Change Agent

How a senior project at Oberlin became a life calling for Jesse Kohler.

September 19, 2023

Tyler Applegate

Jesse Kohler headshot.
Photo credit: courtesy of Jesse Kohler

Jesse Kohler ’16 set foot in Oberlin with a dream of baseball stardom. But like the unpredictable curveballs he threw from the mound, life directed him toward a path of public service, and the baseball enthusiast evolved into a beacon for community and national advocacy that took shape through his major in law and society.

Kohler hails from the outskirts of Philadelphia, where he was intimately exposed to the challenges many families face in raising children and making ends meet. Witnessing these difficulties up close fueled his desire to make a tangible impact and ultimately led him to pursue a career informed by trauma-informed care, a medical framework through which providers aim to connect with people who face negative consequences from past experiences. 

Jesse Kohler pitching for the Oberlin baseball team.
Jesse Kohler pitched for three seasons on the Oberlin baseball team.

Oberlin’s culture of advocacy left an indelible mark on Kohler. “I came with cleats and gloves, thinking the field was where I’d shine,” he says. But the fertile sociopolitical climate on campus began to shape his aspirations. “Transitioning from my introductory psychology classes to the depth of the law and society major broadened my horizons.”

We caught up with Kohler to learn how his work at Oberlin led to a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that employs scientific research to improve overall well-being among challenged populations.

What are you doing these days?

I’m the founder and president of The Change Campaign, a nonprofit birthed from my senior project at Oberlin. The campaign also works with government agencies and other organizations that have similar goals. Because of my work with The Change Campaign, I was selected as the executive director for the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP), a nationwide organization trying to create a resilient society by addressing the injustices that cause poor health and supporting the integration of resilience-building and healing activities.

Apart from this, I’m on the board of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives (NPSC) and an advisor for the Compassionate School Leadership Academy (CSLA) at Yale. My main aim is fostering a sustainable planet and a hopeful future. Early in my career, I’ve emphasized leadership that’s community-led, trauma-informed, and resilience-focused.

What led you down this career path?

My initial dream was to be a professional baseball player. My academic leanings were toward neuroscience, psychology, and political science. However, my grades in Psych 100 challenged this path. Consequently, the law and society program at Oberlin caught my attention, offering a blend of multiple disciplines and the chance of law school. My interest in the school-to-prison pipeline [the higher likelihood of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds being incarcerated] began here, and it led me to my work at an educational nonprofit. This, in turn, resulted in a master’s in educational leadership from Arcadia University and an influential internship with the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.

What facets of your work are you most proud of?

Jesse Kohler speaking at the Council for Tribal Employment Rights conference.
Kohler speaking at the Council for Tribal Employment Rights conference.

Supporting the development of CTIPP’s programs that have enabled some of those policy wins are some of the most rewarding experiences of my career thus far. I learned so much working alongside trauma-informed leaders throughout the United States to create programs that fill unmet needs in the field. I have been fortunate to have played a significant role in the development of CTIPP’s Community Advocacy Network (CTIPP CAN) to organize trauma-informed advocates across the country; PressOn envisions an infrastructure to connect and mobilize federal to state to local collaborations to propel the community-led, trauma-informed, prevention-oriented, resilience-focused, and healing-centered movement forward; and Ideas Lab, which promotes tools and resources to build the movement.

Oberlin nurtured my curiosity, helping me understand the root causes of world problems. The interdisciplinary learning there became the foundation of my knowledge.”

How did Oberlin equip you for your current roles?

The Change Campaign—my senior project—was a significant one. I had been working with [local nonprofit] Oberlin Community Services for a year and a half before the Winter Term of my senior year. I was serving as a public health advocate when we wrote a grant to the Ohio Commission on Minority Health for $20,000 to fund a Text for Wellness program, making crisis counselors available for the state through text messages. I played a very minor role in that project but learned a ton. As I marinated on the experience, I realized that if Oberlin students donated an average of $20, we could raise $60,000 of flexible funding for community services.

Oberlin nurtured my curiosity, helping me understand the root causes of world problems. The interdisciplinary learning there became the foundation of my knowledge. Moreover, the deep introspection fostered at Oberlin about my position and privilege has been invaluable in my professional journey.

Jesse Kohler with members of the 12+ program.
Kohler's first professional experience after college was with 12+, empowering underprivileged students to succeed after 12th grade.

How did you secure your first post-college position?

I met Rob Reed, the executive deputy attorney general for the Pennsylvania Office of Public Engagement, during my fellowship with 12+ [a nonprofit aiming to bring educational equity to K-12 students in Philadelphia]. Rob asked if I wanted to meet with him, and I came prepared to talk all about The Change Campaign. I told him all about the project and what we hoped to accomplish, and when I was done, he told me about the project he was working on—the Pennsylvania Trauma-Informed Care Network—and asked if I wanted to help him with its development. This was my introduction to trauma-informed care, and it changed my entire life. In that position, I met leaders of CTIPP when it was first coming together, and this led to me becoming CTIPP’s first official intern. 

2015 NCAC Champion baseball team.
Kohler was a member of the 2015 team that won the NCAC Championship. 

What’s your fondest memory of Oberlin? 

The 2015 Oberlin baseball team won the North Coast Athletic Conference. We were underdogs and went on an incredible run at the end of the season. I didn’t play a lot that season. I got a concussion earlier in the year when an errant throw hit me in the head, but I found a role serving as a bullpen catcher and tried to be the best teammate I could. This humbling experience taught me more than my successes did. The night after we won the conference championship, we drove back from Chillicothe and stayed up the entire night celebrating until the sun came up!

You may also like…