Photo of Jessica Fraser, director of the Indiana Institute for Working Families

She’s the Rocky Balboa of the Indiana Statehouse.

Like any tenacious underdog, Jessica Fraser, MA ’06, understands that winning against a stronger opponent requires a 12-round strategy and that you’re going to get knocked down along the way. But what Fraser lacks in power she makes up for in team-building, preparation, and grit.

Fraser, who earned a master’s degree in political science at Ball State, is director of the Indiana Institute for Working Families, founded in 2004 as part of the nonprofit Indiana Community Action Association. The institute is a think tank that advocates for state and federal policies to help low-wage workers and low-income families become self-sufficient. According to its website, the institute is the only statewide program in Indiana that combines research and policy analysis on federal and state legislation, public policies, and programs impacting low-income working families.

Photo of Jessica Fraser posing with former governor Doc Bowen.

Jessica Fraser meets with former governor Otis “Doc” Bowen while attending the Bowen Institute for Political Participation at Ball State.

Fraser is also “technically a registered lobbyist.” Though actually a small part of her career, lobbying is among the most fascinating aspects, because she is among the few registered lobbyists in Indiana advocating solely in the best interests of Hoosiers in need.

In her role, Fraser fights for the everyman and woman. This past legislative session, she joined faith leaders, community activists, and veterans to crush a bill favored by the wealthy payday lending industry. It would have allowed lenders to charge loan-shark-level interest rates on borrowers who are already disadvantaged.

“My husband says I’m a rabble rouser,” Fraser said. “I just want to help those who are least among us.”

This year, the Indianapolis Business Journal named her in its 2019 Forty Under 40 list. That a leading business publication would recognize a champion of the poor says everything you need to know about Fraser.

She’s a force to be reckoned with.

Guided by faith

When Fraser talks about “the least among us,” that’s a clue about where her fire comes from.

She unhesitatingly borrows language from the Bible, especially those profound, almost lyrical sermons in the New Testament where Jesus commands his followers to care for the downtrodden.

Fraser grew up in Fort Wayne in a “super Catholic” family. She is proud to be related to John Francis Noll, a beloved archbishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne from 1925 to 1956 and founder of the Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor.

“I’ve always felt like this job is a calling,” she said. “They will probably have to pry this job from my hands some point when I’m in my 70s.”

One of many faith-based groups Fraser works with is the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), which serves as the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana.

ICC executive director Glenn Tebbe said advocating for the marginalized can be disheartening at times. You often lose. Victory can take years of effort. Fraser, he said, manages setbacks with undying optimism and a sense of humor.

“She’s a great person and she’s great to work with,” he said. “She’s serious. But she’s also fun.”

Her servant’s heart is further fueled by a personal understanding of what it’s like to struggle financially. When Fraser was young, her family was poor enough to qualify for Head Start, a pre-kindergarten program that promotes school readiness in children from low-income families.

She has only recently become comfortable with talking about being low-income during childhood and is still somewhat guarded, preferring to focus attention on current issues.

“There were hard times,” she said.

But they didn’t last long. With a little help, the family got back on its feet. Fraser has begun to share her family’s success story with lawmakers who have questions about the value of social programs.

“I have seen people change their hearts and minds,” she said. “If our positions were hardwired and there was nothing you could do, I wouldn’t survive in this role.”

Speaking truth

In 2003, Fraser graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from St. Mary’s College in South Bend.

Finding work after graduation was tough, and she spent a year as a waitress. She decided that she needed a master’s degree to be more marketable. So, she enrolled in the master arts in political science program at Ball State and commuted to campus.

She graduated in 2006 with improved critical thinking skills and a much stronger understanding of statistics and data analysis, the very tools she needed to launch her career. She said Professor of Political Science Misa Nishikawa was especially influential.

“My graduate school experience was invaluable to my career,” she said.

Information, effective communication, and an honest reputation are keys to lobbying for low-income people, Fraser said. The Indiana Institute for Working Families doesn’t have a lot of money, and, as a non-profit organization, it is prohibited from making campaign contributions.

“We can’t take people out to dinner or buy them tickets to baseball games,” she said. “We don’t really have money or influence. We have our reputation. We have information that’s data-driven.”

Fraser is quick to note that there are also occasions where they benefit from common-ground partnerships with industry groups and powerful organizations.

In those situations, she is a bridge builder.

She’s also a data nerd, a person of deep convictions, and a Ball State Cardinal who exemplifies the University’s enduring values, including courage, integrity, inclusiveness and social responsibility.

And, yes, she’s a fighter and rabble rouser when she needs to be.

One thing she isn’t is a stereotypical lobbyist.

“You have to be ready to speak truth to power,” she said. “It’s not always easy.”