An Interview with ILJ Network’s Co-Executive Directors

Melissa Bowe (left), our former NJFON deputy director, and Alba Jaramillo (right), the former executive director for Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, are now our ILJ Network co-executive directors. 

They sat down with us recently to discuss their leadership model and what it means for the future of ILJ and our ILJ network. 

Q: Why choose the co-executive director model for the next chapter of ILJ Network? 

ALBA:  For an organization and a network that is collaborative in nature, I think it’s important to also provide leadership in a collaborative framework. It models the type of approach we want for the network in terms of shared decision-making and collective power.

MELISSA: I grew up playing team sports; I don’t thrive doing work alone in my corner. I’m excited by the idea of shared leadership being at the center of our work culture, an idea that can be incorporated at the staff level and, of course, by the network. I believe this will make us all stronger, giving us a larger breadth of experience and viewpoint in our decision-making on how we move forward in a critical moment in the immigration space.

We also need to be challenging ourselves to be innovative, to be daring, take risks, and try something new.

Q: What gifts do each of you bring to ILJ?  How are they different? How are they similar? 

MELISSA: Alba is a movement leader. She is a powerful and passionate public speaker and a great gift to our network in multiple ways. I love that she is also a lawyer by training and clerked for an immigration judge. She also has been a co-executive director for a network of organizations before! I’m just so excited to be working with her and to benefit from all that knowledge, passion, and experience.

ALBA:   Melissa has a deep, institutional knowledge of the national office and of all our network’s 19 sites. Paired with my experience as a director of one of these sites, we get to see things from both perspectives—what it’s like locally from a small JFON site versus what it’s like having to manage from a national level. These perspectives complement each other very well.

I think our managing styles are different, and to have diversity in work styles is a plus. Melissa in her work style is very process-oriented and organized. I tend to look at the big picture and sometimes fail to note all the steps involved. Melissa has a very natural talent for this, and that helps me a lot.

MELISSA: Both Alba and I have a deep passion for gender justice and started our careers in that space. Gender justice is a key intersectional issue for immigration, and I’m eager to see how our expertise and commitment to gender justice will complement the work.

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Melissa and Alba are both mothers of young daughters

Alba and I are also both mothers of young children; our daughters are only six months apart. There is something beautiful and poetic to me about raising this young generation in this crazy and scary moment in our world.

ALBA: Both of us are so committed to racial justice, and our years of working on social justice and anti-oppression issues have given us insight into how important it is to have an interracial partnership. How do we do white allyship within the network and at the same time foster leadership for people of color? I think we can model how to do interracial partnerships for the network—especially in the sharing of power. This is a great partnership for the network and for our office, too.

Q: Melissa is located on the East Coast, while Alba is in Tucson, Arizona. How significant is it that one co-executive director lives and works close to the U.S. southern border? 

ALBA: I think the border is ground zero for all immigration issues. I mean, whenever there is a major policy change you first see the impact on the border and border communities. So, I think it is deeply symbolic that one of us is located on the border and can bear witness on how the policy changes play themselves out here.

Not all our policy work is centered on border issues, of course, and the migration populations are different for many of our ILJ sites than they are here in the southwest. So, it’s essential that Melissa remains close to Washington, D.C., to give us a different advocacy perspective and geographical diversity.

Q: What’s it like working together virtually? 

MELISSA: Well, it’s more or less what we’ve been doing since COVID started. The technology has become so sophisticated, so it honestly hasn’t felt much different. The time difference between us has also been an advantage. I almost feel like we are passing the baton and able to be more responsive for more hours over the course of a day.

Like so many organizations and companies across the world, we have adapted to a new way of being that works. We all use platforms like Slack/Microsoft Teams to chat and video conference throughout the day. We have teams/channels that are program-specific that include task management, notes, and calendars. It is all synced up with our email. The emerging technology to support virtual offices is exciting and constantly innovating!

Q: Our ILJ  clients are at the heart of our work and our mission. How will this new leadership model impact the service they receive?

MELISSA: Alba and I are very committed to becoming a trauma-informed network. We recognize our sites are experiencing secondhand trauma because of the nature of their work. As an organization, we will find ways not to compound the trauma or stress, but to instead be more supportive and take responsibility on ourselves to help mitigate the effects of secondhand trauma.

