Jessi Summers has a passion for helping others, particularly those with disabilities. As the administrative aide for Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, she goes by the nickname “Eyeballs.”
“Accessibility: That’s been one of the biggest things that I’ve learned about working with Councilmember Avila,” Summers said. “She is the first person I’ve worked with that’s blind. It’s opened my eyes a lot to how people don’t really pay attention to others with disabilities. That’s been especially prominent going into the COVID-19 era where everything is set up with a screen and computer.
“That’s been a big learning point for me when it comes to working with Councilwoman Avila. There is a lot of focus on making sure people of different races or different sexual orientations are treated fairly — but there is a lot of work to do still when making sure people with different disabilities can have a level playing field as well. That doesn’t get as much attention as other types of minorities.”
In the coming year, Summers hopes to take on a larger leadership role and exercise her position as a community leader in the volunteer community.
Summers spoke with the Business Journal about her passion for volunteering, her work with Avila, as well as her future in the community — a place she hopes to make more accessible for people with disabilities.
How long have you been in the Springs?
I moved to the Springs about 2½ years ago. I’m originally from Gainesville, Florida.
Talk about your path to the Springs, and to this position.
For context for why I moved here, it was actually a personal reason. I had been in a long-distance relationship for over five years and ultimately decided that was long-distance for long enough. He lived here and we both liked the climate here, so I decided to move out here. As a backdrop to how I got where I am professionally, when I lived in Gainesville, I worked at the city hall there and I was basically the front desk person for city hall — mostly making sure people knew the calendar and what was going on or where to go. I really enjoyed that perspective of local government and getting to see what [issues] were the most important to people. I didn’t have my current position lined up when I moved here but I was very excited when it opened up and I was able to work with city council.
Tell us about your educational background.
My education background is ongoing actually. I just finished my [Associate of Arts degree] for communication as of this semester at Pikes Peak Community College. I decided to start going back to school once I had employment here. My educational journey before that was a little bit of a zigzag. I took a couple of semesters at the University of Florida but didn’t quite know what I wanted to do yet. Once I had a better idea of that, I decided to go back.
What do you want to do in the long term?
Through working with Councilmember Avila, I’ve been able to see a lot of the community and a lot of advocacy. I’ve noticed that Colorado Springs is particularly neighbor- and community-oriented. I find that really admirable.
What I want to do long-term is to be able to advocate effectively and bring people together around projects — a community organizer type of role. That’s why I’m studying communication as well.
Describe your current role.
My job title is administrative aide in the city council office, but my unofficial title is ‘eyeballs.’ I’m basically a hired [Americans with Disabilities Act] accommodation for Councilmember Avila, who is legally blind. I help her with her correspondence and her calendar and really anything that pops up day-to-day.
What inspires you to give back to the community?
Part of it is because I am so new to Colorado Springs. When I moved here, the only person that I really knew was my now fiancé. I thought that getting involved would be a good way to become more integrated into the community and meet people. Part two is that I kind of always thought that when it comes to politics or changes happening in your city, if you’re not getting involved, you kind of forfeit the right to complain about what’s happening, so I feel like it is best to be involved if you can. I think that I’m in a particularly good community for that. I’m in the southeastern part of the Springs and there is a lot of momentum right now with inspiring resident-led change. That’s what led me to get involved with community work — meeting people. And it’s the responsible thing to do as a citizen anyway.
What changes are you hoping to see in the community?
I volunteer a lot with RISE Southeast; that is an initiative that focuses on resident-led change. A lot of what RISE is focusing on right now is the different health disparities that happen in Southeast compared to other parts of the city. That encapsulates a lot of areas. I think the areas that I’m most interested in are built environment, which covers accessibility for all sorts of transportation and whether or not there are good parks and stuff like that. Also, there are food aspects. We have a lot of fast food in Southeast but not a lot of nice restaurants or grocery store options. So those are some areas that I’m hoping to focus on in the next couple of years.
How has COVID impacted the council’s ability to do its job, and your ability to do your job?
At first when the pandemic hit, there was a lot of fuss with trying to figure out how to have council meetings without being in the same room — a lot of technology hiccups and a lot of roles got shifted around. For me, the biggest impact has been supporting Councilmember Avila with virtual meetings. Technology is not friendly to people who are blind, so I’ve had to work a lot with tech support by making sure she is in the meeting, that she can mute and unmute herself, and that I can refer to any notes she might need during the meeting. That wasn’t an aspect of my job before the pandemic but that has been a top priority since COVID hit. We make jokes that I’m the woman behind the curtain now.
Do you have a personal philosophy when it comes to public policy?
I feel like I need to clarify: My role is not to advise Council Member Avila on specific policies. My job is really just to help her do what it is that she feels she needs to do for the community. If we’re talking about me personally, I feel like the role of public policy should be to make it so that everyone has a fair shot at success. That sounds completely fine on paper but when you start analyzing what the policies are and the historical harm that has been done to different minority communities, there is a lot to unpack with that. I feel like the more I read and look into this stuff, there is more work to be done. Specifically, there is more work to be done around affordable housing and making sure that people actually have places to live, [as well as] other basic needs.
In the future, do you see yourself becoming more involved in public policy?
I think right now there are a lot of paths that I could take. The community work that I’m doing does lend itself to advocacy and trying to make certain public policy happen. I have learned from being a direct assistant to a councilmember that I probably don’t want to be a councilmember myself — but there are a lot of different ways to influence change.
Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
I have a hard time with questions like that — just because if you would’ve asked me 10 years ago, I would not have even seen myself leaving Florida. I think there are a lot of options available. I definitely see myself continuing to be involved in the community and applying any positive change that I feel like I can impact. That might be smaller-scale volunteering or continuing to advocate for bigger change. We’ll just see where things take us.
What are some of your passions and hobbies?
For context, I’ve got work, school, and volunteer work, so I tend to be a little limited on free time — but when I do have time, I like to read a lot. That way, I can continue to better my understanding of what other people are working through. I also like playing video games — that’s actually how I met my fiancé. I could go on for hours about different types of tea, and I love to cook.
Do you see yourself in leadership in the future, and what are your goals for 2021?
For 2021, I have a lot to think about still. My preferred style of leadership is mostly to look for opportunities to help others participate. This idea kind of ties into the work that I do with RISE Southeast. I’m basically a volunteer coordinator and I make sure volunteers with RISE have the opportunity to make change happen in their community in the areas that they want to see. I think that’s the style that I subscribe to in terms of leadership. That also covers my goals for the next year.
Correction: The Business Journal inaccurately reported Summers volunteers with Ride Southeast. She volunteers with RISE Southeast. RISE stands for Resilient, Inspired, Strong, Engaged. We regret the error.