His recently published memoir, I’m Not Broken (No Estoy Roto), begins and ends in Harvard Yard on a humid June day more than 20 years ago, when Jesse Leon MPP 2001 graduated from the Kennedy School. Commencement serves as an apt metaphor for a story about resilience and rebirth, opening and closing chapters in a life that at times feels too full—of both tragedy and promise—to belong to a single person.
The summer before he was to attend Harvard, while on a research fellowship in Cuba, Leon met a Yoruba priestess who told him, “You were supposed to be the priest of your family…but a trauma took place that changed your life’s course.”
The studious middle child of indigenous working-class Mexican immigrants, Leon’s path was changed irrevocably when he was 11 by a terrifying encounter in which a giftshop owner molested him in the back room of his shop, which led to years of sexual abuse, child prostitution, drug addiction, and homelessness. But he survived. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard, and went on to oversee multimillion-dollar grant-making portfolios for several foundations; manage $1 billion in public-sector investments, including for the first LGBT senior housing development in Florida; build thousands of affordable housing units; and establish his own social-impact consulting firm, Alliance Way.
Established during the pandemic, Alliance Way helps foundations and impact investors maximize positive community impact and provides racial equity, diversity, and inclusion (REDI) training and coaching. One of Leon’s current projects is advising the Walton Family Foundation on a grant-making and investment strategy for regional workplace housing in northwest Arkansas.
His improbable path from the streets to high-impact consulting work, Leon says, should not be read as the tale of “an individual pulling himself up by his bootstraps.” He writes that his success was “the product of a network, of the efforts of many people,” including family and friends who never gave up on him; Narcotics Anonymous sponsors; admissions and financial aid officers who, he felt, “were all conspiring so that students of color would succeed”; Kennedy School classmates who took him under their wing; and professors who gave him opportunities to apply his studies to real-world projects.
In particular, he credits a Policy Analysis Exercise with Joseph Kalt for introducing him to corporate social responsibility work. During that project, he worked with the Hopi Nation to design a holistic land-use strategy to test wireless satellite technology. Leon created a telemedicine, tele-education, and environmental cleanup and remediation plan for the Hopi community. “I didn’t know at the time that the Kennedy School was training me to do a type of development work that didn’t yet exist,” he says.
That work in equitable development connects the environmental and racial-justice movements to create growth that addresses climate change, benefits vulnerable local communities, and builds inclusive economies. “Issues of race and inequality must be addressed up front rather than as add-ons in policy making,” he says.
What Harvard taught Leon was how to use numbers to tell a story—in order to marshal resources for the communities that need them—and to tell it in a way that includes the communities being served. “If my mom doesn’t understand the story I am trying to tell, then I haven’t been effective,” he says. “It’s my great hope to use everything that I’ve lived through to serve individuals and communities in need, in ways that are gender-affirming and multilingual.”
In telling his own story, Leon has realized the unimaginable: As the priestess foresaw so many years ago, he has become a “priest” of sorts, mediating between different worlds—the public and the private sector, underresourced communities and elite institutions, the past and the present—and bringing his many lived experiences to bear.