And the by-product of being trauma-informed is that we’re able to retain our staff. We’re not going to have as much turnover, we’re not going to lose our attorneys as they reach mid-career, and our clients are going to have continuity of service from experienced and knowledgeable legal practitioners, support staff, and beyond.

ALBA:  As an immigrant who grew up undocumented and from a poor family, I have experienced a lot of what our clients experience: the uncertainty of the law, the inability to afford an attorney, and the fear of separation and deportation.

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Alba leads a know-your-rights information session for asylum seekers at the Arizona/Mexico border.

It’s important at the leadership level to have someone who relates to this near-universal client experience. This is something I can offer the network.

They say that two heads are better than one. Two leaders bring the potential for new ideas, new approaches, and new programs. There are so many more possibilities when you have two people guiding our team and our network.

Q:  What about ILJ and the network model? 

ALBA:  One of the network’s unique strengths is the partnership between the lead attorney, the board chair, and the executive director. I’ve been in the nonprofit world for a very long time, but I’ve never seen an organization that intentionally tries to bring the three together to really strengthen their ability to serve and fulfill their mission.

Organizations usually try to do this on their own. But to consistently encourage strong governance, strong services, and strong executive leadership is something that I’ve never seen elsewhere. As the executive director for Arizona JFON, I appreciated it tremendously. Creating these spaces for shared learning is powerful and creates movement.

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Melissa leads a presentation on U.S. asylum law in Honduras in 2016.

MELISSA: When I first started out as an immigration attorney, I worked for an office that was part of a small community organization. I was a new attorney, the stakes felt high, and I was not very connected to other attorneys in that network. I felt embarrassed and a little ashamed to reach out to more senior attorneys because they were in other cities, and I didn’t know them.

I was isolated, working in a silo, asking for old professors and law school friends to look at the work I was doing and give me feedback and advice.

When I came across ILJ’s (formerly National JFON) original position in 2013, I thought, “Gosh, I would have loved this. I think I’d be good at this because I understand what it’s like for these attorneys working alone in offices across the country.”

Q: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share? 

ALBA:  We are so excited for the future. We believe this model of shared decision-making is in line with the change initiative that has already started: a social justice framework rooted in anti-oppression and anti-racism. We want to build more structures that reflect our organizational values and commit to reflection, transparency, and accountability along the way.

MELISSA: I deeply believe in community, that together we are better, the “we over I”—all those taglines. Our sites are inspiring. They are doing that collective work on the ground every day. And I love that we are all different. What works in Hawai’i isn’t necessarily what works in Chicago or Florida. Yet all these different approaches and perspectives can— and do— complement each other.

It really goes back to our core philosophy around our co-directorship. Alba and I lift each other up, and our sites lift each other up, too.

It has been a journey these past nine years, and I am excited for what is in store for us in this next chapter.


More about ILJ Networks’s co-executive directors  

Alba Jaramillo, J.D.

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Alba was featured in this New York Times article in 2020.

With 19 years of experience in nonprofit leadership, Alba is a recognized and celebrated national and local leader and organizer on issues of immigration, human rights, gender-based violence, racial justice, and the arts.

Alba is also the founder of Teatro Dignidad, a theatre company focused on human rights education and advocacy through the arts.

As executive director for Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, Alba has led the organization to become an influential voice and stakeholder in border policy, while helping hundreds of asylum seekers gain safety in the United States.

“I grew up undocumented in the United States; like many of our clients, my family navigated the immigration legal system while facing barriers common to low-income immigrant families,” she states. “My experience as an undocumented immigrant is the reason I attended law school, so that I can serve other immigrants and vulnerable communities.”

Melissa Bowe, J.D. 

nashville melissa with staff
Melissa meets with staff from Tennessee JFON in 2015.

A victim of violence when she was very young, Melissa turned that harrowing incident into a desire to serve the greater community. She has extensive experience in legal programming, immigration policy, management, and coalition-building. She has also taught cooperative play and teambuilding at the Omega Institute for Holistic studies for over 15 years.

Melissa joined the newly incorporated NJFON (now ILJ Network) back in 2013. Over the last nine years, she has been a key advisor and strategic partner in advancing the ILJ mission. She personally cultivated and helped launch more than half of our current sites. She has visited almost every location in person, sometimes multiple times, and served as a trainer, thought partner, keynote speaker, and volunteer.


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