As a firm believer in advocating for human rights, Jess Zaccagnino has driven her fellow students to the polls as an undergraduate, published research about authoritarianism as a law student, and pursued equity legislation at the state capitol here in Hartford.  
Jess recently joined the ACLU of Connecticut as our new policy counsel. In her role, Jess will promote justice, liberty, and equity through legislative policy research, analysis, drafting, and advocacy. She’ll be working with the rest of the ACLU-CT team to execute our legislative agendas, engage with administrative agencies and local government bodies, and to act in solidarity with our fellow advocacy organizations to advance shared goals. 

This week, she sat down with communications director Meghan Holden to talk about what brought her to the ACLU of Connecticut, her favorite home-quarantine-turned-office objects, and one thing people might be surprised to learn about her.  

MH: Jess, welcome! We’re glad you’re here. First question: why did you want to work at the ACLU of Connecticut? 
JZ: Well, I went to UConn Law School, so I was in the area and am from Connecticut, so there is that aspect of it. I studied human rights at Bard College, so obviously the ACLU is the coolest place to work for when you have an interest in human rights. I was also involved in voting rights with Election @ Bard. Our polling place was far from campus, on a road where the speed limit was around 55 miles per hour, with no sidewalks, and was inaccessible. So many people didn’t have cars, so we would set up shuttles to drive people to the polling place. I think we ended up having an 80 percent voter turnout in 2016. It was about a 20-year fight to get a polling place moved to campus. That fight didn’t end with me, but now there is a polling site. A lot of times as undergraduates, we’d do all of this work and then run up against the fact that we weren’t lawyers and needed that knowledge. That inspired me to go to law school, and that led me to the ACLU. I also have a general interest in policy work and in wanting to do that with my law degree and not be a litigator. 

MH: What will you be doing in your job as policy counsel? 

JZ: I’m still learning! But it’s a lot of typical work involved in passing legislation. I am a registered lobbyist, and I am working on general legislative strategy, bills, and policy. 

MH: What is your favorite thing in your office? 

JZ: My plants. I have a bunch of houseplants that only grew during the pandemic when I was home. I have about 50 in my house, and now there’s a window in our PPAD (public policy and advocacy department) office that has such good light, so I brought in probably 5-6 plants. 

MH: What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you? 

JZ: I’m tiny, only about 5’3, so I think people would be surprised to learn I played a lot of contact sports in high school. I was a four-year varsity fencer in high school, and I was a black belt in shaolin kempo karate. My mom signed me up for karate lessons when I was in first grade and helped me stick with it. My grandpa was a fencer in college. There were lessons at the Westport Y that were affordable, and my high school happened to have a team, so I was lucky.  

MH: Is there anything else you’d like to add?  

JZ: I’m excited to be here!