Jennifer Riley-Collins will tell you that selfishness was a large motivator behind her life of social justice and advocacy. But her definition of “selfish” — advocating for the underrepresented in part as a means of improving the world for her sons — might be a bit atypical.
Riley-Collins is the new vice president of advocacy for the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which she came to from her previous post as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi.
In her new job, Shriver said she intends to help position the center to make an even stronger impact for the next generation.
“The impact the center would have on this nation on issues related to poverty are limitless, so I’m glad to be here,” she said. “I left the ACLU to come here because I feel like we need to go where our skills sets have the greatest impact on what we’re called to do.”
Riley-Collins talks to us more about her diverse career and the future of advocacy under Donald Trump.
CL: When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
Riley-Collins: I was in sixth grade reading book about different professions. When I came up to the role of an attorney [in the book], I knew it was what I was supposed to do. I feel like I have a calling, if you can call it that, to this profession. I remember I was wearing Earth Shoes and a khaki outfit … that’s how clear that is in my mind. I did not have a direct path to law school; I was in the military as an intelligence officer, but I just knew I was supposed to be a lawyer. I’ve practiced family law and criminal law, but I really got into social justice while doing medical malpractice and pharmaceutical litigation. I volunteered at one of the lawyer committees on the Mississippi bar, and the one that I really enjoyed the most was the child advocacy committee.
CL: How did you come to appreciate advocacy?
Riley-Collins: What started out as volunteer work stirred up my gift of advocating on behalf of other people. In law school is where I learned I would do well in advocacy. The criminal law classes, the child advocacy classes — that’s where I was flourishing. Also, I volunteered for that committee with a selfish agenda: At that time, I was a single mother raising three young men of color in Mississippi. I figured if I would sow in the lives of other children, I could reap in the lives of my three sons.
CL: What was your stint in the military like?
Riley-Collins: As an intel officer, I was trained very early on how to think all the way down the battlefield. Think long, think strategically and think backwards from what I hope to accomplish. The military also helped me multitask: As a reservist, you must strike a balance between your civilian career and your military career. Most upwardly mobile people are going to do what it takes to move to the next level, and in the military you must be upwardly mobile or you don’t survive. It taught me to “flexicute” — a term I coined many years ago, meaning to be flexible and execute. And your family has to be able to flexicute, so I taught my children lessons about balance, self-care and the importance of family.
CL: Why did you leave a more conventional legal career?
Riley-Collins: When you feel like you have a particular calling to advocate in the lives of others and stand in the gap so to speak, you don’t necessarily do so for a paycheck. As a single mom, of course you have a desire to make a decent salary so you can provide your children the same opportunities they see other children have. But I think people who do social justice work should be paid accordingly because this is not easy work. I do what I do with the peace of mind that if this is what I’m called to do, the resources will be provided for me to do it.
CL: What is most important for you to accomplish in your social justice career?
Riley-Collins: Our work is never done. I started out this career focused on juvenile justice, but it didn’t stop there. I quickly realized that so many issues that impact underrepresented, unrepresented, impoverished and marginalized communities intersect. For example, education impacts economic opportunity; economic opportunity impacts access to health care. Being able to live and be housed in a safe and decent place … all of these issues intersect. So, if I am going to advocate for any one thing, I must advocate for all of these things. Do I think that my work is going to be done in my lifetime? Probably not, but I would I like to see that I’ve had some impact.
CL: Have you yet had a definitive career moment?
Riley-Collins: Anytime I have stood beside or advocated for someone who has been wronged or been able to help level the playing field, I have that feeling like, “Yes, I’m made for this.” I get my own little personal joy from standing in the gap on behalf of other people. Across my career, that has manifested several ways: after a day in court where I sat in a car and cried, thinking I didn’t know how we won a case; standing beside a same-sex couple who wanted to get married and being told “No” in state of Mississippi; or beating back crazy bills that would have caused discrimination to be unleashed across the state. It’s been standing with a child brought into a courtroom in handcuffs and who went home with his parents at the end of a hearing. It has manifested in my own home when people call my phone and come and say “Ms. Collins, we need to talk to you about X.” It has manifested in several different ways in my life.
CL: How do you think the new presidential administration will impact your work?
Riley-Collins: I can answer it in two ways: Biblically, I try to live on [God’s] word, and it says in Matthew that the poor you’ll always have with you. I would say that’s true; however, the system that forces people in poverty doesn’t always have to be with us. So, I am determined and clear that this is a critical and yet still hopeful time. Critical because lives are being impacted and the administration has the potential to slash programs and safety nets intended to help people get out of poverty.
It is a pivotal moment because the country can tip one way or the other. I was in a space not too long ago in August where [Rep.] John Lewis talked about how critical and pivotal this moment was. When I looked at him on the stage, speaking with such passion, it really compelled me to look at what’s going on in this country. We were still in campaign season and his eyes just burned with an urgency. For a man who had stood on the bridge and been injured in Bloody Sunday to speak with such urgency compelled me to approach the season that we’re in in a whole different way.
If I want the country to tip in the right direction and not back into perilous times, I and everyone else need to employ our skill sets. From what I see of young people marching in protest, there are people who don’t want this country to go backwards. If we together bring our skill sets and get engaged, we can make sure that systems meant to hold people in impoverished spaces in life are dismantled; that systems that funnel children into prisons are dismantled, systems that say women don’t have rights to her own health care decisions are dismantled. The work is far from over, so we never stop fighting.