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Jess Housty (Cúagilákv)

Person with Indigenous tattoos on their arms and beaded necklace lying in a meadow with hands behind their head.
  • Category: Indigenous Community Alumni Award
  • UVic degree: Bachelor of Arts in English, 2009
  • Current hometown: Bella Bella, BC
  • Birthplace: Bella Bella, BC

About Jess

Jess Housty (Cúagilákv) is a parent, writer and grassroots activist of Heiltsuk and mixed settler ancestry. They serve their community as an herbalist and land-based educator, alongside broader work in the non-profit and philanthropic sectors. They are inspired and guided by relationships with their homelands, their extended family and their non-human kin, and they are committed to raising their children in a similar framework of kinship and land love. Jess is the author of Crushed Wild Mint, their debut poetry collection, and has published work in Hakai Magazine, Room Magazine and The Tyee. They reside and thrive in their unceded ancestral territory in the community of Bella Bella, BC.

In what ways do you think your time at UVic shaped you?

UVic made me an advocate. One of the earliest examples of something that shaped me as an advocate and an activist, unfortunately, was that I was experiencing deep racism at UVic and had to learn how to advocate for myself. It was a hard thing to pursue a degree and complete my educational requirements while also defending my humanity and cultural safety. But difficult as it was, it absolutely honed my ability to be an advocate and be an activist and to stand up with integrity for things that I care about.

What skills or traits are needed to be good at what you do?

Growing up in my homeland and in community leadership work, it's been clear to me since I was a child that you don't get to choose when you're called to leadership. You don't get to choose when you're called to be of service to your community. You only get to choose how you respond when that call comes. That's been a recurring theme for me: that I’ve often been called to do work before I felt ready and had to figure out how to be adaptable and resilient so that I could show up in a good way for the people who needed me. And I think that is a particular skill that comes to you more naturally when you come from a place of deep connection.

What’s one characteristic in people that is underappreciated?

It's love. In the community work I do, I’ve witnessed that people protect what they love. They fight for what they love. So I feel a strong sense of responsibility to help people to love themselves and one another, to love the land and our language and culture, because I think if we all love those things, we will have the resilience and the drive to protect them and help them to thrive. I think that translates into lots of other sectors, including education. When I think about what, at a core level, fueled me so that I was able to find success in a post-secondary institution, it was love for myself, for my ancestors, for the gift that they have given me in being who I am and being in this moment. People don't like to talk about love. It's cheesy. It makes things personal, especially in spaces where we pride ourselves on being impersonal. We think about universities as these impartial and impersonal bastions of knowledge, and you can function that way, I guess. But that's not how I function. I function with really deep love and connectivity and community and everything that flows from it.

What motivates you?

I grew up really connected to my grandparents. And one of the things that I heard often throughout my childhood and into my adolescence was that it doesn't matter what we do and what we accomplish if there isn't a generation coming up under us that is poised to do what we do and do more. That's been a key learning for me, and a guiding force in my work: recognizing that it's all well and good for me to do what I can do, but I also need to be paying attention to the generation coming up under me and making sure that they are invested in the same values and ideas and culture that I've been privileged to grow up in, so that they feel empowered to do everything that I'm doing, and much more.

What's your advice to someone who’s about to graduate or feeling uncertain about their future?

Be bad at things. Try things. I have done so many things that I had no idea how to do, and I have made an absolute fool of myself over and over again. And as humbling as that is, failure and imperfection are such important teaching tools in our lives. Having the courage to be wrong—then to learn, then to know better, then to do better—is incredibly important to our growth and evolution. We can’t be afraid to be wrong.

About the Distinguished Alumni Awards

Nominations for the 2024 awards are now closed. Nominations for the 2025 Distinguished Alumni Awards are open through Oct. 18, 2024.