Jessica Jackson Sloan’s professional journey has been driven by a mixture of passion and necessity. She was a housewife in Georgia and mother to a baby daughter, when her husband at the time was sentenced to six years in prison for a non-violent offense.
Her world was turned upside down; not only had she been left to raise a child on her own, but she experienced firsthand the horrid effects of our system of mass incarceration, and she became determined to fix it.
She went back to school – first to get her GED, then her undergraduate and finally her law degree. She could have gotten a safe, comfortable job working for the government, but after graduating from law school, she took another risk: she joined forces with Van Jones and started #cut50, which aims to half the prison population in the next 15 years.
Today she bounces between meetings on Capitol Hill, to creative brainstorms at San Quentin Prison (where #cut50 partners on a cool media project), to meetings at Mill Valley City Hall – because she’s the Mayor – duh.
Her story isn’t linear, but that’s what makes it powerful: for every set back, she was able to arise stronger. We hope she in turn inspires you, as she did us.
Allie Hoffman and Ally Bogard: What have you triumphed over?
Jessica Jackson Sloan: I was able to turn my husband's incarceration into my own activism, and become an advocate for other families who were in a similar situation. I feel like my biggest personal triumph was making peace of what had happened and being able to find the courage to speak about it and share my story with other people.
It was very difficult to get past some of the stigma that's associated with having a loved one incarcerated, and it took me a long time to be able to open up and share my story.
Hoffman and Bogard: What would be the most surprising part of your professional journey that the people that know you best, don't know about you?
Jackson Sloan: I think most people don't realize that I didn't come to the issue of criminal justice once I was a lawyer. Most people don't know that I left high school. I never graduated. I got my GED and I wasn't planning on going to college until I ended up getting a front seat vision of the criminal justice system and seeing first hand how broken it was.
That's what inspired me to go to college and go to law school. Before that happened, I was a housewife in Georgia.
Hoffman and Bogard: What would you say is the most adventurous or riskiest thing you've every done professionally?
Jackson Sloan: When I came out of law school, I already had a seven-year-old daughter, who I was raising on my own. So I had the responsibility of supporting a daughter on my own as well as paying my bills. I got a great job working for the government during my third year of law school representing death row inmates. It was a steady paycheck, work I loved doing, and the security of a pension. But I took a leap of faith when I met Van Jones – I left all of that stability to come over and start #Cut50. I think just knowing the risk I was taking and the positive or negative effect it could have on my daughter's life, and my own financial stability – that kept me up late at night. I was certainly worried about leaving so much stability to come over and start something I believed in, but it ended up working out really well. We've been in startup mode for a couple of years now, but I feel like we finally really found our groove and are doing some really important work. I'm so glad I took the risk.
Hoffman and Bogard: If you could attribute your success to only one person in your life, who would that be and why?
Jackson Sloan: My mom. My mom came over from Sweden to the US to go to college. She met my dad, fell in love and had me. They ended up moving to graduate school together in Auburn, AL to do their PhDs. Once they got divorced, my mom really followed her heart. She followed her passion: AIDS prevention. She got into the profession back in the mid 1980s when the AIDS epidemic had really just broken. [She] picked up her own life and me and moved out to San Francisco to really get on the ground floor and help people. Advocacy and activism even in an epidemic is not a lucrative path, so she took a huge chance.
She could've gone into private practice, made a whole bunch of money, been very comfortable, but instead she really followed her passion to help people who were getting sick with HIV and AIDS and were dying and being ignored by the government.
A lot of the work that she's done has been around reducing stigma for those who have been infected with HIV and AIDS, and in many ways the two populations (people who are incarcerated and people who are sick) have many shared battles when it comes to overcoming public perception and being able to change laws and advocate for resources that they need. I think my mom's probably influenced my path the most and taught me that life isn't about money. It's about following your passion and helping others.
Hoffman and Bogard: What would you say is the largest professional failure you've experienced thus far?
Jackson Sloan: When I came out of law school, I signed up for one of these bar courses and I worked day in, day out. I studied around the clock. I made sure I wasn't going out late. I tried to sleep as much as I could at night. My grandmother came over from Sweden to help me with my daughter and I studied non-stop for three months for that bar exam. Four months later I got my test results and I had failed by three points. That was the biggest setback I've had professionally. I remember sitting there in front of the computer; they don't say, "You've failed the bar exam." They say, "Your name does not appear on the pass list." I remember saying those words over and over. My daughter was sitting next to me, we had the bottle of champagne ready.
It was a huge blow. I had to find the strength the next day to pick back up those books and start studying again, knowing it was going to be even harder the second time because I didn't have the luxury of taking time off work. I was also feeling pretty hopeless and defeated.
I think it was even a bigger hit because I came to college as a single mom with a GED whose husband was incarcerated. I had really just thrown myself into the work, earned my place in honors college, gotten into law school, graduated law school as the outstanding graduate from my law school. I had been validated so many times.
This was the first time I think that I really stopped and questioned, "Wait a minute. Am I supposed to be a lawyer? Am I good enough to do this?” It was very much one of those moments that you have to find it in yourself to get back on the horse and acknowledge that you're not perfect and that things aren't always gonna be easy and that you just still have to keep trying to fight that. I definitely struggled with a lot of insecurity around my own intelligence at that point. Ultimately, I forced myself to get back on that horse and take the test again and I passed.
Hoffman and Bogard: If you could go back to an earlier version of you that was struggling and building, what do you wish you knew?
Jackson Sloan: Don't care what other people think. I spent a lot of time when I was in my 20s being hesitant to speak up because I was worried what other people would say or think. I was worried if it would fit whatever mold, I worried about sounding stupid.
What I've learned now that I'm in my mid 30s and a mother to two girls, is that nothing you say is stupid as long as you're speaking the truth. That took me a very long time to understand, and it's something I'm trying to teach to both of my girls.