Close your eyes and imagine a city filled with community spaces where neighbors and children gather and share a beautiful winter afternoon; with buildings and alleys draped in murals; where biking isn’t just a leisure activity reserved for the weekends, but a major mode of transportation. Now, for a moment, imagine that city is Lansing.
“There are places in the world where people mainly get around by walking and biking, and they’re some of the fittest places in the world,” said Jessica Yorko, reflecting on the year she lived and studied in France. “[They] don’t have to worry about dieting because they’re active; people are fit and healthy.”
As a fit and healthy Lansingite herself, Yorko knows building an active lifestyle for our region doesn’t only serve the health aspect of our community; it serves many societal aspects as well. As a resident of the Genesee neighborhood in downtown Lansing, manager of the Westside Commercial Association and recently elected City Councilwoman, Yorko knows that active communities make for stronger cities, and Lansing is on the cusp of becoming just that.
“The social connections in a walkable city … the value of public spaces, whether that space is a park or a city fountain or public gathering space … [these] are what make a community sing and [what] people can call home,” said Yorko.
These are the types of projects Yorko will be giving a voice to on the Lansing City Council. It’s readily apparent she’s set on making the place that she and her seven-year-old son, Nick, call home a little better for everyone. And her devotion to Michigan’s capital city is just one small way of giving back to the many people that have supported her in the past and, most recently, in the election.
“A lot of people wanted me to run, and said they would help me,” said Yorko. “I decided that policymaking in Lansing was something I could contribute to in a positive way. It was kind of a combination of feeling like, ‘hey, I could make a difference at this,’ and lots of people saying, ‘we will help you, we will make this happen.’ I didn’t feel like I was all on my own. I felt really supported.”
It was important for Yorko to have a strong support system during the election, as this pint-sized, super active mom on the go not only ran a campaign and a household this summer and fall, but all the while she maintained her current roles in the community and as president of her company, Sustainable Solutions.
Founded in 2005, Sustainable Solutions offers fundraising, project management, advocacy, event planning and strategic planning for nonprofits and environmental groups throughout the state of Michigan. Currently run out of her home, Yorko began her entrepreneurial venture after she recognized a very special set of talents and passions while working for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).
“I had been working for MDEQ, and I mainly coordinated events and marketing for conferences and workshops. When I came back from my maternity leave, I came back part-time, and I really wanted to be able to work from home, but that wasn’t an option,” said Yorko.
Though people were offering Yorko contract work at the time, she knew she was unable to accept it due to her employment with MDEQ. So, like many other business-minded mothers, Yorko decided to become her own boss.
“People were offering me contract work: ‘could you plan this conference for us, could you write this grant for us.’ But I wasn’t allowed to take contract work when I worked for the State,” said Yorko. “So, I decided to start my own company, set my own rates, work from home and branch out career-wise and do it on my own terms.”
Today, Yorko works with nonprofits across the state, helping them to grow and put into action all of the things that make Michigan a great place to live and work, for both today and the future. With clients like the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council and Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, Yorko truly values the world around her, and is working with others to ensure its preservation.
“Everybody that I’ve ever hired, that I’ve ever worked with, has had a goal of helping the environment. It’s really core to what the company does,” said Yorko, “and not only helping the environment, but helping these grassroots organizations make big changes, even though they may be small organizations.”
With the mindset that small organizations are capable of great things, Yorko is perfectly suited for the challenges and opportunities for Lansing in the days ahead. As councilwoman, she’s ready to take the blank canvas before her and paint the town an array of vivid colors, figuratively and literally.
“I want to be proactive in areas that I can make a difference,” said Yorko. “One of the things [that people can collaborate on] is something I got a taste of in the Westside Commercial Association, and that is looking at how to get an ongoing mural arts program running in Lansing.”
In the days following our interview, Yorko spent a long weekend in Philadelphia researching its mural arts program.
“Philly has one of the country’s best mural arts programs,” said Yorko. “A mural arts program can accomplish so much. The process of creating murals can be tremendously uplifting for neighborhoods and especially powerful for kids. [Kids] need to feel needed and valued, and many want a visible role and place in their community, which is why murals are also helpful in curbing graffiti and vandalism.”
What’s truly admirable about Yorko’s newest role as councilwoman is her innate passion for the community around her, mixed with a business mindset. She’s very realistic and knows what it takes to make things happen. She knows it will take more than what a budget may have to offer in the years ahead.
“I’m really trying to see how we can enhance our parks, trails and greenways in Lansing through ‘Friends Of’ groups. We’re not going to have volunteers paving the roads,” said Yorko with a smile. “So, if we’re going to be an awesome city, we have to ask, ‘what parts of the city can be enhanced through a service core?’”
Rest assured, when it comes time to form the “Friends Of” groups for neighborhood parks, Yorko will be first in line and probably the last to leave. As an advocate for all things environmentally sound, she’s one of Lansing’s biggest cheerleaders.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m this walking billboard for Lansing, but I think that’s OK,” said Yorko. “Lansing is an amazing place to live, and if you want to get involved, all you have to do is ask a few people and you’ll find a way.”
Perhaps the walkable, bikable city we imagine, bustling with friends and neighbors, lined with beautiful parks and trail ways, isn’t as distant as we think. The moment we stop imagining this place and begin creating it, the pictures in our minds will become a reality. And for those like Yorko, they already are.