‘I’m not that scared kid anymore’: Highland Park’s Rachel Jacoby on her path to becoming an anti-gun violence activist

Rachel Jacoby in Highland Park
Rachel Jacoby stands in downtown Highland Park, just blocks from the site of last year’s Fourth of July shooting. (Jordana Comiter/MEDILL)

By Jordana Comiter
Medill Reports

In June 2022, Rachel Jacoby, a national organizer for March for Our Lives, planned a rally in her hometown of Highland Park, Illinois, to end gun violence. 

While she was publicizing it, commenters on neighborhood-based social networking site Nextdoor said, “We don’t have gun violence in Highland Park,” and “Why aren’t you doing it in the South Side of Chicago?” 

She replied, “Just because it hasn’t happened here, doesn’t mean it won’t.” 

Three weeks after the march, a gunman killed seven people and injured 48 more at a Highland Park Fourth of July parade.

Bullet holes marked the same benches and spots Jacoby had marched past three weeks earlier.

One day later, people asked her when the rally would be held. She thought to herself, “Oh, my gosh, I’m grieving.” But that afternoon, she began planning an event, first connecting with the Illinois chapter of Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group.

Jacoby, 26, never expected to be on the front line of the anti-gun violence movement. She grew up “Midwestern polite”: She didn’t talk about religion or politics. She hung out with her parents, baked the “best cookies in Highland Park” and competed in soccer, tennis and other sports. But today, she is one of the loudest voices fighting for change and a driving force behind recent groundbreaking gun-reform legislation in Illinois.

“I’ve always been a rule follower. But I’ve come to realize that I only want to follow rules that should be followed,” Jacoby said. “It’s now my job to break rules, make people uncomfortable and hold those in power accountable for their actions.”

Jacoby spends time connecting with other students and activists, and lobbying for and against legislation. Simultaneously, she is finishing her final year of her master’s degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. A public policy degree would allow her to work toward finding solutions to systemic problems.

Jacoby was only joking about her childhood dream of being the first female U.S. president. “It wasn’t in my blood to be political, or maybe it was all along, and I just didn’t realize,” Jacoby said. 

In 2016, the morning after Donald Trump was elected president, Jacoby walked into the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied accounting and supply chain management, and cried after she listened to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech being broadcast on television screens around her. “I was getting emotional, and that’s when I was like, ‘What am I doing with my life? I want to be on a path to make a change,” she said.

Even with a full-time offer at Deloitte, Jacoby felt her passion was elsewhere. Her mother, initially skeptical, remembers her daughter explaining the change of heart. 

“She called me up and said, ‘I can do that, and I know I will make really good money, but I’m not going to be happy. I really want to do something that is going to make a difference in the world,’” her mother, Kim, recalled. After weeks of discussion, she said she told her daughter, “You’re young enough, do what makes you happy and we will support you.” 

Graduation came around the 2018 midterm elections, when many women were running for office. Jacoby worked as a finance and compliance coordinator at Emily’s List, a PAC that aims to put Democratic female candidates in office. The month before the midterms, she volunteered with the New Mexico Democratic Party, assisting in voter operations and helping politicians like Deb Haaland — who was elected to represent New Mexico’s 1st District — flip the House. She caught what she calls the “organizing bug.” 

Jacoby participated in the inaugural 2018 March for Our Lives but threw herself into an organizing role following the Uvalde, Texas, shooting in May 2022. She avoided the news for a few days after the shooting, hoping to protect her mental health. But talking with her younger cousin who feared returning to school, Jacoby remembered feeling nervous and helpless during her first active shooter drill after Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. “I’m not that scared kid anymore. I now know how to mobilize and organize,” Jacoby said. 

So, she joined the March for Our Lives team.

Only three weeks later, when her hometown joined the long list of U.S. communities grieving after gun violence, Jacoby led the response. 

“She had less than five days to plan a major community event for a community that had just been traumatized in a major way. She didn’t know if people would come, she didn’t know if it would work, but she knew it needed to be done,” said Caryn Fliegler, lead of the Illinois Moms Demand Action chapter at the time. “She has a really irreplaceable combination of fearlessness and compassion, and she leads people forward from a place of humanity.”

