Catching Up with Jessica Greer Morris ’90
- By Thomas Weaver
Departments / Alumni profiles
Catching Up With
Jessica Greer Morris ’90
Jessica Greer Morris’s work as executive director of the Project Girl Performance Collective landed her on Newsweek magazine’s list of “150 Fearless Women in the World” this spring. The collective is a writing and acting troupe that offers young girls a safe space to write and perform their own work. The alumna is also involved in Man Up, a global campaign to stop violence against women. VQ caught up with Jess via a phone conversation from her home in Brooklyn Heights, where she lives with her husband, Richard Morris, and their twin nine-year-old sons, Henry and Charlie.
VQ So how does it feel to be one of 150 fearless women in the world?
JGM It’s very humbling, and in some ways it seems kind of ridiculous that I’m with Oprah and Lady Gaga and Hillary Clinton and so many women who have basically trail-blazed a road for us. I get emotional just thinking about it. It’s crazy and wonderful, and it really is testament more to the fearlessness of the girls that we work with than it is to me. I’m just really good at putting Miracle Grow on their good work.
VQ How did you initially get involved with Project Girl?
JGM In 2008, I was working on a global show about girls in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. It was actually to benefit an education program a colleague of mine was working on there. My co-producer, Ashley Marinaccio, and I got along so great and she was just starting these workshops for girls and invited me to join the effort. The first show was in the Fringe Festival in New York City.
Those girls who started with us in 2008 never left. Basically we’re now up to 100 girls; we started with about twelve girls. We take hostages in a very positive way. A girl might come in as a spoken-word poet and then the next year she realizes she knows how to step dance, and the next year she realizes she knows how to sing, and the next year she’s an assistant director, and the next year she’s directing. So they grow with us and become the leaders of our organization, which is truly youth led.
VQ What’s the most fulfilling part of this for you?
JGM I think it is the long-term investment in young women. We get to help these girls develop their talents, teach them talents that they don’t even know they have, then watch them blossom.
The girls come to us through auditions as performers. When one girl from our very first cast in 2008 came to us, she had a contract to be a Victoria’s Secret model. After working with Project Girl and learning about the rape epidemic in the Congo, she became a human rights advocate and who just got accepted to Brown University, with a new dream to attend medical school and work for Doctors without Borders—so, a completely changed person. When I say changed, it’s not really changed. She had it in her. Project Girl is in the business of growing girls' self-esteem. We do this by by listening to what they care about and dream about and giving them the safe space to develop their own talents.
The majority of our girls come from low-income areas, some of the poorest areas of New York City such as the South Bronx, Brownsville, or Harlem, places where there are a lot of disparities. But we also have girls from Westchester, New Jersey, Connecticut and upstate New York who travel for two hours to come to rehearsals,. They make a commitment, they sign a contract, and they show up every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. We treat them like professionals.
VQ I read you had a one-woman show called “Searching for a Mensch.” Tell me about that.
JGM I’ve been a theater person ever since I can remember. Whether I was at camp, school, or moonlighting as a cabaret singer, I’ve always been involved in performing, and eventually wrote this over-the-top campy one-woman show. It was a comedy about this woman and her trials and tribulations dating.
A friend of my mom’s came to the show and told me afterward, “You have to meet my son, he’s your soul mate. He’s handsome, he speaks Spanish, he’s working in South America like you did, he’s got two Ivy League degrees…” She then whipped out a picture of him on the beach in Costa Rica with his girlfriend, but told me, “it’s not gonna last.”
VQ I think I see where this is going.
JGM Yeah, the show was wonderful for building my own self-esteem and my own confidence, and it was written up in the New York Times, and extended a number of times, but it also had a big fringe benefit with it, which was meeting my husband.
VQ Did you do theatre at UVM?
JGM I took acting classes at UVM but it was my passion for writing, human rights issues and activism—the heart of my professional life—that was developed. I became very close to a lot of my professors in both the English Department and the Environmental Studies Department. I became quite nerdy and didn’t do as much theatre.
