By Ansley Skipper
Photo courtesy of Jasmine Bolton
St. Mary’s graduate Jasmine Bolton (‘07) will be joining the new presidential administration as senior counsel for the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education.
While her senior class picked “founder of a self-help organization for awkward teenagers” in the 2007 Carillon as her future occupation, Bolton joins the executive branch after years of experience as an attorney.
Upper School English teacher Mrs. Ray remembered Bolton from her high school years as “bold but humble, quiet but strong.”
An athlete and French student, Bolton was a member of the Contemporary Issues club, Diversity Club and Student Council. Bolton held leadership positions for her class and clubs, belonged to academic honors societies and participated in the Bridge Builders program.
As early as her time at St. Mary’s, Bolton envisioned a future career in law. Upon graduating from St. Mary’s in 2007, Bolton went on to Harvard where she studied post-colonialism in Francophone Africa and the Caribbean, intending to pursue international law and diplomacy after she completed law school.
Bolton said, “My father’s an attorney, and . . . it’s one of those things that certain girls get pegged with: ‘Oh, you’re going to be a lawyer one day.’”
But it was not until she wrote her admissions essay for law school that Bolton began to discover her passion for civil rights law and policy. Studying the relationship between law and culture when it comes to the advancement of civil rights, Bolton developed an interest in making law, rather than just practicing it.
After law school at Columbia, Bolton took a job at a law firm, where, she said, for the first time she had to work harder than she had as a student at St. Mary’s.
Photo courtesy of Ansley Skipper
Before long, though, Bolton left her job at the firm to begin working at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
“Part of why I went there was because I wanted the opportunity to further my legal career, but I also wanted to be able to kind of dabble in some other things, namely policy, because that is a way, particularly at the local level. . . to really make a drastic change,” said Bolton. “If we can’t push culture along through the law and the judicial system, maybe we can try to do it in other ways.”
Bolton’s work at the SPLC led to yet another job change and another opportunity to affect policy. During the 2020 Democratic primary, Bolton served as one of ten policy advisors to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, working closely with Warren herself and gaining access to scholars, activists and myriad policy experts.
When the primaries ended last summer, Bolton took a new job in Memphis, not expecting a role in the Biden administration (were then-candidate Biden to win the election.)
Bolton said, “I got a job in August that I was really excited about doing bail reform work. That job allowed me to stay in Memphis, to focus on work in the South.”
Despite her new role, Bolton was never far from policy and politics. During the early fall, she worked with the Biden campaign on education policy, including proposed education plans for the first 100 days of a Biden presidency.
During her time with the SPLC and the Warren campaign, Bolton had formed relationships with some in the field who took on roles with the Biden transition team. Those colleagues put forward Bolton’s name for administration positions, and one week before the election, she began the process of sending in her resume, interviewing and undergoing background checks.
“I had to keep it really quiet up until, effectively, the inauguration. But I had known since before Christmas that I would be starting either on Jan. 20 or Jan. 21,” said Bolton.
Photo courtesy of Ansley Skipper
The Biden administration has spent its first weeks focusing on reopening schools, and Bolton’s role at the Department of Education puts her front and center in those discussions and planning. While getting up to speed on the state of the department as left by the previous administration, Bolton has regularly spent 18-hour days on Zoom calls, solving reopening an entire country’s schools while colleagues drop on and off the calls thanks to poor internet connections and the other challenges of working remotely.
“My office . . . put[s] out a lot of the guidance on — again, it’s civil rights — what is and what is not permissible. A big part of this is helping schools prepare so that when they do reopen . . . they’re reopening in a proper manner. They’re not excluding kids. . . so I think that’s a pretty big mandate,” said Bolton.
Bolton said she never imagined working in a presidential administration, but, when she graduated from law school, she did have one career goal in mind: she wanted to work for a civil rights non-profit one day.
With that goal in mind, she took the opportunities that presented themselves along the way, leaving a job at a law firm to work at the SPLC. Then the opportunity to work on the Warren campaign came along, and Bolton took it.
Bolton said, “When opportunities presented themselves to do those things, I just jumped. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t ask questions. I just said, ‘okay, I want to do it. . . I’m going to try this. And it may not work out. . . but I’m just going to throw my [hat in the ring.]’”
Her advice for St. Mary’s students is “be open to the possible.”
“There’s so much more to the world than what you can see at this moment. . . so when you limit yourself based on what you see right now in front of you, you’re closing off so much more that you don’t know could be open to you.”
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