Although she’s a Texan at heart, Houston native Jaclyn Suffel knew she wanted to explore life beyond her home state.
“I wanted to see what else was out there, and I wanted to serve,” she said.
Jaclyn, who studied theater and gender studies at Southwestern University, a small liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas, approached the Peace Corps, the government-run organization that offers Americans opportunities to engage in social and economic development volunteer work around the world.
At that time, the Peace Corps was primarily focused on recruiting citizens with engineering and design backgrounds. However, they suggested to Jaclyn that her background made her a prime candidate for Teach for America, which harnesses the power of promising emerging leaders who commit to tackling educational inequity by teaching for a period in under-resourced public schools.
“I really felt public education was the social justice issue of our time, and I wanted to figure out how I could help,” Jaclyn said.
In 2007, she arrived in Memphis after being accepted into Teach for America, whose presence in the Bluff City was still quite new at the time. She taught freshmen English and theater classes at Craigmont High School, located in the city’s Raleigh neighborhood.
Jaclyn had arrived in Memphis as the start of the recession, when Overton Square was nearly vacant, corporate layoffs were rampant, and jobs were scarce. In 2009, when she finished her tenure with Teach for America, she attempted to reenter the job market.
“I couldn’t get a job to save my life,” she said. “I only really had two years of work experience. So, I ended up being unemployed for about nine months, which was scary and gave me a lot of empathy for people who live paycheck to paycheck.”
Eventually, Jaclyn entered Memphis’ nonprofit sector, where she discovered a deep passion for community organizing around education. Her time with Stand for Children, an educational advocacy organization, afforded her the opportunity to learn about the unique culture and character of each of the city’s various neighborhoods, as well as how to effectively engage with residents in each community.
“All parents want their kids to be happy and safe and have opportunities they didn’t have, whatever their race, class or neighborhood,” she said. “That’s a universal truth. But what I did see were the inequities between neighborhoods.”
In addition to serving as a community organizer at Stand for Children, Jaclyn worked in communications for other nonprofits, such as Seeding Success and the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence (now Momentum Nonprofit Partners).
But she truly found her calling at Shelby County Schools, where she now serves as manager of Strategic Communications and Outreach, a role she describes as a hybrid of marketing and organizing.
“I create campaigns to help tell our stories to individuals and groups, and brand the school system in a more strategic way to garner public support,” she said. “I also do a lot of internal advocacy, like helping our community understand the value of fine arts, and I run a group for teachers interested in learning more about communications. We’ve given them a role as public relations organizers, and train them in areas such as social media, document design and media relations.”
The PRO program for teachers recently won an award from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), as did the SCS ArtsMatter campaign, which works to increase arts access for all SCS students.
The vast majority of Jaclyn’s work with the city’s public school district now centers on its “SCS is 901” campaign, which uses both multimedia and grassroots strategies to tell the stories of SCS, whose success is tied to the economic and cultural vitality and future of the city.
“It’s a way to create awareness about the good stuff happening in our schools, and to reach a broader spectrum of the community,” Jaclyn said. “It started with a logo, and our community was so excited about just that having visual, so we expanded on that.”
As part of the campaign, community members are also encouraged to take a pledge to support public schools.
“I really wanted to build some commitment back to the school system,” Jaclyn said. “So we launched this 901 pledge, where people pledge to share positive information about the school system, volunteer their time and expertise to our students, and to be advocates for our schools.”
Beyond her work in education advocacy, Jaclyn is a tour-de-force in the Memphis theater community, where she has acted and directed in numerous productions at venues such as Theatre Memphis and TheatreWorks. She has played roles in productions such as Lizzie Borden The Rock Musical, The Clean House, and Young Frankenstein.
And when Jaclyn isn’t advocating for children or entertaining on stage, she enjoys cheering on the Grizzlies, spending time with her friends and her adopted felines, Giuseppe and Fern, and being a tremendous cheerleader for her adopted River City.