Kelsey Wilson, School of Public Affairs, graduate, Arizona State University, spotlight

Alumni spotlight: ’18 grad’s mock legislation is introduced as resolution in Illinois General Assembly

By

Mark J. Scarp

Kelsey Wilson was an inquisitive child whose many questions shaped her view of the world.

“My family knows I have pondered, ‘What is just?’ my entire life,” said Wilson, a 2018 ASU dual-degree graduate now pursuing two graduate degrees at Loyola University in Chicago. “Luckily, they have put up with my incessant questioning and debating.”

When she was in the sixth grade, she said, young Kelsey came home from school fired up about a segment broadcast in the classroom by national news service Channel One.

“I asked my dad his thoughts on whether taxpayers should fund Christmas decorations at a state capitol building when not all residents celebrate Christmas,” Wilson said. “My family will not let me forget that I would not drop the conversation for hours. They gave me space to learn to justify my strong convictions at a young age.”

Wilson describes her time at ASU as rewarding and academically productive. She was an honors student at Barrett, the Honors College. She also served as director of civic engagement for the Undergraduate Student Government, was a senior page at the Arizona State Senate and participated in the Spirit of Service Scholar program administered by the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions-based Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Policy.

In 2018 she received two Bachelor of Science degrees, one in public policy from Watts College’s School of Public Affairs and one in political science from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Today, once again she seeks two degrees. She channels her interest in education reform by pursuing a Master of Education Policy degree and a law degree (JD) at Loyola University in Chicago.

Read on to learn more about Wilson and how mock legislation she co-drafted for Loyola’s Legislative and Policy Clinic was picked up and introduced as a real resolution in February by a member of the Illinois General Assembly.

Question: Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.

Answer: I grew up in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. In many ways, my childhood was defined by community and service. My parents served on various community boards and maintained membership in service organizations. As a result, my siblings and I were always in tow. Even with money tight in our home, my parents were inclined to give. Every other Christmas, my siblings and I would forgo our own Christmas lists to sponsor a family in greater need.

Q: What are you doing today?

A: I am in my final semester of a dual Juris Doctor/Master of Education Policy degree program at Loyola University (Chicago) School of Law, where I am a Rodin Social Justice Fellow.

Q: You co-wrote legislation that a state legislator picked up and introduced in the Illinois General Assembly. Tell us about it and what went into writing it.

A: Throughout law school, I have been involved with Loyola’s ChildLaw Center. The ChildLaw Center works on behalf of vulnerable children and families through litigation and policy reform. Through Loyola’s Legislation and Policy Clinic, my partner and I worked with the Statewide Youth Advisory Board to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which represent the voices of foster youth, on crafting and advancing their youth-driven agenda.

In 2019, the Statewide Youth Advisory Board identified the use of restraints as its top priority citing experiences with physical and psychological harm. That same year, the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica investigated the use of restraint and seclusion on children and adolescents in Illinois schools. Seclusion is the involuntary confinement of a child alone in a room where he or she is physically prevented from leaving. Restraint is a manual hold by a staff member to prevent the child’s free movement and normal access to his or her body.

Because of the ChildLaw Center’s broad focus on child-serving systems that handle child abuse and neglect, juvenile justice, education and human rights for the child, my partner and I engaged in conversations with child attorneys, educators, social workers and academics on the over-reliance of these coercive safety interventions. For years, child-serving systems thought of restraint and seclusion not only as a safety intervention, but as a means to forcefully correct challenging and dangerous behaviors. Now, this point of view is completely at odds with reality and research.

The final project in the Legislation and Policy Clinic requires students to draft mock legislation. My partner and I sought to holistically shift, in climate and policy, the way the state of Illinois approaches children and adolescents in crisis. The Illinois departments of Children and Family Services, Human Services, Public Health, Mental Health, Juvenile Justice and the Illinois State Board of Education each established restraint and seclusion standards.

