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Alumni in Action: Dr. Janiece Mackey

Alumni in ActionDr. Janiece Mackey when she was a senior at Overland High SchoolAs a student in the Cherry Creek School District in the 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. Janiece Mackey never imagined she would become a CEO and the founder of an organization that would change the lives of young people in powerful and profound ways.

“I did not grow up thinking I was going to be an entrepreneur, let alone of a nonprofit. I really didn’t even know what a nonprofit was,” Mackey recalled.

Looking back now, however, she realizes that the time she spent at Highline Community Elementary, Prairie Middle School, and Overland High School, gave her the foundational knowledge and skills that she built on in order to establish YAASPA, or Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism. YAASPA is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that provides educational courses and community service opportunities in the area of civic engagement, as well as paid internships and fellowships, to some 400 metro area students every year.

“Our vision is to cultivate young people to be civically engaged in the community and in their careers,” Dr. Mackey said.

She credits her parents with providing the first step on her journey to YAASPA.

“My parents worked really hard to ensure I could go to Prairie and Overland, because they knew that the education CCSD would provide me and my sister would serve us well,” she said.

At Overland, Mackey found that she enjoyed activities more than academics. She was a member of the cheer and step teams, where she learned teamwork and how to navigate different personalities and communications styles. She participated in FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) and found true joy in Speech and Debate.

“I loved, loved, loved debate,” she said. “I did Lincoln Douglas Debate. I loved putting together arguments, and talking about issues, which I think has a lot to do with what I do for a living now. You had to be able to argue from both sides in competition. That experience really prepared me to be able to help young people navigate through these times.”

Dr. Janiece Mackey at her senior promAt Overland, she met her future husband, Ernest Mackey, a 2001 OHS graduate. They started dating after her sophomore year and continued their relationship after her graduation in 2002, when Mackey went on to the University of Denver. She was unsure what she wanted to major in, but was considering a career in law. Her advisor suggested she study political science, and she ended up with a double major in poly sci and criminal justice.

“I was very heavily involved in campaigns and politics and had internships for different grassroots campaigns, whether they were issue-based or candidate-based,” Dr. Mackey recalls.

She and Ernest welcomed a daughter, the first of their four children, during the election season of her senior year at DU. That joyful event led Mackey to graduate early and take a gap year before law school. During that time, she worked with foster youth as a bilingual counselor, using the Spanish skills she developed at OHS and DU. She discovered that she truly loved working with young people, and began re-evaluating a potential as an attorney.

“If I’m a lawyer, like a guardian ad litem, it’ll be too late,” she explained. “I want to have an impact with young people on the front end.” So Mackey changed gears, did dropout recovery work, and educational policy work, advocating for more funding for schools, all while she and Ernest welcomed two more daughters and a son.

Mackey familyIn 2010, at age 25, with four children under the age of four, Mackey launched YAASPA at the same time her husband was starting his own construction firm. She also went back to school, earning a master’s degree in social sciences with an emphasis in social justice from the University of Colorado-Denver, and a doctorate in higher education with an emphasis in public policy and curriculum and instruction from the University of Denver. Those were challenging years.

“At the time, I was experiencing a lot of stress.” Dr. Mackey said. “I knew it was likely due to a lot of racialized experiences I was having, in working with young people and holding space for them. I knew I needed  to create a bigger space for us, and create something that I wish I would have had in my younger years and in college – a space to be civically engaged and to learn about policy and to learn about elections and even just different types of careers where you can feel like you’re being civically engaged.”

That is exactly what she did. What started with six kids meeting twice a month has grown into an organization of 13 adult staff and more than 50 paid interns. YAASPA now serves more than 400 students annually, helping them to increase their academic and career self-efficacy, increase their self-awareness of racial identity development, and increase their civic literacy and civic engagement.

YAASPA Team Meeting“I think what is really, really important is that our young people know what it feels like to be seen and deeply valued,” Dr. Mackey said. YAASPA is her “passion project” as well as her livelihood, and the students it serves inspire her daily.

“They’re brilliant. I learn from them all the time,” she said.

As Dr. Mackey continues on her own journey, she has this advice for young people who are just beginning theirs.

“No experience is lost. Even though you may not see or understand the experiences you may be navigating now, they are likely an amazing springboard to what you are destined to be in the future.

“Keep the faith and keep the hope, even if you don’t know what your destination is or what your journey holds for you after high school, because there is so much that you’re capable of and so many gifts you have to give the world that will continue to be unveiled and discovered along your journey,” she said.

For more information about YAAPSA, visit https://www.yaaspa.org/.

Posted 12/19/2023.