Jolayne Houtz

Dir. of Communications and Public Relations, UW Dept. of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences

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

I attended UO from 1983 to 1987, majoring in journalism and minoring in economics.

Was there a class that inspired you in a new way while at UO?

As aspiring journalists, we were encouraged to take a broad range of classes, dabbling in a little bit of everything, and I took that to heart. I took courses in political science, Shakespeare, magazine writing, psychology, French literature and the economics of the wine industry (lots of fellow journalism students in that class!). All of it informed my worldview and my 25-year career as a journalist.

Was there an experience offered by UO that opened your eyes to something new (i.e. a passion, a culture, a perspective, etc.)?

Being part of the Oregon Daily Emerald, the student-run newspaper, was a pivotal experience for me. As a budding reporter, I wrote stories about the UO administration, the AIDS crisis and many other issues. It served as a real-world apprenticeship for me, a master class in reporting and storytelling.

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

An open mind, a thirst for learning and a passion for justice.

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

I remember learning about apartheid in my History of South Africa class and feeling shocked and angry as I came to understand the history of oppression and white colonialism in Africa. One day, there was an anti-apartheid march on campus. I felt compelled to participate as a marcher, yet I also wanted to cover the march as a journalist. I had to make a choice: Would I serve as a neutral observer—a journalist and truth-teller helping to inform people—or would I join the protesters as an activist and advocate? I chose my career path as a storyteller and truth-seeker that day.  

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

Connections. Caring. Common good.

What is your present or past career/occupation and/or what do you do for fun?

I spent 25 years as a reporter and editor, first at the Eugene Register-Guard, then the Salem Statesman-Journal and finally The Seattle Times. In 2007, I was ready for a career change and have enjoyed a rich and fascinating second chapter of my career working in science journalism, marketing and communications. I previously worked for PATH, a global health nonprofit; the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation; and the University of Washington. I currently serve as Director of Communications for the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.

Travel, cooking, entertaining and paddle boarding are among the things I love to do with my free time.

How did your time at the UO impact your current experiences/successes?

I’ve traveled the world as a journalist and writer. I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to meet so many interesting people and share their stories. My time at the UO paved the way for all of it, giving me a strong liberal arts background, critical-thinking skills and an appreciation for the power of words to capture the human experience and create common ground.

What does the word “advocacy” mean to you?

I consider myself an advocate for facts, for science and for truth. That’s perhaps a little different than advocating for a cause, a person or a community, but I think it comes from the same perspective. It’s about taking action on behalf of a principle or a passion to try to make the world a little bit better for others.

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

As a communicator, I try to start every new story or project with a core question: Who is my audience? It’s a simple but often-overlooked first step in any kind of communications. What are their values, motivations and pain points? What action do you want them to take? Knowing the answers to those questions allows you to talk with people, not just at them, creating connections that can move people to action.

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

Telling your own personal story is one of the most compelling and authentic ways to be an advocate. Using your own experience to underscore your point humanizes your cause. They say the shortest distance between two people is a story.

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

Environmental health equity: In the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, our Communications team partnered with the Washington State Departments of Health and Ecology, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and a coalition of community organizations to develop and share the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map, an interactive tool that ranks the cumulative risk each community in Washington faces from environmental health risks. The free tool features customizable map views to pinpoint where living and economic conditions combine with pollution to contribute to inequitable health outcomes and unequal access to healthy communities.

Washington’s new clean energy law will use data from this map to identify Washington communities most highly impacted by fossil fuel pollution and climate change as part of moving toward a clean-power economy by 2045.

The technical report we developed about the map has been downloaded nearly 800 times, and the department’s research page featuring the map is one of our top most-visited pages.

Malaria elimination: In 2017, I had the opportunity to lead a story-gathering team to Senegal from the global health nonprofit PATH. We focused on how PATH partners with the private sector and the national government to help eliminate malaria, a disease that sickens 350,000 Senegalese every year.

Through video, social media and blog posts, we told the story of a dynamic woman named Coumba Diouf, a PATH-trained “community champion” who acts as a sort of malaria block-watch captain responsible for shoring up her neighborhood’s defenses against this deadly disease. Diouf organizes neighborhood trash cleanups, demonstrates the use of bednets and scolds homeowners who leave standing water around their water pumps that could provide breeding ground for mosquitoes. She is part of a PATH-sponsored “Zero Malaria Starts With Me!” national campaign.