Meet Jalesha Bass, a senior majoring in communication and leadership at the Moody College of Communication and this year’s recipient of the Student Legacy Award. We caught up with the Houston, Texas native to learn more about her social justice work, and how she’s helping young advocates transform their communities through the power of the written word. She was recently honored at the Nov. 5 Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights. Go here to read the recap.
Programs and activities: Institute of Engagement; Shift Press; XP3 Program; Fearless Leadership Initiative; Moody Mentor; Moody Success Scholars; Gateway Scholars Program; Orientation Advisor; Alternative Breaks, New Orleans 2019 Cohort; National Association of Black Journalists; Black Print; DDCE Study Abroad Program in Beijing, China, 2019 Cohort; Midtown College Church; CultureX Texas; Student Leadership Institute; Freshman Interest Group Mentor
How does it feel to be this year’s Student Legacy Award winner?
It warms my heart that people acknowledge the work that I do—and it’s so beautiful that this event honors Heman Sweatt, a man who has done so much for UT and the community! I’m proud to say that we both attended Jack Yates High School in Houston’s Third Ward, so my teachers back home were very excited when I told them I was being honored at this event!
What has been your proudest accomplishment during your time at UT Austin?
I’m most proud the nonprofit I started with my friends called the Institute of Engagement (IE). It’s a place where young people can connect with their communities, specifically in my hometown of Houston, Texas. We received a grant from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and started Shift Press, an online youth publication highlighting the ways young people influence power in Houston. I started this publication to give more power and influence to young writers (ages 12 to 26) without them needing an adult on board. They aren’t typically used as a primary source in news stories, so this is a way to give them a space to share their concerns, to be seen and heard, and to put their issues at the forefront.
What made you decide to come to UT Austin?
To be honest, I was more into organizing in my community and playing softball, so college wasn’t a big priority for me back in high school. The Gateway Scholarship really sealed the deal for me, and the UT Outreach-Houston [now renamed Youth Engagement Center-Houston] staff really influenced my decision to come here instead of a HBCU, which was my initial choice. They truly cared about me, and they deserve a lot of recognition for all the good work they’re doing with high school students.
How did the Fearless Leadership Program improve your experience at UT Austin?
I love FLI! It’s a relief to be surrounded by so many women of color to talk about issues affecting us—like what it means to navigate this campus as a Black woman and how to take care of ourselves emotionally. It’s a space where we could be our own authentic selves without having to code switch. They even encouraged me to study abroad—even when I didn’t think it was financially possible. I loved the weekend getaways, where we were surrounded by Black love. [FLI Directors] Thais and Tiffany gave the best hugs ever!
What life lessons did you pick up on your study abroad trip in China?
I learned a lot about social entrepreneurship, which is what I want to pursue after college. It was really helpful to see how social programs are embedded in the Chinese community, and to learn from other organizers. On a personal level, I gained a lot of self-confidence from my experiences navigating a foreign city without knowing the language. I found myself in some difficult situations—like when the police stopped us in the street to see our passports that we left back in our rooms! We were pretty anxious about being confronted by the police, but it resolved peacefully, and we learned that law enforcement in China is very different than what we’re used to dealing with in the states.
What’s next for you?
I’m now studying the Yoruba so I can travel to Nigeria and completely immerse myself in the culture. I also want to expand upon my nonprofit and apply for a divinity school so I can be a leader in my church. As for the long-term future, I’m not certain what’s in store. I do know that I want to help people transform their communities, and I want to give young people the power to create change.