Alumni Profile: Jess Moore Matthews (STEINHARDT ’14)
March 15, 2021
“It’s not just about the complicated and often tiresome idea of being a backbone. It’s about having the backbone to stand up and say in full voice that constantly saving our nation from its worst inclinations is about preserving our birthright as Americans, too,” says Jess Moore Matthews (STEINHARDT ’14) about what inspired the name of her grassroots organization, Backbone Digital Leaders, a movement conceived by unbought and unbossed Black women spearheading a digital revolution.
2020 was a whirlwind of a year for Matthews, from starting her company to giving birth to her second child amidst the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic and historic uprisings and elections. The key to her success in staying balanced throughout all of this was not just having the backbone to push forward, but leaning into the backbone of her family, friends, and ancestry—“her village.”
What kept her going? Matthews says, “our mission was clear: get as many people to the polls as humanly possible. So we did; together with the incredibly talented team at [Michelle Obama’s] When We All Vote, we engaged more than 100 million people online in an election that saw a record-breaking turnout.”
Matthews spoke with us about Backbone’s mission to train the next generation in digital activism, going back home to North Carolina, and how her time at NYU set her on the path to organizing and championing.
The name Backbone has incredible meaning. What does the name mean to you and who were the folks in your life who gave you the backbone necessary to start your company?
Last November we heard Vice President Kamala Harris say “Black women are the backbone of our democracy.” We’ve heard this refrain before—notably in 2017 from then-chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez. And it’s true; year after year we see Black women marching and organizing and voting and constantly forcing our country to live up to its ideals so that the next generation can grow and thrive in a place they call home—in a place we ALL can call home.
That takes backbone. So for me, it’s not just about the complicated and often tiresome idea of being a backbone. It’s about having the backbone to stand up and say in full voice that constantly saving our nation from its worst inclinations is about preserving our birthright as Americans, too.
Tell us more about the inception of Backbone. What inspired you to start your company and how did working with When We All Vote propel this vision?
Founded in the midst of historic uprisings, elections, and a pandemic that pushed an unprecedented number of organizations to fully rely on digital mediums to market and organize, Backbone Digital Leaders was created to meet a crucial moment. Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote was our first big client and I came on board just four months shy of the November general election and two weeks shy of giving birth to my second child.
Our mission was clear: get as many people to the polls as humanly possible. So we did; together with the incredibly talented team at When We All Vote, we engaged more than 100 million people online in an election that saw a record-breaking turnout. Working throughout my maternity leave with the help of our first Backbone Fellow Kennedy Lyons—a senior at Prairie View A&M University—I focused specifically on email marketing and digital marketing strategy. It was the success of this work that made me realize the gravity of what Backbone could achieve.
Part of Backbone’s mission is to train the next generation in digital activism. How does your company work to do this?
Backbone offers a unique paid fellowship to provide young Black women and gender-expansive individuals hands-on experience and training in digital marketing, organizing, and civic engagement through work with high impact, high stakes causes and campaigns. With guidance and mentorship from the team and direct work with our partners, our Backbone Fellows are given myriad opportunities to assist with and potentially manage creative projects depending on the scope.
During the fellowship, Backbone Fellows champion a capstone project that addresses a social issue they are passionate about. The capstone is meant to display skills developed through the Backbone Fellowship to both the Backbone team as well as our partners. The Backbone Fellowship is the heart of our work and we take pride in this unique opportunity for teaching and learning in public. In the future, we hope to expand this work through workshops and a summer symposium for high school students.
We’ve just come out of 2020, one of the toughest years in recent history. How do you stay motivated to do the important work that you do?
In a time when so many are feeling both helpless and also hopeless, Backbone has been an outlet for me and my entire team to do something meaningful to make change. I launched Backbone while pregnant with my second child and first daughter, Carver Lillian—and I felt I owed it to her to do everything in my power to change the reality of the world I was bringing her into. She crashes many of my Backbone meetings (I call her our Baby Organizing Director) and she and my son Kevin III (Cub) are constant reminders that the time is now to continue the fight of their ancestors to reimagine the world as we know it.
Accountability is another factor. We meet with our Board of Advisors—a dynamic group of Black women that include activist Bree Newsome Bass and strategist Maya Rupert—twice annually to report and get feedback on our work. Backbone also recently won the financial backing of Level—a multiracial network of women committed to investing in Black women entrepreneurs. And this organization has offered so much more to Backbone than money; their support, wisdom, and strategic guidance has meant the world as we’ve grown from a two-person organization to an almost ten-person organization in just six months.
Based on your feature in The New York Times, it seems you have built such a fruitful life, not just in terms of success with your career and building your grassroots organization, but with having kept family, love, and friendship at the forefront. How do you try to keep that delicate balance between your work and a personal life, especially during this unprecedented time where so many of us struggle to keep that balance?
It was a strange experience to “come home” to North Carolina after 12 years away—almost eight of those years spent in New York City hauling strollers up and down the subway steps. But the presence of my parents has made all the difference and I think that’s been the key to surviving this last year: seeking help and relying on our village. I couldn’t have done this work without the support of my husband, the assistance of my sister-in-law (the Backbone Fellow), the help of my best friend, and even the support of a therapist who I began seeing not long after giving birth to my daughter. My team knows I’m always eager to interrogate the myth of the “strong Black woman” and I firmly believe that having a backbone does not preclude the necessity of a strong foundation to lean on when things get rough.
What are some of your most memorable moments at NYU?
I used to love running down to Union Square between work and classes to join protests, rallies, and marches every week. I’ll never forget my first time in Saks Fifth Avenue, which was for a die-in. Or that time we shut down Sixth Avenue in an impromptu march for Eric Garner. Those moments are what sparked my interest in organizing and activism and those moments are what led me to do my master’s thesis on social responses to violence against Black women.
What words of support would you give to current NYU students and soon-to-be-graduates?
Experience it all. There’s no place like New York City and there’s no place like NYU. I worked in tech, higher education, publishing, government, and even as a barista before I found my niche. I took a random class in film, went skydiving on Long Island, shadowed a news anchor, and traveled to India to learn more about how college students were using social media to communicate. Soak it all up—there will never be another moment like the one you’re living right now.