An early interest in politics inspired this forward-thinker to use data and technology to advocate for progressive policy changes in Michigan.
From an early age, Brandon Jessup knew the important role that policy played in his everyday life. His family started in Louisiana but moved north during the Great Migration and settled on the west side of Detroit, which is where Jessup grew up.
His dad owned a small business and his mom was a registered nurse. Both were members of the United Automobile Workers labor union – and both advocated for positive change in their community.
“My family is blue collar. They came to Detroit with nothing on their back looking for opportunity,” Jessup says. “(My mother) tried to organize a Black Panther Party in the ’70s (and) my father, a union member and small business owner, encouraged me to look at policy and how it affected business.”
In high school, Jessup played football and participated in the Mid American Model United Nations, a debate program that allows students to imitate the work done by delegates with the United Nations. It was here that Jessup got his first experience with the work that goes into bringing about political change. “That really exposed me to the policy making part of politics and gave me a taste what I’d be doing in politics,” he says.
After graduating from high school in 1999, Jessup went to college in Ohio on a football scholarship, but realized the school was too small and too isolated, so he transferred to Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he began advocacy work with the NAACP.
“9/11 was a catalyst for me to wake up,” he explains. “I went to an NAACP meeting – and, being young and naïve, I didn’t realize that organizations are doing work every day that you don’t see. So I come in there all radical and I’m like, ‘Hey, you’re not doing enough.’”
The leadership at that meeting suggested the Jessup step up if he felt that more needed to be done. So he did – as local NAACP action committee chair. By April of 2002, he had become president of that chapter and was advocating for black college students.
“Everything in my advocacy work as an undergrad was based around access and making sure African-Americans can finish undergrad school,” he says. This included providing support for students who were dealing with high tuition costs and working for the passage of affirmative action laws.
In 2005, Jessup graduated from Eastern with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in computer information systems and a minor in labor economics. After graduation, his advocacy work shifted slightly and in 2008 he founded the nonprofit Michigan Forward, which aims to build Michigan’s urban communities through research, communication and the “advocacy of forward-thinking public policy.”
“We’re providing higher-level analysis to those that can’t afford it and showing them how to collect data more efficiently,” Jessup explains. “We’re also encouraging and training people on how they can use their personal stories to get engaged in the community.”
In addition, Jessup has done work to promote voting accessibility through the Promote the Vote proposal, which passed in 2018 and reduced voting barriers that kept many Michiganders away from the polls, and accepted the Deputy Director East of Data and Technology position with State Voices – a grassroots organization working toward creating a more accessible, inclusive and representative democracy by listening to all Americans.
“(State Voices is) assisting how organizations are using data and technology in order to encourage people to engage in the 2020 election and census,” Jessup explains. “We have a network from Louisiana to Michigan, all the way east to the Atlantic Ocean and to the Mississippi River. The goal is to really serve as a leader … and provide support to the 23 states in our area.”
And he isn’t planning on stopping there. Jessup wants to continue his advocacy work by finding ways to use both technology and people in the workforce. “I want to find space to mentor young men and women in the technology field in the city of Detroit,” he says.
“It’s important now more than ever to find ways to combine technology with skills that lay dormant. My goal, in the next five years, is to work with 200 people and place them in jobs across the country.”