Alumni profile: Jenna Yuille Passalacqua's quest to prevent gun violence

Editor’s note: This story was updated in September 2018 to reflect what Jenna Passalacqua has been up to since the profile was originally published in July 2016.

With each mass shooting that takes place in America, the issue of gun violence becomes more urgent and more polarizing. To many students at the University of Oregon — which sits within a 200-mile radius of several mass shooting sites— it’s a problem that hits close to home.

But it has affected few to the degree that it has Jenna (Yuille) Passalacqua, BA ’11. Her mother, Cindy Yuille, was killed in the 2012 Clackamas Town Center shooting. After the tragic event, Passalacqua struggled to maintain focus in her life and career. Then she realized that her communication skills and background gave her the power to make a real difference as an advocate.

Jenna Passalacqua In 2016, the former public relations major followed her heart to Washington, D.C., where she oversees efforts to pass gun violence prevention legislation for Americans for Responsible Solutions, an advocacy organization founded by former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband, Captain Mark Kelly.

We sat down with Passalacqua to find out how her personal story led her to where she is today and how she is using the skills she learned at the SOJC to change the world for the better.

How has your mother’s death altered the trajectory of your life?

I was 23 years old when my mom was killed. I knew at the time it would impact my life in ways I never expected, but I had no idea how. Ultimately, I ended up jumping into an incredibly polarizing political scene and decided that I would use my skills and experience in communications and public relations to help reduce gun violence and improve gun safety in Oregon, and across the nation. I knew I couldn’t let my mom’s death be for nothing, so I did everything I could to make sure that if she couldn’t be here anymore, something good would come from it. I began testifying for gun safety bills in the Oregon legislature and co-founded a group called Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership to give hunters and gun owners a platform to speak out and educate others on the importance of gun safety. After two years (and three legislative sessions) of advocating for gun violence prevention in Oregon, the legislature finally passed a bill to require background checks on all gun sales.

I slowly learned more and more about the issue, and watched things change on the national level too. In 2016, I moved to Washington, D.C., to work on the issue full time as the regional manager for Giffords, the national gun violence prevention organization started by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Captain Mark Kelly. At the time, it was a dream come true.

I definitely never thought I’d end working in gun violence prevention, much less becoming an advocate for the issue. Sure, it’s something I would have supported, but like a lot of people who haven’t been personally affected by it somehow, it just wasn’t my issue.

How did you become a political activist?

Things happened pretty fast after my mom was killed. The shooting happened exactly two weeks before Christmas in December 2012, and the Oregon legislative session started early in January 2013. The Clackamas Town Center shooting was a big deal to the whole Oregon community, and that was amplified by the Sandy Hook School shooting that happened three days later, where 20 first graders and six of their educators were shot and killed.

I knew this was an incredibly controversial issue, and because I didn’t know much about it at the time, I hesitated to get involved right away. A good friend of mine gave me the push I needed, and I never looked back. A local community event was held shortly after the shooting where people gathered to start talking about what we were going to do to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. With my friend’s encouragement, I went to the event, and at the very end of it, I introduced myself and thanked everyone for being there. I told them my mom was Cindy Yuille, who was shot and killed at the Clackamas Town Center shooting, and a silence swept the room. It was a moment I’ll never forget. People came up to me crying afterwards, and so many people offered to help any way they could. That was the moment I realized that I could do something. I couldn’t believe how much impact I had on everyone who was there just by standing up and introducing myself. If I learned how to actually talk about the issue, I realized that people would actually listen. 

What did your job at Giffords entail?

I managed all advocacy and engagement efforts at Giffords, which is a national gun violence prevention organization. They have a combination of state and national coalitions made up of a broad cross-section of advocates from various key communities. I helped grow our current coalitions, helped build and launch new ones, and worked to educate our coalition members to be effective advocates. I organized coalition events around the nation and helped the communications team draft things like op-eds and writing testimony for bills.

How can we reduce gun violence in our country?

Gun violence is a complicated issue, and there’s no one single action or law that’s going to solve everything. That being said, we know from research that a couple of things would have a big impact. This includes things like requiring a background check on all gun sales and keeping your guns locked up when you’re not using them.

The single most important thing you can do to help reduce gun violence in America is to vote. Vote for candidates who are committed to gun safety, and make sure they know this is something you care about. Write to your representatives and let them know that your vote depends on their support for this issue. Politicians change their platforms pretty fast when they think it’ll impact their ability to win or lose an election.

What can journalists do to help?

Journalists can have a huge impact on this issue simply by continuing to report on it. Part of our goal at Giffords was to continually find stories for reporters, to always be giving them something new to report on. The goal is to ensure that after the next big shooting happens, people don’t stop caring at the end of the news cycle. The Trace is a news outlet dedicated solely to reporting on stories related to gun safety and reducing gun violence. Journalism can be an incredibly powerful force for change, and it has been.

How did the SOJC influence your path?

My PR classes taught me how to deal with the media, how to think about things things strategically, and how to ask the right questions. I wouldn’t trade my journalism and communications education for the world, especially when it comes to working in politics. The UO SOJC trained me to communicate clearly and effectively as an advocate, and to think about policy and politics from a marketing and PR perspective in order to change people’s minds and make progress on an issue where messaging has proven to be so key. From the very beginning, I knew my personal brand would be scrutinized, and I was extremely careful about the ways I got involved and how I chose to do it.

What are your goals for the future?

When I first got involved in this issue, I didn’t know how long I would be involved, but I knew it wouldn’t be forever. My goal was to make a difference in my mom’s name — to make sure that something good came out of her death. After coming up on six years since the shooting, I know that I’ve done that. I know I’ve made a big difference in Oregon, and even across the nation, and that’s been incredible.

I recently decided to take a step back from politics, which involved leaving my role at Giffords for something where I didn’t have to be thinking about guns and gun violence every day. I completed a certificate in project management from the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies last December and passed the Project Management Professional exam in February. I’m still in DC, and I accepted a role with Guidehouse (formerly Pricewaterhouse Coopers Public Sector) earlier this summer. I’m really enjoying being on the consultant side of things and love that my clients are still doing real things that have real-world implications.

The change has been good, but I haven’t left the gun violence prevention world completely. I still manage Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership, which has continued to influence politics in Oregon and has won grants to help educate people on the importance of safe gun storage. Earlier this summer, the group helped support a new initiative in Oregon to require gun owners to lock up their guns when not in use and to report guns that are missing or stolen.

Over the past few years, I’ve been profiled in a documentary called “101 Seconds” that came out in February, and I’m still flying around to attend screenings and help promote the issue around the country. It will be screened around Oregon, and you can purchase it on Amazon and a number of other platforms. All proceeds go to the director, who’s an awesome guy that cares a lot about this issue and has spent an incredible amount of time and energy to help make a difference in Oregon and beyond.

I want our country to continue to make progress on this issue. I want more Americans to understand why they should care about this issue and to vote for elected representatives who are committed to passing laws to keep guns away from people who shouldn’t have them. I’m hopeful we’re getting there, but these things take time.

Story by Nicole Rideout ’16 and Andra Brichacek