Passion and Pride

One alumna’s life, education, and career have been guided by her commitment to social justice, sexual health, and youth leadership development

by Sofia Tokar

Joy Messinger

Inspired by the feminist and social justice movements of the 1990s, Joy Messinger ’04 wanted to be a professional activist when she grew up. Since most colleges and universities didn’t offer degree programs in activism, Messinger chose to study social work. Growing up in Walworth, New York, she knew of Nazareth College’s well-regarded social work program. “Naz was at the top of my list,” she recalls.

At Nazareth, Messinger discovered that the idea and practice of social work are two different things. “You learn social work by doing social work,” she says. Internships, field placements, and work with the College’s Center for Service-Learning crystallized her interests in sexual health, reproductive and social justice, and youth development. She went on to earn her Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina and Master of Social Work from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Now for more than a dozen years Messinger has channeled her passion, education, and research into her professional life as an award-winning community advocate, educator, and organizer. Based in Chicago, she is currently the program officer for Third Wave Fund, a national foundation supporting the vision and leadership of young women and transgender youth.

Messinger’s professional activism and politics are inextricably linked with her personal life. Outside of work, she is active with Asian American, LGBTQ, and reproductive justice organizations at the local and national levels. Adopted from South Korea and raised in Western New York, she also connects with others in the transnational adoptee community.

“I love meeting people, especially young people in high school and college,” she says. “They’re the next generation of leaders, so it’s a chance to create a better world for and with them.”

But how does she engage youth—some as young as 13—with complex social issues, such as reproductive justice? “It’s a big concept,” Messinger admits, “and most people primarily think of birth control and abortion. But many things impact the ability not just to have children, but also to raise them: age, race, socio-economic status.

“One way to tackle this idea is to see how it plays out in an individual’s lived experiences,” she continues. “We might ask young people to think about how police violence impacts the parenting styles of black and brown mothers, or consider what happens to families that are torn apart by deportation.”

Although issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia are not new challenges for society, Messinger believes the difference in recent years is the increased visibility for justice movements. More than ever before, social justice and social media combine to amplify efforts such as Black Lives Matter, a movement campaigning against violence toward black people; the White House’s Yes She Can initiative to advance equity for women and girls of color; and Planned Parenthood’s #StandWithPP campaign to fight for and promote women’s health rights.

“These are issues that have been around long before I was even born. What I’m doing builds on the work of many of my predecessors who fought against injustices.”

That fight continues, in large part, by empowering the next generation. “Working with young people has taught me that adults don’t always have all of the answers. My advice to them? Listen to yourself and to each other. Your life experiences will show you how resourceful and resilient you really are.”

Sofia Tokar is a freelance and web writer in Rochester, New York.

Joy Messinger

Hands-on Learning

As a student, Messinger benefited from her roles at these organizations:

  • TEAM Youth & Family Services, St. Joseph's Villa (volunteering)
  • Family Unity Camp, St. Joseph's Villa & Greater Rochester Collaborative MSW Program (volunteering)
  • Center for Service Learning (volunteering and coursework)
  • Lambda (student group)
  • Senate (student group)
  • Society for the Protection and Care of Children (internship)
  • AIDS Rochester (internship)