NLPeople: Niki Lessig, director of development
Niki Lessig, director of development, Washington, D.C.
- Can you tell us a little about your background and what brought you to NLP
I studied international relations and spent two-and-a-half-years with the Peace Corps, working for a women’s reproductive health organization in South Africa. This experience led me back to my hometown, Houston, Texas, to work in community organizing for the AIDS Foundation Houston and eventually in fundraising for Planned Parenthood. During this time, I saw how harmful misinformation was to public health and how false information could be used as a weapon against reproductive health. This is what initially drew me to NLP’s mission. I am also the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and this history, along with being Jewish, is a core part of my identity. I heard Eva Haller, an NLP board member and a Holocaust survivor, speak about her courageous story of survival and her reasons for believing in news literacy education. It really resonated with me.
- How (if so) has working for NLP impacted your life or changed your world perspective?
The NLP team is made up of former journalists and teachers – the smartest people in the world! I try to look at the world through their lenses, continually asking questions and remaining open to learning and growing. I’ve also gotten some great podcast recommendations!
- During your years as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, you helped to create a computer literacy curriculum for more than 100 adults and children. Do you see a connection between that work and what you do at NLP?
The community I was based in, Njomelwane, has no running water and little access to electricity. Regardless, the primary school principal’s goal was to be the first village in the area to have a computer lab. It would serve students during the week and transform into an adult learning space on weekends. This was his vision for a path to equity in the community – providing the opportunity for everyone to access and use information. We realized that vision together, and it was and continues to be transformative and empowering for all involved. There is absolutely a connection to NLP’s mission – news and information literacy is a basic right – and I am so proud of the work we do.
- What is the most surprising thing you have learned or experienced since joining NLP?
I don’t know if this is surprising but I have loved meeting NLP’s supporters, many of whom are teachers or journalists. They may be from different areas of the country and hold different political beliefs but they are all committed to strengthening our democracy, and they all believe in the fight for facts.
- What news literacy tip, tool or guidance do you most often use?
Have you met our senior director of education, John Silva? When faced with hard conversations with loved ones who have irrational beliefs, he taught me to use PEP, an approach based on patience, empathy and persistence.It’s not always easy (sometimes it’s more aspirational), but I have tried hard to practice this in my own life, and I repeat this guidance to everyone I know. It has been especially useful while talking to people who are vaccine hesitant or brainstorming with friends and family about how to talk to their vaccine hesitant communities.
- What have you been looking forward to the most as we fully emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic?
For a long time, I would have said travel. Bring on the adventures! But now that I am vaccinated and reemerging into the world, it turns out all I want is hours with loved ones! Time together feels precious and our bodies feel so much more fallible. I am giddy like a little kid to soak in togetherness time, to see how my friends’ children have grown up, to laugh over drinks and to hug my family.
- Aside from fighting for facts, what else are you passionate about?
I am a travel junkie, and I love every step of the journey – from trip planning to navigating the chaos of a new foreign place. Oh, and all the fantastic food and interesting conversation along the way. Before the pandemic, I took a three-week road trip through Morocco and Spain. I learned so much, and I can still taste that tajine. (Tajine is a North African stew of spiced meat and vegetables that is slow-cooked in a covered earthenware dish.)
- Are you on team dog, team cat, team wombat? Or do you prefer stuffed animals to pets?
I am team “all fuzzy beings.” I grew up with cats but a few years ago, a friend asked me to foster a Chihuahua for her. Instead, the rescue gave me a giant pit bull named Emmi – 100% muscle and 100% love (see photo for full reaction). I insisted I wasn’t qualified, but somehow, I managed to keep her alive until she was adopted almost six months later. Fast forward five years, rescues are still entrusting me with pups – over 40 foster pups successfully kept alive and adopted! I am still not sure I am qualified.
- What one item do you always have in your refrigerator?
Cheese. Feta, sharp cheddar, halloumi, manchego, parmesan. With one question you have found my weakness.
- What’s in your pocket/backpack/laptop case right now?
It is summer dress season – I have no pockets! But I am obsessed with my News Literacy Project mobile phone wallet, which sticks on the back of my phone and holds my essentials. If you, too, need an NLP phone wallet, let me know.