My life’s not busy, it’s full. Except today.
I first met Jessica Wilt 5 years ago. She and I were both new to Americans for the Arts...I was a new staff member and liaison to the arts education advisory council, and Jessica was a newly minted council member.
Jessica immediately took a leadership role within the council, helping us craft a strategic plan for arts education at Americans for the Arts. Her leadership in arts education in New York City gave her plenty of expertise in arts education planning. Jessica was a tap dancer and teaching artist. She worked in the education departments at Dance Theater of Harlem and Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana. She served on the Leadership Committee of the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable and was a school board member for VOICE charter school.
Jessica and I met just as the recession was winding down. We'd both lost (multiple) jobs during the height of the recession, and I saw my own tenacity reflected in her...she felt like a kindred spirit. We'd both survived divorces and professional setbacks. We were fighters. And because of this, Jessica was the person I'd call when I had an impossible project at work. I hired her as a contractor several times to help me get a project across the finish line.
She was one of the biggest champions of Americans for the Arts’ work in arts education, period. She just believed in it. She regularly attended Arts Advocacy Day, Emerging Arts Leaders events, and our Annual Convention, often as a panelist or coach for other attendees. We presented together at various conferences in the field, and we dreamed big.
Jessica was good at that, dreaming big. She launched an organization, ArtsEdTechNYC, which is a group formed at the intersection of arts, technology, and education. She hosted amazing conversations at the Apple store in SoHo, and other regular #ArtsEdTech gatherings throughout the year that featured networking and guest speaker conversations and workshops on arts, education, and technology topics. We also had a mutual love for a student shoe design project hosted annually by Vans, CustomCulture. Man, we felt cool when we were sporting those Vans shoes that in turn supported arts education!
Jessica even rallied behind my (failed) attempt at launching a national grassroots campaign for arts education. When the going would get tough, Jessica was there, bitching with me (like any good New Yorker would). But her big hearted mid-western roots also knew when to turn off the tough and turn on the compassion. One year at our annual convention, she shared a room with another council member who ended up passing away just a couple of months later. Jessica helped organize a donation to a youth program in memoriam of our late friend and wrote this beautiful tribute blog about losing a dear colleague.
Jessica had her hands in a lot of projects. As a two-term member (and eventually vice chair and chair) of the Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Council, Jessica was a regular contributor to ARTSblog. Links to her many ARTSblog posts can be found here. She was also a well-respected thought leader on social media and an early adopter of new technologies. One could describe her as busy. After all, that is the response de jour in places like DC and NYC when you ask a young, ambitious professional like Jessica, "How are you?" "Busy," they’ll reply. We hated it.
Jessica and I talked at length about how this "busyness" had become a sickness. So when Jessica got sick last summer, I wasn’t surprised that she told people she directly attributed it to the stress of her lifestyle.
I made a conscientious effort to change my response. Now I say something along the lines of, “My life is full.”
Except for today. Today I lost a friend and the field lost an inspiring leader. Today my life doesn’t feel full because I know that Jessica isn’t just one Facebook message, tweet, or phone call away.
I hope that today you’ll take some time out of your busy day, not only to honor and remember this leader in arts education, but to also reflect on what’s important in your life. I’ll know that I’ll be spending some time meditating today to help me sit with these deep feelings of loss and sadness. I’ll be using a new app called Buddhify to help me with that meditation. My tech-savvy friend Jessica would have loved that.
Note: A Facebook page created to document Jessica’s battle with cancer, Team Jessica Wilt, will have details about her memorial and ways to make contributions to her family.