To Have Without Holding: A Farewell Message

I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy lately. (Haven’t we all….) But I’ve been ruminating on democracy not so much in institutional terms, as might be the norm. Instead, I think of how our democracy is impacted by what is essentially the cumulative effects of individual, daily, sometimes seemingly mundane choices we make – where and with whom we live, how and where we obtain our information about the world around us, how we engage with our work (paid or unpaid) and make meaning of it.

Indeed, the choices we make that appear small are actually quite consequential if you believe, as I do, that everything is connected to everything else.

So when Jessie let the team at Healthy Democracy know that she was leaving the organization to pursue a law degree,  I gave myself about five minutes to grieve the loss of a key staff member to a small but increasingly influential organization that itself is in continued motion and transition.

Mind you, a lot of grieving got compacted in that five minutes when I surveyed the impending loss:  Jessie’s incalculably valuable contributions to the further improvement and codification of the Citizens’ Initiative Review and its Key Quality Elements. The professional support she expertly delivered to multiple CIRs held in four different states over the past year and the respect and trust she earned from our in-state partners. Her creativity both in thinking about ways to spread the CIR to other states and jurisdictions and in thinking expansively about other program innovations that would support and advance the Healthy Democracy mission. Her careful maintenance of Healthy Democracy’s social media feeds as credible and scrupulously non-partisan. And that’s not to mention her almost-freakish facility with Canva, the design tool used for the majority of Healthy Democracy’s Twitter and Facebook posts.

These are things that might seem technical in nature and thus replaceable, but that is far from the truth – because what Jessie also has brought to all of this work is a profound integrity, an alignment of inner values and outer behavior that is so vital to Healthy Democracy’s mission. An integrity that will no doubt also inform her engagement with whatever area of law she chooses to pursue. To put it bluntly: integrity is not a characteristic that I always find in abundance these days.

Thus, after my five minute submersion in abject self-pity, my next reaction to the news of Jessie’s departure was simply: You go, girl. I applaud, support, and uplift in any way possible Jessie’s path to take her place in a new power structure in this country’s essential web of democratic institutions. It is a place where she stands to have enormous impact and where she will continue to carry her singular commitment to justice and fairness – with integrity and intelligence and of course with her trademark joy and compassion.

It is a conflicted place to be in, for sure – to feel sorrow at saying farewell to a treasured colleague but to eagerly await news of this next chapter in a life that has already impacted so many people in so many ways. I am reminded of a Marge Piercy poem, “To Have Without Holding” – in that title is the paradox we now face.  We will always have the influence of Jessie’s time with us, and we know that her influence stands its best chance of being fully realized once she leaves us for a larger stage, where her talents can be applied to the very systems and structures that Healthy Democracy works to improve.

So it is with profound gratitude that we commend Jessie to her new life in Virginia, and look forward to regular dispatches from none other than Thomas Jefferson’s original “academical village.”

As Thomas Jefferson likely never said in 1819 when UVA law school was founded – but almost certainly would have if he knew Jessie: You go, girl!