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Get to know arts, education and equity champion Jessica Harris

Jessica Harris
Jessica Harris, founder of nonprofit youth theatre group, Empowered Players.

“A patchwork quilt … an amalgamation of the people who have supported me and poured into me.”

That’s how Jessica Harris describes herself.

It’s a fitting description, as Harris’ work in the Charlottesville community is vast. She is passionate and driven — especially when it comes to the arts, education and equity.

Stemming from opportunities her parents afforded her to explore the arts as a young child, Harris fell in love with theatre. At the time, there were no venues providing arts education near her home in Fluvanna County, so her family had to travel to participate in shows.

At age 16, wanting to give children in her community the same opportunities she had experienced, Harris founded Empowered Players — a youth theatre nonprofit that provides accessible arts education for K-12 students. Under the umbrella of the Fluvanna Arts Council, EP is housed in the heart of the county at Carysbrook Performing Arts Center.

“What started as a one-week summer camp has now blossomed into a multiyear, multiprogram organization,” said Harris who serves as the artistic director.

Empowered Players production of Sydney Seussical
Empowered Players
Empowered Players production of Sydney Seussical

Harris received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Virginia. She currently works as the community research program manager at the Equity Center at UVA where she supports initiatives focused on arts and equity.

“One of the things I'm really grateful for is to have the opportunity to work at the Equity Center...looking at how we bridge the gap between the University and the community and how we knit resources and people together to enact change,” she said.

Harris is also the president of the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA. It’s a nonprofit organization working to bring together descendants of enslaved and free Black communities who labored at the University of Virginia. The group focuses on research and honoring and reclaiming the narrative of their ancestors.

“We are also pushing to shape the educational landscape; how are we engaging with these histories?” said Harris. “How are we connecting with one another and pushing for a descendent movement?”

 Jessica Harris visiting the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia
Jessica Harris visiting the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia

In addition to these roles, Harris serves as a director and coach for many local theatre groups, including Four County Players, Live Arts, Empowering Players and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s Charlottesville Players Guild.

The life skills Harris learned growing up in the theatre had a formative impact on her life and she feels strongly about passing these along to her students.

“...The things that serve students most are the self-confidence, the connection, the social interactions and skills that you learn to navigate through the world,” said Harris. “...the arts are such a wonderful way to instill those skills in students. You get to work with others as you put on a show. You have to work as a team. You have to be collaborative. You have to think creatively and innovatively and really push yourselves to become the best versions of yourselves. And that's something that can't be taught from a textbook. It's something that you have to experience.”

Performance of The Little Mermaid with Missoula Children’s Theatre camp
Sharon Harris
One of Harris’ first performances was in The Little Mermaid working with the Missoula Children’s Theatre camp at the Martin Luther King Performing Arts Center.

Harris is also clear about why the work she does is important to her.

“I think it's physically impossible to navigate this world without...being impacted by, shaped by, uplifted and supported by a community. And because of that, I feel, personally, a responsibility to give back to the community that's given me so much, and to continue to shape the community we wish to see.”

CVIO Scoop
As a bonus, Terri followed up with Jessica to ask about inspiration, downtime, the best advice she’s ever received and more.

Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Terri Allard: What would people be surprised to learn about you?

Jessica Harris: I used to play field hockey in middle and high school, so I’m living proof that arts and athletics can co-exist!

If you find yourself with downtime, how do you like to spend it?

I absolutely adore spending time in nature and with friends and family. Going on walks, enjoying time with my dogs Sophie and Sadie and exploring new places around Charlottesville are some of my favorite pastimes. When I’m not outside, I can usually be found with a book (any type!) and I’m also a bit of an amateur photographer, so I love finding ways to strengthen my skills.

Jessica with her dog Sophie
Jessica Harris
In her spare time, Harris loves spending time with her dog, Sophie.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Trust your heart. That’s something my mom’s always reminded me; to trust my instincts and follow my heart. Your internal compass rarely fails.

The work you do in our community is so inspiring. Who or what inspires you?

My family. Hands down. I’m especially inspired by my younger brother who has a heart for equity and giving back and uplifting everyone around him.

Artistically, I’m inspired by artists who create bold works to bring communities together and forge new understanding. People who use the arts as a way to foster connection, transformation and discovery are the ones who inspire me to keep creating!

You’ve accomplished a lot these last handful of years. Where do you see yourself a decade from now?

I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had thus far, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that we never know what the future holds. I think that’s a beautiful thing. If I’m lucky, I’ll still be doing work in the intersection of arts, community, and education; exactly what that looks like, I’m excited to find out!