Photo of Rachel Jacoby speaking at rally
Rachel Jacoby speaks at the Highland Park rally that she organized following the Fourth of July shooting. (Photo courtesy of Syed Khalil Ullah)

Following the rally, Jacoby began organizing support for the Protect Illinois Communities Act. The legislation, developed by the House Firearm Safety Reform Working Group and chaired by Rep. Bob Morgan, extended the duration of the Firearm Restraining Order, strengthened “red flag” laws and banned assault weapons. She and the other volunteers called constituents countless times asking them to push their Democratic representatives to sponsor the legislation.

In a country that has become desensitized to gun violence, Jacoby sometimes struggles with asking for support. “You’re asking people to make some sort of personal sacrifice, and you want to tell people that their actions will lead to change, but sometimes you just don’t know if that’s true,” Jacoby said.

In the fall of 2022, an assault weapons ban in Illinois looked unlikely. “I felt like even with the work I’ve been doing, the relationships I’ve built and the people who have poured so much of themselves into it, nothing was going to go anywhere,” Jacoby said. “I woke up in the middle of the night with my heart beating super fast and terrified that all of this work, and all of this trauma and grief, was going to be for nothing.”

Leaning on the relationships she had built, “the bright spot of the tragedy,” helped her redirect her focus to her work. She clung to a lesson she learned from her professor who had organized during the civil rights movement. “When you’re organizing, you’re doing it for the outcome. But the work you’re doing, the relationships you’re forming, and the movement that you’re building along the way, are just as important,” Jacoby said she learned from her professor.

Part of the movement, though, requires using your trauma to push for change, Jacoby said. “That’s what people connect with, and that’s what they find compelling.”

That push also helped her grieve. “She doesn’t need the pats on the back or someone telling her they saw her on TV,” Jacoby’s mother said. “She fights so hard, and it can be hard to see change, but seeing the little wins are her way of grieving.”

In January, the Protect Illinois Communities Act went to the Illinois State Capitol. The week it was on the floor, Jacoby organized buses and cars full of activists from Highland Park, the South Side of Chicago, Rockford, Champaign, Peoria and Evanston to Springfield to lobby state senators and attend a rally. Support reached beyond Illinois, with cars from Missouri and Indiana too. 

While boarding the bus to leave Springfield, Jacoby received a call from a lobbyist asking if she could stay to be in the audience while the House voted that night. Without hesitation, she stayed. At around 2 a.m., the House voted to push the bill through. Then, it headed to the Senate.

Rachel Jacoby speaking at Capitol
In January, Rachel Jacoby addressed the crowd of activists who attended the Capitol rally while the House and Senate were voting on the Protect Illinois Communities Act. (Photo courtesy of Ashbey Beasley)

When the Senate reconvened two days later to vote, it introduced a watered-down version of the bill that stripped out the enforcement capabilities, which Jacoby called an “assault weapons ban with no teeth.” After long hours of organizing against it and Gov. J.B Pritzker saying he would veto this version, senators revised and passed the bill.

“Everything we’ve worked for and toward, every call we made, every email we sent, every conversation we had was worth it,” Jacoby said, tears beginning to fall. “This legislation is going to save lives. Most importantly, every person that we’ve lost in Illinois to gun violence, that work was for them.”

With the number of mass shootings in the U.S. this year already at more than 100, Jacoby’s work continues. She wants Illinois to put more money into addressing the root causes of gun violence, close the domestic violence loophole and raise the age of a child under the Illinois Safe Storage Act (which generally makes it unlawful for a person to store or leave their firearm unlocked and accessible to a minor under the age of 14). She dreams of the day when the whole nation can follow Illinois.

“My biggest hope is that now that we have passed in our community, all of us don’t just sit on our laurels,” Jacoby said. “There is so much more to do … it takes all of us.”

Jordana Comiter is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Jordanacomiter.