ACLU field director feels part of two worlds

Jessica Ayoub holds degrees from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

Photo courtesy of ACLU of Michigan


From ACLU 

Jessica Ayoub is the ACLU of Michigan’s version of an air traffic controller, directing the flow of activity at the intersection of organizational needs and volunteer resources.

It is a job filled with all sorts of challenges, which Ayoub meets with remarkable aplomb, making a tough job look deceptively easy.

Ayoub’s path to this job has been a winding one. She started off intending to be a social worker, earning degrees from Michigan State University’s James Madison College and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. A do-gooder at heart, she did a stint in AmeriCorps, working with Detroit school students. After that, she worked with Forgotten Harvest, helping provide quality food to low-income residents throughout metro Detroit. Through it all, one consistent thread has been a bedrock belief in the importance developing the capacity of community members to take the lead in tackling the issues facing them.

Her ability to marshal volunteer forces played a crucial role in the passage of “Promote the Vote,” an ACLU-backed ballot measure that amended the Michigan Constitution to make it significantly easier for Michiganders to vote. She then did the same thing last year to help get “Reproductive Freedom for All” passed, guaranteeing the right to an abortion for generations to come. She grew up in Palestinian-American household, the second of four siblings. As part of the ACLU’s Arab American Heritage Month celebration, Ayoub talked about her experience growing up in southeast Michigan as part of a Palestinian-American household, her motivation for pursuing a career as an activist, a heart-wrenching film depicting the daily difficulties about surviving life in Palestine, and a line from one of her favorite poems.

Q: What were things like for you growing up?

A: I always felt like I was part of two worlds—the American world and the Arab world. I knew I looked different than the other kids I went to school with and knew that not every kid had parents who spoke a different language. My parents purposely gave my siblings and me “American” names so we’d fit in—and purposely didn’t teach us Arabic because they didn’t want to confuse us with two languages.

Even with those conscious choices made by my parents — there was that constant tug between the two worlds. I never quite felt American enough or Arab enough.

Q: What impact did living a split existence have on you?

A: Despite feeling like I existed in two worlds—my parents worked hard to make sure we knew our roots and that we should be proud to be Palestinian.

 I remember my parents proudly showing us a family tree that went back several generations--and adding me and my siblings to the tree to show us that we were continuing our family’s legacy. And I remember conversations about what it meant to be Arab American and what it meant to proudly embrace our heritage as we navigated life. As I've gotten older, embracing my Arab American identity has been an incredible point of pride.

Q: What motivates you?

A: Growing up, my father worked at a juvenile detention facility leading rehabilitative programming, and after leaving that job, worked for the State of Michigan’s Department of Human Services. He made sure that we always knew that we grew up with incredible privilege and it was our responsibility to do something with that privilege to make the world a bit better than before.

My father died when I was only nine years old—but even in that short period of time, I absorbed his strong values. Of course, as a kid I didn’t have the language to talk about injustice or systemic oppression—but I always knew that I would do something to carry out those values that he instilled in me at a young age.

Q: What brought you to the ACLU?

A: After graduating college with a degree in Social Policy and Political Theory, I realized that the way I could combat injustice was through systems-change—but specifically, through organizing. I earned a Masters of Social Work with a focus on organizing in 2015—and it is through that work that I found myself doing a bit of work combatting food insecurity, and in 2017, made the leap to join the team at the ACLU of Michigan, where I knew I'd be joining a values-aligned organization that would allow me to do work that I was passionate about—across issues that I was passionate about.

Q: Has your belief in the value of organizing to promote positive change been validated?

A: Every day I come to work, I’m reminded about the power of organizing. I cut my teeth on “Promote the Vote,” a 2018 ballot measure that expanded voting access. I was quickly thrown into a network of ACLU volunteers and supporters willing to do whatever it took to ensure that access to democracy was realized. After that measure succeeded in amending the Michigan Constitution, we kept those strong relationships with our supporters who were willing to continue fighting to ensure that voters in Michigan could act on their newly won voting rights. But one of my proudest experiences will always be the work of our volunteers for Reproductive Freedom for All—or Proposal 3 of 2022. Our volunteers knew that access to abortion was at risk, and when the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned Roe v. Wade in June, our volunteers had already been fighting for months to guarantee access to abortion under Michigan’s constitution. It was the volunteers from all walks of life and every corner of Michigan that made it possible to pass one of the most protective constitutional amendments guaranteeing the fundamental right to reproductive freedom. 

Q: What’s your job like?

A: I have had such incredible opportunities at the ACLU of Michigan to work on so many critical issues. Every time I work on our Campaign for Smart Justice, I think of the work my father did in the criminal legal system. Every time I work to expand access to democracy, I think of my grandparents who immigrated to the United States as adults and after becoming citizens, voted in every single election. And every time I work on expanding access to abortion care and reproductive freedom, I think of my nieces, nephews, and young cousins who get to grow up in a state where they can access these fundamental rights.

Q: What do you do to enjoy yourself away from work?

A: When I’m not working, you can most likely find me bugging my sister by Face Timing my nephew and niece who live out of state. But when they screen my calls, you can find me spending time with my family, wandering around Detroit, trying not to burn things in my kitchen, or reading a good book. 

Q: Are there any books you would recommend?

A: I love reading—and find a special joy in reading stories by Palestinian authors. “Against the Loveless World” by Susan Abulhawa is about a Palestinian woman navigating the world as the daughter of Palestinian refugees and working to make a home for herself and her family. “The Beauty of Your Face” by Sahar Mustafah is about a Palestinian American woman who wrestles with faith, loss, and identity.

Q: Is there a movie or documentary you would recommend?

A: “The Present” is an Oscar-nominated short drama about a Palestinian man and his daughter travelling to pick up a new refrigerator for his wife. The film chronicles what life is like for Palestinians living under occupation—and how the daily tasks we take for granted are made so much more challenging under occupation.

“Farha” is a Netflix film that tells the story of a young woman during the Nakba—or catastrophe—which is the 1948 displacement of Palestinians and expulsion from their homeland.

Q: Do you have a motto or favorite saying?

A: I don’t have a motto, but a line from Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet, has always stuck with me: “We have on this land that which makes life worth living.” It not only reminds me of the resilience of Palestine, and the strong roots I feel to my family’s homeland, but also reminds me that we all have a responsibility to preserving the places—and the rights of those living there—that we call home.

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