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Life & Work with Parker Gilkesson

Today we’d like to introduce you to Parker Gilkesson.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
My life has truly been a story of following your gut, trusting God, serving, and surrendering to the journey. When I was a little girl, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to be but I knew I always had a visceral desire to help people. As I matriculated through high school and early college I thought, at the time, the best way to help people would be through becoming a doctor—specifically an OB/GYN. During the summer of my sophomore year at Howard University, I decided to intern for an OB/GYN in Silver Spring, MD.

While interning, he educated me on the realities of the insurance system and the barriers to giving people the care he felt they deserved. Learning about all of this outraged me and I quickly realized the importance of systemic change. From our conversations, the doctor quickly realized that medicine may not be best suited for me, but he strongly recommended that I consider policy and public health.

He wasn’t concerned that I wouldn’t be a great doctor, he was concerned that I would burn out with frustration over the hurdles and barriers to proper care that would be out of my control. He further explained that I needed to help people on a macro level to see the change I desired to see. I never imagined myself in policy but our conversations changed me. I couldn’t ignore the gut feeling I was having so I had to explore this new path.

I ended up changing my major at Howard from biology to Maternal and Child health education. This program took a deep dive into public health, research, and education. We explored topics such as food deserts, Black maternal mortality, and how race affects health outcomes well before these topics were a hot commodity.

After graduating from Howard, I followed my gut again and took six months to go to Esthiology school at Aveda. I am the Jill of all trades and love to keep the skill in my back pocket, so instead of jumping right into a job, I followed a passion of mine to learn more about healthy skin and makeup. Once I completed the program, I moved to Charlotte, NC where I began working for the county social services office as an eligibility specialist. In this role, I worked directly with people to determine their eligibility for Medicaid, TANF, and SNAP. I absolutely loved this job because I got an opportunity to directly connect with people, get them the resources they needed, and speak words of encouragement to them in their time of need.

However, I quickly realized the false stereotypes about people experiencing poverty have directly influenced public benefits policies. Contrary to those harmful stereotypes, my clients were honorable folks who had fallen on hard times and struggled to make ends meet in today’s economy. Sadly, this country has relied on racist stereotypes, particularly on the backs of Black women, to justify framing poverty as exclusively a consequence of individual choices, laziness, and fraudulence instead of framing it as a systemic failure fueled by white supremacy. This inaccurate framing had very real policy implications that weren’t fitting to people’s needs and created more barriers for them to achieve economic success.

After a few years of working for social services and completing my graduate degree in public policy simultaneously, I began to get that gut feeling again. The longer I worked there the more I understood that the doctor I worked for all those years ago was right. The systemic change had to take place to change the programs in a way that would better address folks’ needs. After months of pondering on it, I truly felt compelled to move back to Washington, DC to begin working in policy. But how? Where would I start?

Who should I call? I knew absolutely nothing about the policy space but I did have real-world experience with the policies I wanted to help effect change in. So I left my job and moved back to DC with nothing but a vision and passion. To find my way, I served. I worked on numerous campaigns in Baltimore City, did community engagement, and so much more to learn about policy, politics, and the legislative process.

However, one of the most defining moments for me was working for a temp agency. It sounded odd that I would leave my “good government job,” to move back to DC to be paid much less to work at a temp agency with a whole master’s degree, right? But that’s why I emphasize how important it is to follow your gut, even beyond what seems most logical.

Based on my interest in policy, the temp agency sent me out to a multitude of national policy nonprofits. Every day, I got to meet different policy advocacy professionals, read their research, and connect with them about their work experiences. This was a new world to me because I didn’t even know this line of work existed. They weren’t legislators or politicians, but they were researchers and advocates who provided the resources and expertise to legislators to help educate and inform their policy priorities and decisions.

What a powerful position to be able to influence and educate legislators to better help the community?

I began to apply for policy analyst positions and came across the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). I absolutely loved their mission and how they prioritized racial equity not just in their words, but even in their diverse hiring practices. They had one of the most diverse workforces I had ever seen. I took a leap of faith to apply to this prestigious organization and I ended up getting the position! Now as a Senior Policy Analyst, I have the pleasure of advocating for public benefits policies that ensure racial equity and greater economic mobility for people experiencing poverty.

