Jennifer Lleras Van Der Haeghen

Manager, Office of Human Rights & Neighborhood Involvement, City of Eugene


When did you attend the UO and what year did you graduate? What did you study at the UO?

I was at the UO from 2004 to 2008, and I double-majored in Ethnic Studies and Spanish. While my formal education was in Ethnic Studies and Spanish, the experiential learning I had access to outside of the classroom was critical to my career trajectory. I interned with the ASUO in 2004 and participated in a non-partisan voter registration drive. I registered a person to vote before I event stepped foot in my first class. I got involved because I was a first-generation college student and was concerned about the cost of attendance for my siblings who were coming behind me. It was a really good experience to learn about the electoral process, advocacy, and how students were coming together to work on tuition and access issues. I later had the opportunity to serve on the EMU board as a student senator, ASUO executive team as the chief-of-staff in addition to being very involved in MEChA, and the Multicultural Center.

What class inspired you in a new way while at UO?

My freshman year I was a biology major. I knew I wanted to help people and the best way I knew how to do that was to be a doctor. But, it turns out that I was really bad at science. So, freshman year I was talking with a friend of mine and she had just taken an Ethnic Studies class; she was really excited about it and encouraged me to take an Ethnic Studies class. So I took Ethnic Studies 101 and was totally inspired to think about how I could help and give back to a community in a different context than being a medical professional. That was a really important turning point for me.

What experience offered by UO opened your eyes to something new?

I had never thought about building collective power through electoral organizing and advocacy efforts before I came to the UO. I cared deeply about community work, and didn’t have a phrase for that. I just believed that people should be able to access the things that their communities had to offer, that should happen in an equitable manner, and that we should treat each other well. Coming to the UO gave me the tools and language to understand and engage with electoral policy and organizing, as well as a set of peers to learn and organize with. It was really inspiring. Most of my cohort and my friends were from Oregon somewhere outside of Eugene and were first generation college students. It was interesting to hear about their experiences and to think about how we all ended up in this place together with similar goals and aspirations.

What was the number one skill you believe you acquired while at UO?

When I was with MEChA I was the multicultural liaison, and I went to all the Multicultural Center Board meetings. It was in that space that I learned to think holistically about community; not just about the community that I was a part of, but all of the communities that were represented in the student unions, and how we could work together, make change together, and support one another. I think that was the first time that I really thought about coalition-building, the need to show up for folks in their moments of need, listen to people’s experiences and then build plans to support the goals of other communities. That experience taught me to be thoughtful and mindful about relationship-building and what it means to be an ally to another community. I had a lot of space to practice being an ally to other communities because we were constantly trying to show up for one another and follow each other’s leads. I think that ended up being extraordinarily helpful when we went into non-profit organizing from there; people would say “oh wow, usually we have to teach people how to have these conversations.” We had just kind of done it by accident; we knew we needed each other, and we learned what it looked like to be in authentic and accountable relationships together that were mutually beneficial.

What was something that challenged your way of thinking while at UO?

Understanding that the end goal can be a very long-term process, identifying a goal and actually understanding what it takes to get there means short-term victories and setbacks, and growing through those moments instead of seeing them as defeats was something that was really a big shift for me. I have always had a competitive nature, so that was really eye-opening for me, to think more holistically about what it meant to make progress, and what it meant to grow through a tough moment. I have worked on legislative issues, like Tuition Equity, that took over 10 years to pass. Recognizing that there is value in being just one person in a series of many who can help move something just one step closer to the finish line is humbling.  

Share three words that describe what you like most about the UO today.

Community, research, and Go Ducks, if we can count it as one instead of two words.

Community for reasons I’ve already mentioned. My understanding of community has and continues to evolve over time in positive and meaningful ways.

Research; I’m thinking about this especially in the context of the research being led by the Ethnic Studies Department faculty.

