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Solving Our Big Problems Together

JP Alumni Fellow Ashley Mages is not going to stop speaking up in the name of necessary change for women, especially moms pursuing education.

One of Ashley Mages’ most memorable JP experiences was her campus graduation ceremony: “both mom and children in cap and gown, celebrating their accomplishments,” she recalls. “I bawled the entire ceremony. I had finally reached the summit after years of juggling parenting, working, sleepless nights, and school. All of it had been worth it!”

A controls engineer, mother of one, 2014 JP Minneapolis alum and 2022 JP Alumni Fellow, Ashley holds onto the sense of community from her JP experience too. “We were surrounded by moms doing the hard work to better their families’ lives,” she remembers. “We knew we were not alone in our struggle, nor were we alone in what we were trying to do.”

One of the most important things she’s trying to do is use her voice for necessary change.

What dreams are you working to realize?

I want to work to strive to be more, learn, challenge myself and stretch. So if I speak up or volunteer for something that I’m uncomfortable with, acknowledging that uncomfortableness — in a good situation — means growth and allowing myself to seek that uncomfortableness.

Longer term, I want to transition more from working to spending my time on policy and talking to people to come up with better systems because we do have a lot of things that aren’t done well at all that we need to see and problem-solve together. And none of it’s easy answers and it’s not easy to change what we’re doing as a system, as a society, but I want to do my best to enact those changes and help us all be better. I would like to be more actively involved in driving change and bettering lives.

The effort it takes to help people that are trying to better their lives — when I was on public assistance, all the extra work they throw at you. You tell them you’re going to school to get an education, and then they like look down on you, and I’m like, “What is this system?” If we don’t let people get education, we are holding them back and we make it more difficult to improve lives. That is appalling and should not be allowed at all.

My dreams are also to see my daughter be happy and successful. I have seen her and her abilities grow and think she will surpass me in most things. I greatly look forward to seeing this.

What are you most anticipating about your future? Your child’s future?

I look forward to seeing my daughter continue to grow and choose her path. I think I have instilled great values and an open mind. I am beyond excited to see where she chooses to go with her life and the things she accomplishes.

Where I am now, I am finally at a senior position at work. I mean, I say “finally,” but I’ve been in the field for eight years. The other day, I was talking to a colleague, and because I just started at this company, they said, “Oh, are you fresh out of school?” And I said, “No, I’m a senior-position engineer.” Sometimes, I still have to battle to be heard and stand up for myself, and I do a good job to speak up for myself. And the number of meetings that I have to push to be involved in, even if it’s multiple iterations…I’m not going to stop, and I’m going to speak up and do what I have to do and push things and communicate — and sometimes over-communicate — with people so we can find solutions.

“Single mothers are strong. The things that they overcome while others take simple things for granted shows strength.”

What do people wrongly assume about single moms?

There are many false assumptions about single mothers. I’ve come across people that assume single mothers are “working the system” or not trying their hardest and many other things. My experience is nothing like that because of what I’ve seen and what I’ve done in my own life that just has made me more driven to crush my own goals, as well as make this world a better place for my child. I have not met a single one that fits the stereotypes. Single mothers are strong. The things that they overcome while others take simple things for granted shows strength. And even the situation where you think somebody would choose to be in that situation, where they’re just choosing to get money and do nothing with their life — all the people I know have goals and dreams.

And even though they’re struggling, in the example of education, we make that fence really high to get over. So I don’t blame the people that can’t deal with everything that they had to get over just to make it through to college. For example, if you were in a situation where you’re on public assistance and wanted to try to go to school, they’re not going to support your education, and then you’re going to have no money at all and have to try to figure out balancing even more work on top of education. It’s not a situation that we make it easy for anyone to go through. So the people that don’t go that path, it’s not because they don’t have goals and want to do things with their life. It’s because we’ve made it too challenging to do that, and that’s part of what we need to change.

What should public policymakers prioritize so that single moms can fairly reach economic mobility?

Affordable daycare, affordable education, affordable housing. Financial education should be taught to everyone, beginning from a young age, and this one is more of just a failure in general, all across the board.

Over 60% of college students change their majors, and expectation as a society that people go to college, but they don’t know what they want to do — they’re not equipped to make the right choices at that age. And they don’t even know what taking loans out means and what that means for your future and the whole picture. We as a society need to do a much better job on preparing kids to understand these decisions. It doesn’t have to be taking a path to college but know that it’s not a good idea to buy a new car when you’re delivering pizzas. But even as a society, we have this expectation that people need to drive new cars or go to the best school, and we’re not giving everyone all the knowledge that we need for the whole picture.

What do you hope your child will remember about JP years down the line?

The effort it takes to do great things. Life is not easy, but if you keep going, it will be amazing.

[When we’re in JP,] we’re all in that stage in life where life is especially hard. I mean, we always have our challenges in life, and we don’t go too long between seasons before it’s a hard season again — but just acknowledging that and kind of seeing that in its rawest form where we’re all in that situation together. So we can all see it and relate and have that community of, “Hey, we’re all here trying so hard to just make it through another day” and have that together. And then each one of us chooses to keep going for our futures, and the beauty and just amazingness in that is a good life lesson.

I remember when I was in one of my Empowerment [and Leadership] classes, and one of the facilitators said, “Once you get through this, you’re not immune to hard things. You’re still going to have hard things in your life, but you will have some more tools to help you through.” Whenever we’re in that season, we think it’s the worst, but there’s always more things that we’ll face. But then looking back and seeing what we’ve overcome and already gone through gives us strength to realize, “Oh yeah, I’ve probably been through worse, and I’ve gone through more, so I have the strength to go through this.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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