When Jessica Mertz became the inaugural director of Penn Violence Prevention in 2014, the office had just one employee — Jessica Mertz. She has since helped the office grow to employ three full-time staff as well as half a dozen students. Mertz has occupied many different positions on campus, but she has always remained at the forefront of Penn's fight to end sexual violence. A decade after arriving at her first job on campus, Mertz will leave Penn in May to become the executive director of the Clery Center, whose mission is to create safer campuses for college students nationwide.
Mertz first came to Penn in 2009 to work in the Penn Women’s Center as a violence prevention educator. One of the earliest challenges, Mertz said, was trying to get people to talk about violence and acknowledge it as a larger problem embedded not only on college campuses, but also in society.
Mertz said she's come a long way, and she's immensely proud of the work she and her team have done with PVP. Mertz recounted a memory of a session conducted through PVP where she asked students to name the communities they’re a part of, and a number of them named PVP as their community.
“I have never felt prouder than I did in that moment.” Mertz said. “Because it showed me that [PVP] is a big part of students' experience here, and that they really see the work that we're doing as community-building work, which I think is what we've all been striving for.”
PVP was first established in 2014 as part of the year-long Commission on Student Safety, Alcohol, and Campus Life, whose goal was to increase the efforts to prevent sexual violence and to educate students about sexual violence and stalking.
“When that position and the department [were] created, it was really a validation of the work that a whole team of people for a long time who had been really invested in at the Women's Center," Mertz said.
Her interest in combating sexual violence began even earlier. In college, Mertz said she was “driven to understand the culture of sexual violence” and to identify and help those harmed by it. This motivation has stayed with her ever since, as she continues to advocate for violence prevention on college campuses.
Over the past five years, she has overseen PVP’s Penn Anti-Violence Education, a peer education group that aims to teach students how to be active bystanders and play a role in ending sexual and relationship violence on campus. Mertz also worked closely with student groups and established the Anti-Violence Engagement Network to bring students together in improving Penn's culture regarding sexual assault prevention.
Mertz held different anti-violence positions at Penn before becoming PVP's director. In 2010, she became associate director of the Penn Women’s Center and the chair of the Penn Violence Prevention Committee. She was involved in Title IX and sexual harassment working groups on campus, as well as Philadelphia’s Sexual Assault Advisory Council.
Other staff in PVP who have worked with Mertz over the years describe her as someone whose leadership commands the attention and respect of others.
“Her ability and willingness to listen and [her] empathetic leadership are the things that stand out to me about Jess.” said Malik Washington, the associate director of PVP.
“Jess has a really unique ability to command a lot of respect in a room, but also at the same time make you feel incredibly welcome and heard,” said Sarah Hahn-Du Pont, a College junior doing her work-study at PVP. “That's a really rare quality to have, and I think that's why she's so good at this work.
Hahn-Du Pont credits Mertz for PVP’s increased presence on campus.
“She's constantly forward thinking about how to make not only PVP more visible, but also more accessible to students.” Hahn-Du Pont said. “She has helped lay the groundwork for building campus conversation around sexual violence in a way that hadn't been done previously.”
Mertz said she wants her successor to have their own ideas and their own approach for what they think is important, but she hopes that the priority of PVP continues to be engaging marginalized students and student communities that are harder to reach.
Mertz is reluctant to label her work at Penn her “legacy,” since she says her work in violence prevention is far from over. She sees her new position at the Clery Center as an opportunity to apply what she's learned from her experiences at Penn to make a difference on a larger scale on college campuses around the country.
At the Clery Center, Mertz will guide university administrators to comply with the Clery Act, a law requiring universities to disclose campus safety statistics. She will begin her new position at the Clery Center on May 13, according to a press release from the Center.
“What I hope to leave is that collaborative spirit of people still feeling that there needs to be community-based solutions.” Mertz said. “There needs to be people talking about it, problem solving, and not shying away from difficult conversations and difficult problems.”