Jessica is the founder and driving force behind the successful international Human Rights NPO: The Justice Desk. She is a passionate and proud South African who believes in the power of every day activism and inspires everyone she meets to join the pursuit of justice in order to become an advocate for change! She believes that youth have the power and ability to make human rights a reality in a country still divided by unimaginable levels of inequality, due to an infamous history of racial segregation and apartheid, which still has an influence over the country to this day.
She has been named one of Africa’s and South Africa’s most inspiring youth for her work; and has received countless awards from the likes of the South African presidency, Prince Edward, Countess Sophie, The Obama Foundation and Lead SA. Most recently, she was named Glamour Magazines "Women of the Year" for her activism. In 2016 she received The Queens Young Leaders award from HRH Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, and in 2019 Price Harry and Meghan Markle came to South Africa to see Jess and The Justice Desk in action stating that: “Your commitment to doing what is right, gives all of us hope. It is inspiring, it is energizing, and it is extraordinary!”.
Jessica has travelled extensively working in countries across the globe in the fight for fundamental human rights. She has led marches and demonstrations, as well as community dialogues and human rights campaigns across the globe. She has addressed and worked with presidents and prime ministers, politicians, royalty and leading figures in the global business sector, to continually urge and lobby them towards taking real and effective action in accountability, transparency, justice and change. She is a force to be reckoned with and a true change-maker.
She was the first South African to release academic papers on the challenges facing the prevention of human trafficking in South Africa, as well as has taken a major stand against gender-based violence, addressing over 27 000 people who had marched to parliament against GBV. She continues to inspire people to stand up and challenge gender-based violence and human trafficking in all its forms, as well as the unjust policies that often promote and protect those who violate human rights.
The Justice Desk continues to thrive with her as its CEO and continues to grow in leaps and bounds, increasing its impact and reach each yearly. The work of The Justice Desk is impacting lives and dismantling the status quo, in order to work towards creating a more just world. Join us as we transform fundamental human rights from words on a piece of paper, to the lived realities of our people!
The Justice Desk: Founding Story
As a 14-year-old girl, Jessica volunteered in multiple NGOs whilst in school. She worked with children infected/affected by HIV/Aids, refugee children, and children who had been victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. She continued to work in NGOs, doing mainly charity work, until a combination of events resulted in her shift in focus to justice work and the fight for fundamental human rights.
Jess often speaks of two experiences she had in her life, that truly impacted and directed her future path. The first was when she was 15 years old. She was volunteering at a camp for vulnerable children when she came across another camp leader named Lindiwe who was the same age and nationality as Jess. They had a lot in common: their interest in reading, music and being there for others. However, they had one major difference that resulted in very different life experiences. Jess was white and came from a middle-class family. Lindiwe was black and came from a single-parent household in a township. After growing close, Lindiwe began to open up about the horrifying abuse she was experiencing at the hands of her mother. Shocked, Jess immediately contacted authorities, demanding intervention – however due to an irresponsible investigation, Lindiwe was forced to return to the home of her abuser.
Jess could not fathom how those meant to love and support their children could possibly harm them. She also realized that those investigating the case cared very little about her friend, and only really seemed to care about how the incident was impacting HER as the one who had reported it. It was in this moment that Jess realized that although she and Lindiwe were so similar, their difference in race and the systemic injustice which went along with racial oppression, meant that they lived very different lives. It was this experience that led Jess to realize that the “rainbow nation” of South Africa was not as 'equal' and 'free' as she had been told it was, and that even though apartheid was “over”, the negative effects and oppressive unequal systems were still very much alive today.
The second experience that Jess often talks about happened at the age of 18 years old, one evening while walking, Jess was attacked by four men – one of whom was eventually arrested. After a few weeks had passed, she was asked to attend the court hearing of the man who had hurt her. The day before the court case, she remembered people wishing her luck and expressing sentiments like “once our country gets rid of those types of people, we will be a much better place”.
It was only when Jess found herself standing in the courtroom face to face with her attacker that she realized that she had a very different opinion on who “those types of people” were that the problem lies with. As she looked into the eyes of the man in front of her, his clothes torn, his bones visible from beneath his starving flesh, and the look of absolute terror in his eyes – she knew that the “types of people” who were to blame were not those like the man standing in front of her. Instead, the problem lay with the countless people across the globe who continued to build, support and uphold oppressive systems of inequality and injustice that ensured that some thrived, while others barely survived.
The man in front of her began as a young boy whose father was shot in front of his eyes at the age of 5. He grew up trying to protect his sick mother, who, dying of HIV/AIDS, was not able to protect him. He went to a school without qualified teachers, books or a uniform, and eventually realized that in a class of 60 children, he wasn’t learning anything. He was kicked out of his shack when his mother died and was continually threatened to join gangs. He couldn’t go to the hospital when sick because he didn’t have the correct paperwork, or even a birth certificate. And finally, he would wake up at 4am every morning to make the long journey to the city to beg for money to buy some food.
He begged, and begged, and his dignity was chipped at again and again – until one day, he snapped and he did something terrible. But what dawned on Jess at that moment, was that not for one second did she believe that HE was the problem. His actions were wrong, yes, but his actions were a result of something far greater: injustice. He was a young man who had grown up unprotected, forgotten, abandoned, and forced to live in unimaginable conditions, where his rights were not protected. As Jess said it:
“Here was a young man, who grew up having his rights violated on a daily basis, who was failed again and again by those who said they would protect the children of this country. We left him, hungry, uneducated, sick and abandoned – and then we blamed him for it.
If we continue to treat our South African children like this, giving them no real chance, no equal access to their rights, resources and opportunities to make something out of their lives - then what other lives are we expecting them to live?”
From that moment on, Jess dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of everyday people, especially those most vulnerable. We could no longer simply engage in charity work, handing out food, clothes, vouchers etc. She would ask, “what was the point if right after that, I was sending people back to broken homes and dysfunctional communities, where people’s rights were not protected?”.
She realized that her charity work only offered temporary solutions and that she had to rather focus on addressing the root causes of injustice. She recognized that she had to stop helping ‘poor people’ through a purely charity-based model and rather ask the important question of why people were poor in the first place?
Jess had found the answer to that question in the courthouse that day, and knew without a doubt that if we truly wanted equality in our world; then justice, fundamental human rights and the destruction of systemic injustice was where she had to begin.
And this was how The Justice Desk and our mission began…
Promoting the power of everyday activists.