One of the top priorities in my work is to ground policy priorities in the wisdom and experiences of those directly impacted by them. Therefore, I have worked to co-create the Community Partnership Group which is a diverse collective of activists from across the United States with the lived experience of poverty, who seek to share their expertise beyond storytelling to create equitable policy solutions. I believe engaging directly impacted people in the creation and implementation of policy solutions will help to create systemic changes, address root causes, and eventually eradicate poverty and inequities in the health and social welfare of our nation’s residents.

Where I am today is not where I would have ever imagined! Life transformed for me when I took the emphasis off of a specific destination and I placed my trust in God and surrendered to the journey. I allowed my gut and my passion to guide me each step of the way without a worry of my exact destination. Life is meant to be lived, experienced, and explored and I plan to do that for the rest of my life.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
My journey has been particularly rough and rugged because active faith while surrendering to the journey isn’t easy. Most people see where you are now, but they didn’t know the backstory of how you arrived there. Faith is often misunderstood as passive, where you’re waiting around on something you’re believing for when contrarily, faith is actively preparing for what you’re believing for as if it is already happening.

Faith is the act of making space. I had to recognize that a true relationship with God was not always about God performing miracles for me, but about the fact that I had the power within myself to manifest anything! The only catch is, was I willing to go through a period of character building before receiving it. Yes, it’s easy to get something, but it is not easy to sustain it. Some of the things I went through genuinely would have broken my hope and spirit if I didn’t fiercely believe in myself and what I set out to do.

Each character-building phase I went through helped prepare me for the next level so I began understanding the pain they brought me as an opportunity for growth instead of an opportunity to lose hope. I saw those times as an opportunity to serve and that perspective change allowed me to persevere to eventually see the fruit of my faith.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I am a senior policy analyst with CLASP’s Income and Work Supports team where I specialize in work support programs for people with low incomes.

I am a subject matter expert in social policy, benefit eligibility, human services delivery, racial equity, community partnership, and state and local policy regarding SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid. I have written for or have been quoted in TIME Magazine, New York Times, National Public Radio, The Hill, and many more.

What sets me apart is my ability to be a bridge between people and policy. I break down some of the most technical terms so that my family, friends, or other community members would be able to actively engage in a conversation about policy. We live in a democracy but it is extremely difficult for people to actively participate in the democratic process when the language surrounding policy is mystified and obfuscated.

My goal is to bring diverse groups of folks into the policy advocacy space to demystify policy, highlight issues that directly affect them and their communities, and make bold yet sustainable policy changes that will dismantle systemic racism and bolster greater economic justice for all.

We’d love to hear about how you think about risk-taking?
Without risk-taking, there is no reward. From the story that I shared earlier, my life has been a compilation of leaps of faith! I have always been a risk-taker but even I sometimes had rigid thought processes that I had to break out of to continue taking greater leaps. Sometimes our emphasis on the fear of “failure” creates a perspective that doesn’t allow us to take risks out of fear.

But as I’ve surrendered to the journey I realize that what we perceive as “failure” are necessary steps on the journey. Instead of becoming paralyzed with fear based on the possibility of “failure,” I had to get comfortable with the fact that life is not linear. Life is not about good and bad decisions. Life is not about control. Life is about living and no matter how well you plan or calculate, there are some life lessons you will simply have to go through.

So in each defining moment when a decision has to be made, I do my best and forget the rest. If it is aligned with me to have or accomplish, there is nothing that will stop me from it, if I keep pressing forward. If it is misaligned with me and my purpose, it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t happen and if it does, it won’t last.

That perspective change has helped me to once again, follow my gut and surrender to the journey. Where I am and where I’ll go is where I’m meant to be. I don’t have to worry about the logistics, all I need to do is jump when my gut feels the urge.

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1 Comment

  1. Felicia Jones

    March 12, 2022 at 1:19 am

    Great and Impressive path. Continue to help others as God has provided a divine path for you. Product of Aggie Pride!

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