Published March 10, 2020 at 8:53am
Story by Liliana Banta. Photos by Mary Martin.
Jessica Trudeau is the dynamic and accomplished Executive Director of the Momentous Institute, aiming to give students a healthy emotional base from which to excel in school—and in life. Jessica’s background includes earning an undergraduate degree in microbiology from Louisiana State University. Later, finding her passion, Jessica earned her master’s degree in Public Health from Tulane University. She worked in public health early in her career, focusing on HIV intervention and prevention, injury prevention, child abuse, and family violence. After acting as the Executive Director of Family Compass for over six years, she began her work at the Momentous Institute in 2015, as the Director of Development. By significantly diversifying the organization’s financial support, she and her team dramatically increased the rate of fundraising for the Momentous Institute, creating a stronger organization.
Momentous Institute offers mental health and educational services to more than 5,000 children and family members and training to thousands of professionals annually. The agency has two campuses, one located in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of South Dallas and another on Harry Hines Boulevard. The campus in Oak Cliff is home to a laboratory elementary school and counseling office. The school, serving 248 students, distinguishes itself from other schools in Dallas with a data-driven model that focuses equally on building social emotional health and rigorous academics. One way in which these data are used, is in the formulation of research resulting from the Institute’s investigation into the impact of social emotional health on academic achievement. Teachers seek to develop student’s social emotional health, while ensuring the academic and social success of each student. The organization aims to minimize the barriers that prevent children from getting what they need. Not only are the data used within the school to help its own student population, but the data are shared with Dallas ISD leaders, educators and administrators across the nation. The goal is to help students build strong social emotional health, in order to achieve strong academic outcomes and become healthy adults.
Recognizing that Momentous Institute needed to have integrity while addressing issues of institutionalized oppression and racism through social emotional health training in the community, Jessica understood that the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion needed to be explored at the organization; consequently, she was also the co-chair of an internal committee aimed at understanding those topics. The organization gathers data on clients, access to services, as well as outcomes as a result of intervention. In 2019, Jessica was awarded the role of Executive Director at The Momentous Institute. Although Jessica was academically prepared for nonprofit work, she was drawn to this work for a specific reason—she wanted to participate in a healing space with others. By working with the Momentous Institute, she is able to create that space with her team every day.
The Momentous School is located in Oak Cliff, an area of Dallas that is facing a shift in development after decades of economic isolation; most of the Institute’s students are living on the poverty line. While poverty alone can be a traumatic experience for children, as basic needs go unmet, poverty is not the only traumatic experience some of these children are experiencing. Jessica discussed other traumatic experiences that these children may encounter—abuse being one. One of Jessica’s core missions is to help these children learn coping mechanisms through education that prioritizes social emotional health. A focus on social emotional health is used to create an internal space where coping is learned, along with an environment where learning can flourish. A third area where The Momentous Institute uses social emotional health in education is in the application of discipline. Instead of punishing a child through detention or other negative systems, Jessica and her colleagues believe in “teachable moments.” These “teachable moments” include deep breathing to encourage self-regulation through their frustrations and angers. Students can then recognize and participate in repairing relationships and learn from the situation. Finally, the school children participate in open conversations regarding what they could do better next time. Research shows that this approach works effectively; children who have developed social emotional health and are able to self-regulate, in fact, have better academic and life outcomes.
One of the ways in which these elementary school students learn to overcome childhood adversity, whether poverty or other issues, is through the application of social emotional health competencies – self-regulation, self-awareness, compassion, empathy and grit. Not only do teachers help students with their core classes – teachers also help the students with building social emotional health. The Momentous Institute focuses on building healthy minds as an everyday part of their curriculum. Along with daily reading, writing and arithmetic, the students also learn about mindfulness, brain structure, and self-soothing. This unique program tracks and measures the emotional health of their students. This holistic approach educates the whole student — one who is academically sound, mentally healthy, and emotionally intelligent. Data indicates that students upon their promotion to middle school, are well prepared to be the change-makers of the future. Data shows that 95% of Momentous alumni are graduating high school on time and alumni are three times as likely to graduate from college compared to their national peers.
It is clear that Jessica creates space for others to flourish, and she considers this her most natural state of being. She enjoys the importance of identifying major issues that need to shift within the community to create change for all children. Focusing on training and research, the Momentous Institute and its workforce are considered thought leaders; they contribute to development of local, state, and federal legislation. The broad community impact that this organization is having truly excites Jessica as she considers, “the child in front of me, today, is going to have better outcomes—but also the child I will never meet, will also have better outcomes” because of the Institute and its services. She is incredibly passionate about her work at The Momentous Institute and loves being a part of the Dallas nonprofit sector.
Jessica has a positive outlook regarding Dallas’ nonprofit community because it is so cohesive and collaborative. She emphasized the importance of all the nonprofits working together for a common cause, saying, “if [the nonprofit sector] wants to improve the community for our children, we will never operate in competition with one another. We will always work in collaboration.” Jessica is on a remarkable journey to help others and has found her place in the collective of the nonprofit sector in Dallas. Jessica has found her home in Dallas, and Dallas has found a champion for its children in Jessica Trudeau.