tuned her skills as a community organizer, coalition builder, and legislative advocate/lobbyist at the state level. She aims to one day hold political office at a local or state level. For Austin inquiries, contact email@example.com.