By Catherine Brewster
If I had come down with COVID in New York City last fall, I know exactly who I would have wanted as a contact tracer: Jessica François ’10, now a graduate student at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. I've heard about several Commonwealth graduates working as contact tracers, but Jessica is the one I can imagine actually cheering me up if I'd just tested positive and was, as she said of most people she called, overwhelmed by public-health websites and full of questions.
This cheering up would start with knowing that Jessica knows her stuff. In six years of coordinating hundreds of volunteers at Rosie's Place in Boston and Sanctuary for Families in New York, she learned her way around landscapes in which nonprofit organizations bear the responsibility for everything from housing to phone service and laundry for women needing to restart their lives. The first women's shelter in the U.S., Rosie's Place now functions like a community center, offering everything from ESOL classes to legal assistance to a craft cooperative. Sanctuary for Families supports survivors of gender- based violence, which Jessica calls an "umbrella term" that has taken the place of the more limited and stigmatizing "battered women."
Jessica's expertise includes perspective on different funding structures: while both organizations offer a holistic array of services to the women they serve, Rosie's Place has relied entirely on private donations since its founding, while Sanctuary for Families uses primarily (60%–70%) public funds for everything from its Economic Empowerment Program to clinical and legal services. At the same time, Jessica says, "city and state governments pull the program in a lot of different directions." Most of all, she came to feel that it's "impractical and pretty appalling" to rely on nonprofits for such a crushing volume of needs. She saw Columbia's intense M.P.H. program as a chance "to go upstream and look at prevention: How is it that we are so overburdened? How can we keep individuals out of these situations?"
Like COVID, public-health problems never present themselves in a vacuum, and Jessica was grappling with these questions as a Black woman living in tumultuous times. In the summer of 2020, in particular, she recalls that she and many of her friends in Brooklyn felt both galvanized by the protests and "exhausted by the need for multilateral action. Social inequity and structural racism are so ubiquitous that protest also has to be ubiquitous. We really didn't know what to do with ourselves." One outlet: founding Public Assistants, which describes itself as a "mutual aid network, design lab, and resistance hub" that centers queer and BIPOC artists, originally housed in a former laundromat in Crown Heights. Artists, musicians, and an interior designer ripped out moldy acoustical tile and built plywood platforms over the conduits and pipes, started a paid youth residency in mural painting, and got a community garden up and running. They've since moved on from that space, with Jessica writing grant proposals and lining up pro-bono legal help along the way. She told me about Public Assistants when I asked what she thinks a better "upstream" might look like—a world in which fewer people have to turn to Sanctuary for Families. When I talked to her via Zoom this March, she was there, giving me a glimpse of a beautiful and quietly humming space.
In other words, Jessica started graduate school already knowing a lot about what she values: "a radical mindset" that also calls for "a lot of experts and a lot of work." Even as a Commonwealth student, she gave me insight into what one of Public Assistants' founders calls "radical joy." In my senior English class, she wrote a compelling account of how much fun it was to grow up on a street in Roxbury where all the kids played together. For another assignment, she argued for maintaining friendships outside Commonwealth, making a case I still refer to when I talk to advisees about keeping up relationships within their own neighborhoods as well as in our little building. Meanwhile, Jessica says she and Symone Williams ’09 talk all the time about how Commonwealth helped them learn that they love to travel. Through Summer Search and Amigos de las Américas, Jessica spent a summer teaching English in Nicaragua, and she went to the Dominican Republic for a senior project with Sandra Melo '10, who'd introduced Jessica to Commonwealth. Now, for the upcoming six-month practicum portion of her M.P.H. work, she's eager to live abroad. There are programs that look exciting in South Africa and Kenya, but her first choice is working on global mental health in Mexico City. She's been working on bringing back her Spanish via Zoom tutoring once a week: "I want to be fluent."
Turning thirty this year, plunged into deep and broad core courses alongside many fresh-out-of-college classmates, Jessica knows exactly what she wants out of Columbia's program. "When we talk about gender-based violence, everybody looks at me, but I'm there to learn new things," delving instead into topics like fast fashion and concentrating in sociomedical sciences. She's particularly struck by the complementary nature of qualitative and quantitative research. The quantitative approach, she says, "seems harder, but isn't," as she noticed particularly when she was introduced to Shannon Malone Gonzalez, the author of a study of how Black mothers in Texas talk to their daughters about the police ("Making It Home: An Intersectional Analysis of the Police Talk," Gender & Society, Volume: 33 issue: 3, 363-386). For that research, Gonzalez conducted hour-long telephone interviews with each subject and included time for them to ask the author about her own background and experiences with police.
While Jessica is working to master statistics, she suspects (and so do I) that she'll be "a bigger asset to qualitative studies," with her interest in the art of asking questions and weighing the harm as well as the benefits to study participants. Looking down the road to her next job, Jessica says, "I would love to be able to create a position that combines research, program planning and implementation, and getting resources allocated to marginalized communities." The priority in going back to school was to "get my brain working the way I want it to," in the service of "tackling a problem head on."
Catherine Brewster is an English teacher and twenty-one-year veteran of Commonwealth School. This article was published in the Summer 2022 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.