INTERVIEWED BY SAMANTHA JOO
In our last Spring workshop, “Visualize into Reality,” Jessica Li played a semi-prank on me. I had invited Jessica Li and her co-facilitator, Mariam Rauf, to stay with me since they were planning to spend a couple more days in Colorado. But they had other plans. Then all of a sudden, Jessica tells me that their plans had changed and needed to stay with me. My head was racing because the house was a disaster and my mother (I am her primary caretaker for now) was really sick. I was taught to be hospitable and I was trying to figure out how to get the house ready while I was at the workshop in Lakewood with a sick mother at home in Aurora. She let me sweat for 5 minutes. At the end of that extremely long 5 minutes of planning and trying to figure out who to call, she tells me she was joking…
Had it been someone else, I would have figured out I was being pranked because well, I play pranks all the time. But I did not expect it from Jessica. You see, Jessica has a very quiet, professional demeanor. She is the person who you know will always pull through once she makes a promise. She does not goof around because business is business. So when she played the prank on me, I was taken aback. I never saw this lighthearted playful side of her. I felt privileged to have seen a different side of her. It was a sign that she felt comfortable with me. Maybe too comfortable :)
Jessica takes her work seriously. She will not commit unless she knows she can deliver. This is the reason why I decided to work with her on our expansion into the Bay Area. I knew that she would do her utmost to ensure the success of the workshop. She is not just responsible, committed, and professional. She believes in the mission so that her involvement is more than just a job but a passion. She has devoted herself to empowering womxn of color. That is the reason why she decided to become a consultant focused on helping them “own their power” after 10 solid years of being in the nonprofit sector (https://www.jessayden.com). I know, 10 years already and she is still so young. Well, compared to me, she is young in years but definitely more emotionally mature than I can ever be. But then a 10 year child is more mature than I am. I am wise beyond my years but come up short in maturity.
I, a wise woman, am always impressed with the wealth of knowledge and experience she brings to the table. She knows what she is talking about and definitely walks the walk. Her advice to other womxn of color is not from some textbook on empowerment. No. Who can learn from a book about empowering women! She has lived through and has adeptly handled the most awkward and difficult situations. She knows how to handle power dynamics in the workplace because she has personally navigated her professional career in a very white world. Would I consult with her if I was trying to find my place in the workplace? Hell yes, in a heartbeat. I am actually requiring the facilitators in Denver consult with her. I want to make sure that our facilitators are trained by her. That’s how much I trust her judgment.
Lest you be concerned about her well-being since she takes her work very seriously, don’t worry. She is not always business. Like I said, she has a wonderful sense of humor. And because of the stress she has endured during her years in nonprofit, she has learned to take care of herself. Again all from her personal experience. She has even tried to coach me about self-care. But I can be a little stubborn. Yet, she has instilled in me a need for self-love especially during the most stressful times. I was not an easy student but I can still change. Just a little.
It was really an honor to get a chance to talk with her, to learn about her upbringing and the challenges she has faced and conquered. I am inspired by strong women and Jessica Li is without question quite the powerhouse, despite her petite size. She is shorter than I am. Yes, I do have a big smile. But she is not small in her energy, her fierceness, and her compassion.
Sam: What initially interested you to enter the social impact sector?
Jessica: I’d always been interested in volunteering and making a change in my community. It was a seed that was planted in me very early on. I was a latch-key kid with immigrant parents who were always working so I had to grow up quickly. As a kid, I was teased by American kids for not being American enough and by the Asian kids for not being Asian enough. My closest friends were characters found in books I read and adult neighbors, all of whom served as great role models for me. I learned how important and fun volunteering was from books; I learned about social justice issues from adults. However, the real shift happened in 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore for the popular vote. I was too young to vote in that election so I spent an entire semester volunteering for the Gore campaign. As a teenager, it was the only way I could have a say in who would become my president. And so imagine my disappointment when I realized that everything I knew could be easily overturned with money and power and that the people's voices didn't always matter. That's when the spark of passion for social justice issues was truly ignited within me, and I decided to pursue it as a career.
Sam: What do you think contributed to your "success" in the nonprofit sector?
Jessica: I’ve been privileged in many ways. As a first generation immigrant, I started helping my parents run their cleaning business when I was eight years old. They didn't speak English, and they weren't familiar with the laws and systems in the U.S. By the time I went to college, I already had 10 years of part-time work experience under my belt. I gained a wealth of transferable skills in operations and management. I learned how to budget, market to consumers, supervise employees, and became familiar with the laws that affect the operations of a business. All of these skills, combined with my education, set me up for success in finding a job during the recession. Since then, I've been blessed with having mentors (always womxn of color who believed in lifting up other womxn of color). They helped me move up in my career. I also always sought out opportunities for professional development so that I could learn new skills and improve existing ones. And I also learned to accept my failures as teaching moments for myself.
Sam: Why did you decide to start your own business as a consultant?
Jessica: The idea of opening my own practice first came to mind when I realized just how much older my parents were getting and that I wanted to spend more time with them. By then, I'd worked in non-profits for almost 15 years and served as an Executive Director for several organizations. I was looking to grow in a new direction with a lifestyle that would allow me to have more free time and ability to work on a variety of causes. Consulting and coaching gives me that.
Sam: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Why?
Jessica: I have so much that I want to do. For me, working on social justice issues such as ending violence against women and co-conspiring for equity with marginalized communities have been a part of my career, and I see it as a life-long commitment. An upcoming project for me is to find a way to reduce the financial barriers that exist for people with disabilities and service dogs. Getting a service dog is expensive! The average cost is $20k - $30k, and health insurance doesn't cover it. I can see myself starting and running an organization in 10 years that works to close this gap.
Sam: How do you take care of yourself every day to undo the stress?
Jessica: I believe self-care is a holistic (body-mind-spirit) practice that we have to deliberately engage in every day. A big part of my self-care is structuring my time in a way that works for me. I've had a 4-day work week for almost four years now, I take mini-vacations every few months, and I schedule "Jessica time" for when I need more introverted moments to re-energize. I also practice mindfulness, and I sing to work on my breath. My latest challenge is healthy eating and exercising. I struggle to go to the gym, so lately I've found other ways to engage in fitness (i.e. bouldering and ice skating). I also work to hold myself accountable (and have my partner support me on that as well). My dog, Hansyn, is a great accountability partner! Everyday, he tells me to when it's time to finish my workday I can feed him his dinner.
Jessica Ayden Li is a non-profit consultant, trainer, mentor, and advocate. She has over 10 years of experience working with non-profit organizations and in the social sector. She is passionate about ending gender-based violence and promoting immigrant and refugee rights. Jessica previously served as the Executive Director of San Francisco SafeHouse as one of a few woman leaders of color in non-profits in San Francisco. She was also the Executive Director at the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project in Washington, D.C. She has also served as the Public Outreach Officer with the United Nations Mission in Sudan and worked with the International Rescue Committee, advocating on behalf of internally displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers. Most recently, Jessica was the Director of Impact Initiatives at the LeaderSpring Center in Oakland where she focused on leadership development in the non-profit sector and trainings on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She spends her free time traveling around the world and hanging out with her rescue dog, Hansyn.