May "Rhode Island Women’s History Column" Feature: Meet Melissa Jenkins
Updated: Mar 13
Interview by RIDWC Caucus Member Judi Zimmer
Melissa Jenkins, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist specializing in attention and memory processes in PTSD and other brain disorders, and an Assistant Professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She runs the Collective Action Network, where activists work together for economic, racial, social, and political justice, a sustainable environment, and a government that serves the common good. A proud Rhode Islander since 1994, she lives in Narragansett and enjoys running, biking, swimming, beaches, people, people and people.
What advice would you give your 12 year-old self?
Listen to everyone, but let your own intuition be the loudest voice. It will almost always turn out to be right.
What or who got you interested in politics and political issues, and when?
My mother, throughout my childhood. After suffering a devastating injury resulting in quadriplegia, she became a vocal advocate for civil rights for people with disabilities. In the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, she struggled with finding employment, accessible public buildings and services, equitable treatment, even parking…and used her own struggles to create solutions for everyone. Despite the difficulty of living with her disability and raising four children as a single parent, she successfully ran for the Planning Board to advocate for systemic improvements locally while supporting the larger effort to create the ADA. I’m especially inspired by her public service knowing how much harder it was for her to serve in the context of her own struggles. (Photo credit: Angelina Rose Photography)
Have you considered running for office? Why or why not?
That’s a question I’ve often been asked, so I’ve certainly thought about it but not too seriously, as yet. What I think most about is improving the political process and how much better our government could be via a process that is more inclusive, more participatory, more transparent, more equitable, and more democratic. I envision a government that is truly and fairly representative of the diverse perspectives of America, and have been working as an activist to further that ideal; still, that vision cannot succeed unless underrepresented candidates step up, so I constantly evaluate how to be most effective in creating the change I want to see. I’ve done a lot of things in the past 3 years I’d never have expected of myself, so it’s hard to know what else may happen.
What is your greatest challenge as an activist and advocate?
Honestly, the greatest challenge for me is speaking up. I would not say that I’m shy, but I’m normally rather quiet and reserved. I’m a psychologist, a good listener, and I firmly believe that you learn more from listening than from talking…plus I’m from Maine so words are kind of a last resort for me, culturally. Activism involves a lot of stepping up to the podium, and making sure that your issue is seen and heard loudly and clearly. You need to show up, and you need to speak up, so a quiet activist is not very effective. It’s been the biggest stretch to be visible, outspoken, and effective as a speaker and a writer when advocating. My lack of experience shows, but I continue stepping up and continue to learn as I go.
What advice would you give to 12 year-olds today?
To all young people, I would say this. Every generation is smarter than the last in some way; if you believe in evolution, you must believe this. You are wiser than your parents. That doesn’t mean that it’s not helpful to listen to your elders and learn from their experience, but once you have done that as thoroughly as you can, listen the most to your own intuition. It will be your best guide.
About Judi Zimmer
Our monthly Rhode Island Women’s History Column is written by Judi Zimmer.
Contact the RIDWC at RIDWomensCaucus@gmail.com if you have suggestions for future columns about notable Rhode Island women, past and present.
The Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus seeks to impact government and political processes in order to ensure equality in power, influence, and economic status for those who identify as and with women. We will do this by (a) recruiting and supporting candidates in all levels of government and (b) advocating for Democratic principles consistent with the Democration Party platform.