Jessica Graham Forges Meaningful Relationships With Students and Communities

In 2005, Jessica Graham joined Citizen Schools as a Teaching Fellow at the Edwards campus in Boston, MA. Given her prior studies in education, her role in launching an afterschool program, and her wish to move to a more rigorous, structured organization like Citizen Schools, the Fellowship was a perfect fit. Since then she has taken on several more roles at Citizen Schools, and is now the Director of Civic Engagement in California. Although her newest position requires her to spend her time outside the classroom, the theme of her work has remained, in her words, “teaching and learning.” As a Teaching Fellow, Jessica quickly fell in love with working with middle school students. According to her, “middle school is the crucial time when kids can begin to see themselves in a different way than the community does, and can start to ask some very profound questions.” Because of this, Jessica was able to start forming close bonds with her students, and started to see the importance of the work Citizen Schools was doing to help communities. After losing a student to youth violence, she became even more committed to building a learning community based on equity and excellence. “Students really are making life or death choices, and it is never too early to start to talk to them about adult topics.” Becoming a Citizen Teacher Liaison during her second year as a Teaching Fellow allowed Jessica to take on more responsibility with volunteer management and build even deeper relationships with the communities and classrooms she was serving.

As Director of Civic Engagement, Jessica now manages corporate affairs and handles civic engagement on a bigger scale than she did before. However, more importantly to Jessica, she is still heavily involved in recruiting volunteers and helping them to realize their full potential. According to Jessica, many volunteers do not realize quite how much they can do just by teaching what they know and love to middle school kids, and she says, “I love that moment when a potential volunteer is able to say, ‘oh, ok. That’s what you do. I get it now.’”

And to Jessica, keeping these strong relationships between the students and teachers, schools and volunteers, and community and Citizen Schools is so important because they are at the core of how Citizen Schools operates. While some nonprofits work exclusively with teachers, others solely with students, and still others just with volunteers, “Citizen Schools is a cool trifecta of all of those things.” This is such an essential part of Citizen Schools for Jessica because the close bonds formed between colleagues, students, and mentors at the organization allows everyone, regardless of what job they have, to flourish and grow: “When you are truly teaching you are learning, and when you are truly learning you are teaching.”

The third part of Jessica’s current role at Citizen Schools is helping to organize major events for both the students and the volunteers that she works with. For example, last year she assisted in planning a networking event in California called “Six Degrees.” It was held at the Google headquarters in San Francisco, and allowed students to network and discuss possible career paths with volunteers. In Jessica’s opinion, “the volunteers were all wowed by the students, and the next day the students came to school walking a little bit taller.” It is through events like these that the full potential of middle school students becomes clear, and that Jessica sees the importance of the work Citizen Schools is doing in communities around the country.

Jessica could not have originally predicted the path her career has taken, but she sees herself staying on it in the future. To her, “Citizen Schools is well positioned to be a major model in the future, and I love that I can be a part of the solution here.” However, whether she is at Citizen Schools or at another organization, Jessica has set big goals both for herself and for the communities she is helping: “I envision a world where schools are just a starting point for education; where the city becomes the classroom… I want those lines to start to blur.”

According to Jessica, “I may no longer be a teacher, but I am still an educator,” and this belief allows her to stay allied with students and other volunteers despite the fact that she no longer works in the classroom with them. She believes it is necessary to work hand in hand with communities in order to make a difference, and she is currently doing just that: “You’ll fail so quickly if you just tell people how to do things… you need to learn from the community too. You need to think, ‘what can my community teach me?’’