From IWU Magazine, Spring 2016

Searching for the right place

Jessica Meyer

Meyer shows her love for Detroit. She says she “bikes everywhere in the city to understand the environment and city I work in.”

As part of the “Work That Matters” panel, Jessica Meyer ’11 had advice for students wanting to use passion and education to help others in need: don’t push yourself so hard you burn out; find the best place and the best pace to make a difference.

This judicious advice might surprise classmates who recall Meyer as a student, when she was involved in so many activities you might be forgiven for wondering if she had a twin. As a social activist and peace advocate, Meyer was off and running her first year of college, starting the Amnesty International chapter at IWU. As a Peace Fellow, she established the University’s organic Peace Garden and helped organize many educational events. For the campus radio station, WESN, she served as both business manager and promotions director. And she was an active volunteer in the community, founding Renegades for Peace and winning the American Friends Service Committee’s “Organize the Hope” fellowship.

“I really loved the opportunity that IWU gave me to just do whatever the heck I wanted,” Meyer says, advising current students that “if you feel like there’s something you’ve wanted to do but haven’t tried it, this university is amazing about giving you the opportunity to just run with it. They’re very supportive of that.”

An international studies major, Meyer also sought study-abroad experiences as a student, enrolling in Illinois Wesleyan’s London Program. Wanting “to go abroad in a place that wasn’t Europe,” she spent the summer and fall of her senior year in Johannesburg, South Africa, creating peace and conflict-resolution workshops for communities and schools. But in trying to help some of the estimated 340,000 South African children under age 14 who have HIV or AIDS, Meyers saw firsthand the limits of good intentions. “I just didn’t feel like I was doing anything.”

“It was a really depressing time, and so I was coming back to IWU and graduating, and my world was totally flipped upside down — I did not know if I wanted to stay with human rights, I did not know if I wanted to stay international,” says Meyer.

While trying to get her bearings, Meyer decided to apply for the AmeriCorps City Year program, making a 10-month commitment to work in a high-poverty community and school district. She chose a city where she felt she would be needed most: Detroit.

“It was the most amazing year I had had of my life,” she recalls. “I felt like I was making a difference, I had relationships with students, I had a support group around me of 10 people who knew exactly what I was going through every single day, and I felt that this is what I wanted to do.”

Those good feelings faded when she was hired to be her school’s first college transitions advisor, with the task of creating individualized post-graduation plans for every senior. She found her job was more about meeting unrealistic goals and metrics rather than addressing the barriers for success students would face after high school. 

“I was working with students who were being raped on their way to school, who were being murdered after school as soon as they walked outside, teachers that were being murdered — and I had to get 90 percent acceptance into college — just ridiculous metrics that I was meeting.”

Without a support system of fellow workers, Meyer found she had no one with whom she could share her feelings. It didn’t help, she adds, that in this hopeless task she was often told, “You’re a martyr. I couldn’t do what you are doing.” Eventually, the contradictions drove her to a state of despair and a suicide attempt. Her openness about her experience, she feels, “is a way to start the conversation about self-awareness and self-empowerment, especially for those in similar fields of helping others.”

Taking some months off to recover and heal, Meyer couldn’t get her career in focus until a friend actually quit his job and offered it to her. She began working for D:hive Detroit, now Detroit Experience Factory, a kind of one-stop welcome shop to connect both newcomers and longtime residents to everything Detroit has to offer. “So you walk in and say, ‘I need a place to live,’ or ‘I need an internship,’ and we help you with that,” she explains. “On paper, it’s not really connected to social justice, international studies or human rights, but it was a place that made me feel a sense of purpose, a place where I was smiling every day.”

In 2015, Meyer helped found the Build Institute as its director of programming. A spin-off of D:hive, Build was designed to help Detroit residents turn business ideas into reality by providing access to education, resources and a support network. “Right now they’re at around 800 people taking the class,” she reports. “Seventy percent are female, 65 percent are minority, 85 percent are low- to moderate-income, and they’re coming from all neighborhoods of Detroit and beyond. So it’s an entrepreneurship and small business program that Detroit had never seen before.

“I could see the impact of the work I was doing every day,” she adds. “I can physically go into the storefront of small business owners who went through our eight-week business plan development class or see the number of minority-, female-owned businesses growing. We aren’t waiting to see if our work is impacting Detroit in five to 10 years. We know it is right now. It’s incredibly empowering.”

In January, she took the position of director of engagement at Human Scale Studio, an urban consultancy firm working to help revitalize Corktown, Detroit’s oldest extant neighborhood, through public-space and small-business development. It’s not a career she would have expected just a few years before, says Meyer, who last year was named a 2015 American Express Emerging Innovator. But she feels her journey offers an important lesson to current students. “The person you are now, and the things you believe, will not be who you are six years from now, seven years from now, 10 years from now.”

She is still fulfilling what she feels is her life mission, helping people, but on a scale that is comfortable to her. “There’s also a misconception that you need to be helping everybody in the world. In this particular area, go as small as you need to go; it’s okay.”

For students who want a career in work that matters, Meyer believes that “empowering the people you are helping is the heart of what you are doing. It’s more like you are in the shadows and lifting them up to actually do the work: that’s where you’re going to find the most impact.”