When Jessica Harris was 16, she noticed a gap in arts education in her native Fluvanna County.
Just before arriving at the University of Virginia, she founded a theater non-profit to help fill the need. Her organization, Empowered Players, began as 11 students at a summer camp and now serves more than 150 local students year-round with free and reduced-price arts programing.
Harris is now a third-year student on track to graduate in May, a year early, and pursue a master’s degree in educational psychology from UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development. For her, education, social justice and the arts are implicitly intertwined. This interdisciplinary mindset has driven her work with Empowered Players, as well as work within multiple organizations on Grounds.
An Echols Scholar, she created her own interdisciplinary major, which combined arts administration, drama, and youth and social innovation. Harris has spent her time at UVA exploring the relationship between art and the world around her. As president-elect of the Miller Arts Scholars program and a student worker in the Office of the Vice Provost of the Arts, she said the relationships she’s formed and lessons she’s learned at UVA have given her room to explore her interests in new and creative ways and equipped her with the tools she needs to enter the workforce as an educator and director of a creative non-profit.
“UVA has been incredible, in that I’ve gotten to engage with many different facets of what I want to do,” Harris said. “I’ve been able to get that trifecta of meaningful work and engagement that directly correlates to Empowered Players.”
Harris said the relationships she has formed with UVA faculty members have connected her to larger opportunities. In turn, they expressed their appreciation for what she brings to the classroom.
“I rely on Jessica a great deal for not only logistical things, but actually find that she brings a certain level of genuine human wisdom to the table,” arts administration professor George Sampson said. “She often has perspectives that I find enormously helpful.”
Harris is also an active member of the University and Community Action for Racial Equity, or UCARE, and has used her involvement in both the Department of Drama and student theater groups on Grounds as an outlet to explore social justice issues through art.
In addition to devising and directing two original plays that explore social justice issues for UVA Drama’s New Works Festival, she also directed “The Black Monologues” in 2017 and has served as music director for both the Virginia Players and Shakespeare on the Lawn.
“I think art positions us in a really unique way to tackle those issues,” Harris said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have artistic experiences that I think are meaningful and have been able to bring my passion for social justice to the arts world.”
Harris plans to spend the next year of her academic life focusing on her oldest passion project: Empowered Players. She said she is excited to continue exploring the arts, education and social justice in the Charlottesville area.
Asked about her future plans, Harris joked, “UVA can’t get rid of me that easily!”
Caroline Newman/ University Communications