Common Ground with… Jessica McCarty

Common Ground with… Jessica McCarty

UW–Madison alum Jessica McCarty moved to Madison in 2001 for college and never left. Today, McCarty is an ordained chaplain at Oakwood Village, a continuum of care senior living facility. Throughout her life she has always “been interested in other people’s stories,” and this curiosity has led her down multiple career paths. 

Before becoming an ordained chaplain, she attended UW–Madison and studied consumer journalism in the School of Human Ecology.This set the stage for her to care about storytelling and become fascinated with how people are different, the same, intertwined and everything in between. Her first career was working as the assistant director of UW–Madison’s campus visitor relations department for nearly 12 years. 

It wasn’t until later, when she was married and had four children, that she decided to go back to school to chase another passion. This is when she pursued a Master of Arts in Diaconal Ministry (MADM) from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. McCarty is currently ordained as a deacon in the Lutheran Church. As a chaplain, she provides spiritual and emotional support across faith and spiritual traditions as part of the interdisciplinary care team.

What do you think is the biggest challenge our community faces?

I think one of the biggest challenges our community faces is disconnection. And that can lead to loneliness and social isolation, especially within the population that I serve, which is older adults, 75-plus. I see this a lot, but I think it can be prevalent within any age range. Since the pandemic, we have had to retrain ourselves how to connect and what it truly means to be in communities in person. And in turn, learn what people need in their communities for their health and wellness. 

This just shows us how important social connections and having a support network are for people's health. So, I think that is an area I tend to pay attention to as someone in our community: How can we make sure people feel connected and valued and loved wherever they are, even if they can’t access the places they once could, or if they have mobility challenges or any other barriers that prevent them from connecting to the social community and other communities that they would feel connected to. 

What do you wish people in our community understood better? 

I wish people understood the value of taking time to listen to one another’s stories. I know many people do this, but it seems more like a luxury than something that happens everyday. It’s only when we take a moment to really ask someone how they’re doing or ask a question about someone and actually listen to their answer— that’s when we are able to give people the time and space to receive their story and learn a little bit about where you may overlap in that story and where you differ, and it can pique your interest to learn more about our community. Each person is an important part of our community, and the more stories we share the more we understand how vast and rich our community is. So it’s an opportunity for us all to take a moment and listen and get to know people better. Even people that you might see everyday but just don’t talk to, how can you connect with them and learn something about them? And that’s how we expand our social nets with each conversation. 

What is one change you would make if you could that would make life better for people in our community? 

There are certainly so many things that I wish I could wave a magic wand and take away a lot of our societal injustices. But, one place in particular, is helping to remove barriers for people to feel a sense of belonging in communities. Especially in my career,I often see things to improve upon for older adults. So I would want to remove the barriers for them to have social connections, which is mobility and getting to places; how can we work in collaboration in our communities to get people to places or to bring services to them. Certainly there are a lot of these resources in our community, we are very fortunate, but if I could change anything it would be to remove barriers for people who are seeking and wanting connections. This would be any activity that people can participate in and be a part of that makes them feel whole, seen, heard and valued. 

What in our community gives you hope?

So much about the Madison community gives me hope. But the thing I go back to again and again, ever since I moved here in 2001 as a student, is this community’s commitment to curiosity, learning and personal development. The people you meet around this community just have a curiosity and passion for life and want to constantly learn more. They don’t just want to learn more for the sake of learning; they want to learn to change the community and learn for the sake of making the community a better place. I think back to my UW days and the Wisconsin Idea that what we do here can expand outside our community and have a ripple effect. So anything we learn about here, any stories we are receiving, or any stories we are sharing, we can use these learned things and go out and do good with them. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jessica McCarty. Photo courtesy of McCarty.
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