Although purposeful variations distinguish one child-serving agency from another, children and adolescents face the same grave impact. As a result, we chose to draft a resolution that provides a consistent underlying principle across agencies, but does not dictate the method for preventing and reducing or prescribe a given timeline. Instead, the resolution urges that restraint and seclusion only be administered in the least restrictive manner and never be used for purposes of punishment, discipline or convenience. We drafted the resolution to give each agency the freedom to implement the shared vision in accordance with the agency’s unique set of circumstances.

Our draft resolution was picked up and sponsored by state Rep. Delia C. Ramirez this legislative session.

Q: How did your time at Watts College and ASU prepare you for life after college?

A: Watts College and ASU prepared me to work across disciplines to tackle policy issues in tandem. As a member of the Spirit of Service Scholarship cohort, I worked with 11 other scholars from different majors and programs on solving complex social problems. Everything I do these days involves working with a broad coalition to advance goals. I am grateful I had the opportunity during my undergraduate career to collaborate across sectors.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: I attended high school during the Great Recession, and to be quite honest, I felt it. I remember one of the school halls had a broken air conditioner and two school field trips each ended with students sitting on the side of the road next to a smoking bus. When my high school needed a volunteer to serve on the Arizona Department of Education’s Youth Advisory Group, I felt compelled to attend. Youth from across the state met to discuss the most pressing issues in our schools.

I was really naïve; I thought every school was facing similar problems in light of the collective dire financial state. As youth around the room began to share concerns about school uniforms and privacy policies on personal electronic devices, I was perplexed. My school had a trailer pumping cold air into a building. I could not imagine my school giving each student an electronic device, let alone be upset about the policy governing it. I went home and researched everything I could about education funding. This crash course on inequity drove my commitment to improving quality of life and life outcomes for children.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: As a low-income student, I wanted to attend a state school in order to keep my education costs down in anticipation of graduate school. I was drawn to the Socratic seminar style classes offered by Barrett, the Honors College. Listening to a professor lecture is nice, but after growing up in a community with one high school, I craved exposure to a broader range of perspectives and experiences. I appreciated that the human events course would facilitate that type of discussion with my peers.

Additionally, I am a hands-on learner. I weighed what type of internship opportunities would be available in the surrounding community. With ASU’s close proximity to the Arizona State Capitol, I figured the location provided more opportunities for professional development. Looking back, this factor was huge for me. I spent two years interning at the Arizona State Senate as a senior page. My time at the Legislature was the most eye-opening experience of my life.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: The ASU Charter statement had a lasting impact on the way I view my own work. It declares that the university is “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.” I keep the “how they succeed” part at the forefront of my mind in every initiative I work on. Public service should always be more than enacting policy on folks; it is enacting policy for the betterment of the breadth of our communities. Knowing how one succeeds requires turning real attention to lived experiences.

Q: If you had college to experience all over again, what would you do differently? The same?

A: I would do everything the same. The highlight of my college experience was serving as vice president of policy for the Tempe campus’ Undergraduate Student Government. Every single day I worked with peers who amazed, inspired and challenged me. Change is not created overnight. Student government gave me a practical lesson in how slow policy change often occurs. Pieces set in motion during my term would not come to fruition until years after my graduation. Moreover, the experience gave me a deeper appreciation for those who choose to hold public office. It is difficult to balance competing interests across time and space. Significantly, I learned the most important part of leadership is listening.

Q: If you could clone yourself, what other career would you pursue?

A: I would be a social worker or high school teacher. Working with directly with youth brings me so much joy.

Q: What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?

A: I did not have a cell phone until I was 16! My parents were adamant that cell phones were luxuries, and if we wanted a phone, we would pay for it ourselves. I personally think I was one of my parents’ smartest decisions. As an adult, I value that I do not feel pressured to be accessible to others at all times. Monitoring my own tech use is one of the main ways I try to find work-life balance in a world that is more virtual than ever.