WWPD: Jackie Illum


At the end of the 19th century, a young French writer named Marcel Proust answered a series of questions from a confession book, similar to what we’d call an autograph book. The responses to these inquiries were thought to unlock the true character of a person – it was a popular parlor game at the time. Proust’s eloquent, extraordinary answers became quite famous, and although he didn’t author the questions himself, the collective queries are now known as a Proust Questionnaire.


1. What is your idea of perfect happiness at work?

Perfect happiness for me is working with a group of passionate and intelligent people trying to make the world a better place, especially for the most vulnerable. I can’t stand anything more than working with apathetic or uninspired people. As such, I work hard to make sure the people I work with love what they’re doing. I’ve found that I need to have a direct connection from my work to a community so I can continually learn from the community as well as attach real meaning and purpose to what I do every day.

2. What is your greatest professional fear?

I hope that I’ve already lived through my greatest professional fear and never have to encounter it again! My greatest professional fear is being trapped in a job/organization that doesn’t fit my mission and values, and/or doesn’t allow me to use my skills and realize my potential. There can’t be much worse than feeling like your brain, body, and soul are rotting away at a desk while knowing there is so much work to be done out in the world.

3. What trait do you have to work on the most?

Accepting that I don’t have control over everything and that sometimes there is more than one path to the same endpoint.

4. What trait do you look for in colleagues?

I feel like a broken record here, but passion, passion, passion! It’s really difficult for me to work with people who don’t care about the work being done. There’s a big difference between being unhappy in a specific position/organization, and not caring what you spend at least 40 hours per week doing. Being unhappy means you know there’s something else out there that you care about, so go find it!

5. What trait do you want to create in organizations with which you work?

It’s important that people feel valued and included in an organization. You never know who is going to come up with the next great idea, or create a long-lasting connection that can help the organization grow. If people are afraid to speak up or feel less valued than others, it hinders organizational growth. Of course, most organizations have a hierarchy, but to some extent it’s essential for everybody to feel like their opinions and ideas matter – because they do!

6. What organization’s mission do you most admire?

This is obviously biased, but I love Community Health Councils’ mission (which is why I work there), to promote social justice and achieve equity in community and environmental resources to improve the health and well- being of underserved populations.

7. What is the most important investment a business or non-profit could make?

To me, investing in passionate, mission-driven people is the most important investment. Innovation isn’t born out of employees whose primary concern is clocking in, clocking out, and getting paid. I don’t care how many hours a person works, as long as they care about what they’re doing, I know they’ll do it well.

8. What is your current state of mind?

I’m currently feeling very motivated and hopeful. I just started a new job with a policy advocacy organization that I used to partner with on the evaluation side. Just prior to my arrival, a new strategic plan was created, so I’m really excited to carve out my new role in the organization and help make South LA a more equitable place.


9. What do you consider the most overused buzzword in your field?

Disruptive innovation.

10. Under what circumstances do you need to adapt?

I think I’m constantly adapting because the world around us changes daily.

11. What perception of your field do you most want to change?

I learned about urban planning embarrassingly late in life (post-college). So first, I wish people learned about this at an earlier point in their life. The perception that planning isn’t interesting or that it isn’t important to public health is something that is changing, but not fast enough. While I’m seeing a new trend, I still encounter so many public health professionals who grossly undervalue the planning profession.

12. Which person in your field do you most admire?

I admire so many people in my field for waking up daily to face an ugly world and work to make it better. The passion is unbelievable and incredibly inspiring. That said, if I had to name names, I would say David Sloane and LaVonna Lewis at USC because they’ve both been instrumental in shaping me into the health equity advocate I’ve become.

13. What is the quality you like the most in a boss?

I don’t know if there is one specific quality, but I like to have a boss who really cares about the work we are doing and who respects their employees enough to foster a warm working environment. Making sure people feel valued in an organization is key.

14. What is the quality you like the most in a client?

Commitment to the work.

15. What is your elevator pitch for your job?

I work in the intersection of urban planning and public health. I’m really interested in making the built environment more equitable for the communities that need it most, primarily communities of color and low income communities. The disparities I see between communities are unacceptable because we all deserve to live a good quality of life, regardless of where we were born and live.

16. What is your professional motto/mantra?

If you don’t like what you’re doing for at least 40 hours a week, find something new!

17. What is your professional passion?

I’m a research and evaluation nerd, passionate about community based participatory research. I don’t understand how someone can take funds to work on a project in a specific community, but then never leave their university office to learn from the community itself.

18. How did you fall in love with your field/job/career?

After college I spent time working as a lab manager in a childhood obesity lab in Philadelphia. Although I thought the research was interesting and important when I was hired, I began to make the connection that the built environment was likely to blame for most of the kids my PI treated. Through a series of fortunate events, I ended up at USC for graduate school and started working with two faculty members during my first semester. Their passion for impacting positive change in vulnerable communities made me fall in love with urban planning and working with communities.

Jessica PayneComment