Go Ducks Some of my fondest memories are being in Autzen Stadium as a student and as an alum. My peers and I found a way to be proud of the UO while organizing and sometimes being critical of the institution. That experience gave me the language to think about this current moment we’re in as a country. It has allowed me to remember that it is patriotic to be critical of things and push back on things you don’t agree with. In fact, it’s imperative for a healthy democracy, and I feel it’s our duty to help build a community that we can be proud of.

Describe what you do presently for work and for fun.

I am grateful that every day as the Manager of the Office of Human Rights & Neighborhood Involvement for the City of Eugene that I get to do my part to help make Eugene a place that fosters a sense of belonging for all people. We strive to make Eugene a place that is equitable, safe and welcoming by providing the community with opportunities for meaningful participation in community conversations, access to government process and services and connecting people to resources and assistance they are seeking. We support the City of Eugene in strategies to reach marginalized communities in public outreach efforts, advise on policy and practices that the city can use to advance human rights and equity and develop and deliver equity related trainings for staff.

How did your time at the UO impact your current position and successes?

There’s just no way that I’m in the position I’m in now if I hadn’t been a student at the UO and hadn’t had the opportunities and experiences that I did, because community organizing and policy change were unfamiliar concepts to me. I grew up in a house where my parents, especially my mom, was always looking for ways to help others. We regularly met people in grocery stores or through friends who were new to town and in need of things. If we had something we were no longer using or had something to spare it was theirs. I didn’t have words for it at the time but they were modeling community involvement from the beginning. Making a shift to helping others to building power together happened while I was at the UO.  Understanding how important it is to engage with the civic process was solidified for me. I learned about community organizing, building bridges, accountability, and how to take feedback.  As students in those organizing settings, we loved each other and held each other to a standard and also tried to get to a better place together. I learned to take accountability and really listen and hear people when they were talking. These friends became my family and my home away from home. I am forever grateful to the people I grew up with in those organizing spaces.

Success for me is about professional and personal balance. Family is incredibly important to me. It can’t go unsaid that I met my wonderful husband, David Van Der Haeghen, in Ethnic Studies classes at UO. We have made Eugene our home and built a community and life we love here. We are excited to celebrate our son’s first birthday in September – nurturing him and helping him grow has already been one of our greatest successes. It’s safe to say that we’re a Duck Family.

What does the word “advocacy” mean to you?

Using your voice and your power as an individual or collectively to work towards some type of change. One thing that I learned at the UO was to focus on the experiences of people who are most impacted by the policy change that is needed, folks who are most impacted often know exactly the solution that is necessary. We need to listen to the people who are experiencing challenges and follow their lead to make things better through policy change.  To me it’s not just about what you think is right, but what the community thinks is right.

What advice would you give people advocating for the UO about being an effective advocate?

Speaking from the heart and being straightforward and honest about why you’re advocating for something is important. As is sharing how something will impact you and when people who are directly impacted can’t be there, sharing their stories in a way that feels good and empowering to them. While we like to use email and online organizing, there is still nothing that goes as far as an in-person conversation or a phone call. Especially now that folks are using so much technology, a live conversation carries more weight than it may have before.

What is something you wish people knew about the advocacy process?

I wish people knew how often decision makers refer back to and even shift their hearts and minds on a topic because of a heartfelt story told to them by an impacted person. It may not feel like it in the moment that you’re influencing that decision maker, but later you might find your advocacy had a lasting impact.

It’s helpful to remember that decision makers are everyday people who are in the position they are to serve the community. You should never feel like a burden for contacting someone who represents you.  

Share an example of a time you felt successful advocating for something important to you.

When I was a senior at the UO a group of students came together to advocate for the Ethnic Studies Program to become a Department. We used organizing tactics like meetings with decision makers, letter writing and phone campaigns and earned media strategies to apply pressure to the administration. We were not the first group of students to advocate for this change, but we were the group that got to see it over the finish line. I’m incredibly proud to have been part of a team that made that level of institutional change for my peers, the students who came after us and the incredibly talented faculty and staff in the Ethnic Studies Department.