Jess Search, chair of IPPR board of trustees, passed away this summer. This blog post from IPPR's staff and trustees is published as a tribute to her, and a reflection on what we learned from her.
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam
Acquire the air
Nobody sees us
Stops us, betrays us
The small grains make room
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles
The leafy bedding
Even the paving
Our hammers, our rams
Earless and eyeless
Widen the crannies
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water
On crumbs of shadow
Little or nothing
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek
We are edible
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves
Our kind multiplies
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth
Our foot's in the door
Sylvia Plath, 'Mushrooms'
Jess Search would start every IPPR board meeting with a poem.
Regardless of whether we were coming together in person or on a Zoom, Jess would smile, name the poem, then calmly recite the verse, then let it sit for a moment without explanation before starting the meeting.
It was typical of Jess, an IPPR trustee for 13 years and our chair of trustees for the last five. When we lost her this summer, we lost someone fearless, thoughtful, original — and for us, someone who had been transformational.
Just as it’s hard to remember what IPPR was like before Jess became our chair, it’s easy to underestimate the difference she made because so many of her ways are now our ways.
That’s why we felt it was important to set out what we learned from Jess. Not just to remember Jess but to codify what she did so that we and the wider progressive movement can continue the work of a uniquely inspirational figure.
Brought alive by stories and quotes from the team, trustees and alumni, here are our lessons from Jess — or The Jess Effect.
Bigger and braver
Jess always pushed us to raise our ambition. She constantly asked us to think bigger and differently, identify underlying causes, advocate for meaningful reform, and understand our work was an important part of shaping a just future. She would urge us towards bolder ideas and when we questioned our right or ability to embrace them, she would always say “why not?”
“Jess brought an energy, a boldness and a hunger for change that often research organisations lack.”
“IPPR's two big shifts — to thinking about mainstreaming progressive ideas and to putting our research at the service of social movements — just wouldn't have been possible without the creative spark Jess created wherever she went. The sheer scale of her imagination made us all braver.”
“IPPR makes bold ideas common sense. In that respect we couldn’t have had a better Chair than Jess. That’s exactly what she did.”
“Jess had both wisdom and the ability to suspend disbelief that made her a powerful force for change in the world.”
“Jess believed that things can get better and we should lean into and accelerate the values of the future.”
“Many people describe Jess as a 'force of nature' and that is undoubtedly true. But she also thought and acted strategically and politically and this is part of what made her such an influential agent of change.”
“Jess seemed absolutely consumed with the power of ideas...It was that breadth of vision that allowed IPPR to reinvent what a think tank could be.”
Do as you say
Jess always inspired us to live by our values. She helped us see the big ideas we were working towards but also the everyday behaviour that would get us there. She encouraged us to embody racial justice in our culture, recruitment and research, and was a driving force in establishing our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trustee group. She behaved in a way that was fair, attentive and kind to all, and led by example in everything she did.
“Jess was one of those rare people who embody their values in every aspect of their lives from small details to exceptional achievements.”
“She led by example. Small things: a poem in trustee meetings; remembering what was going on in people’s lives; inviting the team into her home; a hug; speaking to everyone as an equal. These things completely shifted the culture.”
“Jess held our feet to the fire by asking us to think deeply about racial justice and embedding it into our work and how we think about ourselves.”
“The way in which she lived her last weeks embodies her values: throwing herself into ensuring the movement and sector she worked in could keep fighting for the things she cared about, while also holding those around her and the pain she knew they’d be feeling.”
Change is a collective endeavour
Jess always looked to bring the best out of the people inside and outside of IPPR. She helped to foster a culture where the IPPR team could draw upon its collective talent and where the team and board could work closely and productively. And she was unapologetic about ensuring that we saw ourselves as part of the progressive movement, urging us to empower the movement wherever we could.
“Jess completely transformed the board culture and as a result how the organisation works to be much more informal, human, and less straitjacketed by the political world and by hierarchy.”
“Jess transformed the Board and inspired its members by linking them much more closely with the staff at IPPR.”
“By an inspired choice of new trustees, by a close rapport with all trustees, by her detailed attention to all aspects of IPPR's work, and by introducing poetry to infuse the work of the board and others.”
“I would say that Jess embodied a commitment to social equality - that is, to treating others as equals - and to the virtues and possibilities of collective endeavour.”
“Jess’s support of the people in the team and on the board has ensured that IPPR is as much about its voices and perspectives as it is about its institutional purpose. In that sense Jess has helped to make IPPR a genuine team effort.”
“Jess has helped to ensure that IPPR is a continuation project — always building on the knowledge and wisdom of its founders, teams and trustees, and always looking to build the strongest group of talent and trustees going forwards.”
With humanity and love
Though urgent problems demand urgent solutions, Jess always made time for her colleagues. With her warm and respectful manner, Jess ensured that we could always be ourselves. And with her belief in building relationships, Jess helped to create a culture of humanity and love in which we could do our very best work.
“It’s so unusual in a think tank context to not come in ‘armoured up’ because you expect it to be a combative or hostile environment, or because you need to prove yourself. But Jess created a trustee atmosphere where you could show up and contribute and focus on the cause and be yourself.”
“She was an energising presence that had the diplomatic skill of making people more passionate about their own passion.”
“Jess believed in IPPR and our staff. She empowered us as a leadership team and an organisation. She made time to care about us as people, as well as as staff at IPPR. She built amazing relationships - you felt like you'd met an ally and friend within minutes of talking to her.”
“In everything she did, she was always present, always generous, always making a real connection.”
“Jess had a beautiful way of steering a conversation, and making clear her view, while always making sure everyone felt heard and keeping discussions amiable. Yes she was a force of nature — but through persuasion and inspiration, not bulldozing.”
“She treated everyone as equally worthy of time, effort, attention.”
“She had a deep commitment to the other species we share this planet with.”
“She was full of love.”
The power of fun
While politics is often a dour and serious space, Jess would light up a room with her charisma, style and fun. She believed in “joyous partying” as well as powerful research, and enthused us all with her non-stop imagination and optimism. And when learning of her cancer diagnosis, who can forget her declaration that she’d been a “lucky fucker”? Nothing could have been more Jess.
“When I turned up for my Trustee interview, Jess greeted me with an enormous grin. She made me want to join the board right there.”
“Jess has helped make IPPR more confident, more inclusive, more fun, more outspoken, more reflective - all at the same time. What an achievement.”
“Jess brought a real verve to IPPR. This was obvious to anyone who had the chance to meet her.“
“Those poems. Those suits. Those cocktails.”
“Jess worked with non-stop creativity, charisma and flair. She showed us you don’t have to be miserable to do good work.”
With her ambition, leadership, humanity and flair, Jess brought energy to everyone and everything she touched at IPPR. By remembering Jess, learning from her and continuing to do what Jess would have done, we hope her energy can continue.