VQ You worked as director of community relations at the New York City Department of Health at the time of 9/11. That had to be a profoundly challenging experience.
JGM It was like the a holy trinity of disasters that hit New York during my tenure. The first was the West Nile Virus, which was my first experience with crisis communications. And then we had the World Trade Center and the anthrax threats.
With the World Trade Center, I tend to be able to, I don’t know how to say this, but I just happen to be good in crisis. I stay very calm and think logically. Some people are good at compartmentalizing their feelings, putting them on the shelf to do triage.
The morning of 9/11, I was coming up from the subway and I saw the first plane hit. I was probably eight blocks from the World Trade Center and my office was maybe ten blocks from the site. Then the second plane hit. When I got to the office people weren’t sure of what had happened or what we needed to do. But I knew we’d need a fax machine, the flexibility to relocate, 2-way radios and other specific things so we could communicate with the public We quickly sent our thousands of employees home, and I worked with twenty-five to thirty managers in the health department who stayed and built a kind of triage in the first floor of our building.
For me, the understanding of that experience came in small moments. That morning, survivors would walk into our triage covered in debris since they were coming from the site, but they had no injuries. Despite their own personal tragedy and loss, these survivors lined up around our building, hundreds of people, all wanting to volunteer, to help with the triage. But there was hardly anyone in the triage because everyone had died. That was one of the most devastating immediate understandings of the gravity of that event. We had everything set to help and heal, but there were no people coming in…
People say a lot about New Yorkers, but all of these people coming directly from the fallen buildings were lining up to help. It told me a lot about the community that I lived in and that I was born in. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
VQ It looks like you’ve traveled a good deal in your career. What are some of your favorite places in the world?
JGM It’s funny. It’s not like I don’t like Paris and other beautiful cities, but I am attracted to places of disparity and I have a passionate interest in addressing the human rights issues you find there.
This passion was fueled at UVM and grew exponentially during my study abroad experience my junior year. I got this opportunity to be with one of the first student groups to go to the Amazon to study rainforest ecology. I wanted to go to Brazil for two reasons—the deforestation issues and union/community organizing issues among workers in the forest. This was right after Chico Mendes had been killed for his work as a union organizer there.
So, for me, it was the perfect storm—to go to that area and study the economic instability of the forest dwellers. Through the School for International Training in Brattleboro, I was able to spend a month doing my own research, living by myself with forest dwellers, being able to study debt slaves and really gain a deeper understanding of why we need community organizers and union leaders.
VQ You mentioned Andrea Arena ’90 as one of your best friends from UVM. What do you two talk about from college days when you get together?
JGM It’s like no time has passed when someone is a true, kindred spirit. As soon as you see the person it’s like the conversation never ended and you just start again. We had a lot of fun in college, but at the same time we both were very passionate about social justice issues. Andrea ended up becoming a family practitioner; I ended up getting my master’s in public health. What they say in public health is that a doctor saves one life at a time and in public health we do it by the millions. So we’ve both done similar work, but approached it differently.
VQ Your e-mail mentioned faculty member Diane Price Herndl as a key influence on you.
JGM She was. Diane and a lot of professors in my English classes had a feminist bent to what they did. For me, I was always writing from that perspective anyway and felt for the first time that my voice was intectually valued. I think it was Diane who first allowed me to read a novel and respond by writing a paper in play form. She saw that I had an in-depth understanding of the reading, but allowed me to respond in a creative way. Others were the same—they not only allowed me to do it, but they celebrated it.
Another huge influence on me was Toby Fulwiler through his class where we read The New Yorker—the best assignment ever that I got credit to read The New Yorker! Toby allowed us to work on our own writing projects in the magazine’s style. Certain professors were so supportive of mixing this creative and intellectual work, which is bedrock of my human rights education curriculum at Project Girl Performance Collective.
It is interesting that I have the same kind of global experience as so many girls, which is that tendency to not value yourself. I didn’t have Project Girl growing up, so it is a wonderful thing to give back to girls something that I got back much later in life and had to work harder to get it, which is this kind of self-esteem that grew during my UVM years.