Alumni Fellows

Our Leading Edge Fellows from past years

Jessica Nowlan

Executive Director

Organization: Young Women's Freedom Center

Location: San Francisco, CA


Leading Edge Idea: To create a comprehensive strategy for the decriminalization of women, girls, and trans and gender non-conforming people of color.

What is your vision for your community?

Violence against cis and trans women and non-binary people at every level—in our families and communities, in institutions, and by the state—is so prevalent. But when those who understand deeply the implications of this violence hold leadership positions, and are able to stand in our power and come up with radical solutions, that’s where transformation begins. My vision is to engage the folks that understand the impact of this violence to lead all of us to liberation and freedom. We want to decriminalize and center the leadership of system-impacted cis and trans women and girls, and non-binary people of color through organizing, leadership development, policy work, legal strategies, and base-building.

How were you inspired to get involved in this work?

As a young person, I was on my own at 13, dropped out of school in the 7th grade and was incarcerated 17 times. I really came to the Center for a job. I heard they hired girls like me. What I found was folks like me who were standing in their power in a space where you could bring your full self, where you weren’t looked at as broken but as the one who had the answer. Realizing that I was powerful, that my voice mattered, changed the trajectory of my life.

What problem are you working to solve?

We are working to decriminalize and decarcerate women and girls and non-binary folks of color in California. Criminalization takes many forms. Violence, incarceration, the many systems that ensnare women and girls—from education, to foster care, to poverty systems including food stamps and housing — all of these are intricately related to oppression, racism and patriarchy. Together, we can radically transform these violent systems.

At what stage are you in your work?

In the past few years, we have set the groundwork by affirming our focus on growing with our people, building with our base, and standing in our power so we are ready for the next step. What has come from this groundwork is a radical brilliance and a different kind of thinking. We intentionally and organically developed a comprehensive five-point strategy for the state that we are launching now, which includes research, base building, community organizing, statewide policy, and legal and impact litigation.

What progress, if any, have you seen thus far in your work?

One success that really speaks to the power of building a strong base is the work we did that was inspired by the tragic death of Jessica St. Louis. Jessica was released from jail in the middle of the night last June without any support or assistance to get home. She was found dead at a BART station later the same night. Since we have a lot of folks who have experienced late night releases at the Center, we decided that we needed to hold Alameda County accountable for Jessica’s death. In the next 28 days, we worked with our Sister Warriors Coalition members to draft legislation barring late night releases, hold two direct actions, do a media campaign, and work with Jessica’s family make sure the intimate details of her life were guarded. We now have statewide support, including from the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, in working to end the practice of late night releases. That’s why it’s important to activate. People are ready to change our systems.

What barriers have you faced in achieving your vision of change?  

The formal structure of funding and the bureaucracy associated with it has been a real barrier to our work. I feel like we deserve funding; we are the ones best equipped to make these changes. We got this. But others don’t have that faith. Ninety five percent of our staff are formerly incarcerated, and only a few of us have degrees. We have 17-year-olds on staff, and we have 40-year-olds on staff. The outward facing, socially acceptable ways that get people to the next level in this work is a struggle sometimes.

How will the Leading Edge Fund fellowship help you to achieve your goals?

At the end of the day, we believe in shared leadership and we know that leadership is people. The Leading Edge Fund Fellowship gives us a platform to talk about this work and to share the work. I also am amazed by the other folks in the fellowship and excited to build with innovators who I really admire.

Who inspires you?

The people who inspire me the most are the women that I get to meet and work with. Last year, we hosted our first Sister Warriors convening, a first-of-its kind convening of cis and trans women and girls, and non-binary folks of color. It was the most powerful space I have ever been in because it affirmed my belief that we have the answers. And to see people who are able to share their stories and speak out—who haven’t traditionally had platforms for their power—energizes me.