Living authentically and raising her voice for the underrepresented are two of many purposes Jackie Gunderson lives by. Gunderson, construction and facilities procurement manager since 2019 at Illinois State, advocates for and volunteers for organizations in Bloomington-Normal that serve children with disabilities and youth who identify as LGBTQIA+.
Before she embraced her identity, Gunderson, a Flanagan native, attended Illinois State from 2008–2009 majoring in special education. Though her academic career at the University was short-lived, after deciding to take a break from her studies, she made it her mission to create change in the community.
Attending Illinois State altered Gunderson’s perspective of the world because of the diverse backgrounds of people on campus. Growing up in a small town, she said she didn’t know anyone who identified as LGBTQIA+.
“I had never been around so many people from diverse backgrounds, and it made me explore things about myself I didn’t realize,” said Gunderson.
Gunderson got involved in roller derby, which she said was an inclusive sport where diverse sexual identities and different genders came together.
“When you’re not exposed to it or don’t have the language for it, you don’t have anyone that says it’s OK until someone gives you permission. I’m such an advocate because I grew up in a place where it wasn’t common and it wasn’t celebrated,” she said.
Gunderson didn’t embrace her sexuality until she reached adulthood. She said roller derby and Illinois State helped her realize she was queer. And that most of what she does is setting up the next generation to experience fewer barriers.
As a part of her advocacy in the community, Gunderson has been a part of several local nonprofits that seek to make the Bloomington-Normal region a more inclusive space. She has served as the creative director for the Penguin Project in McLean County since 2014—a theater program for children with disabilities and mentoring them to grow as artists—has volunteered for the Special Olympics Illinois since 2003, and Healing Rides since 2015.
And in 2016, Gunderson became a youth group facilitator for the Central Illinois PRIDE Health Center, where she has helped provide a safe and nonjudgmental support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning individuals and their allies.
“I came from a place where this wasn’t normal or celebrated and I wanted to use the privilege I have to create a space where people feel welcomed, valued, and live authentically,” said Gunderson. “I don’t speak on behalf of all queer people, but I want to raise my voice for people who don’t feel safe in order to pave the way for others.”
To expand her mission of living authentically and create a more inclusive space for others, Gunderson ran for County Board in District 9 in 2020 and mayor of Bloomington in 2021 because of the lack of representation from the queer community. Though she didn’t win either election, she has persisted with her community involvement.
Less than a week after the election, a parent of a transgender teenager reached out to Gunderson about dress shopping for prom night. Through Prairie Pride Coalition’s business directory, she noticed there weren’t any businesses listed for queer-inclusive formal wear, Gunderson rolled up her sleeves and partnered with Prairie Pride Coalition, TRANSparent Central IL, and Kara and Kaylee’s Kloset to host an event to provide an inclusive dress experience for LGBTQIA+ individuals.
“(Gunderson) understands that there are many opportunities for the general public, but the marginalized and underrepresented don’t get those opportunities. She sees that and wants to right those wrongs,” said Dave Bentlin, Prairie Pride Coalition president and administrative assistant to the president at Illinois State, who has collaborated with Gunderson for several years in the LGBTQIA+ community. “Jackie sees the struggle for equality, equity, and inclusion as a marathon and not a sprint. She’s in it for the long haul. She’s going to be in the forefront of making a lot of changes to our community.”
In addition to her other community work, Gunderson presents sessions on how to incorporate LGBTQIA+ inclusion for administrators, staff, and teachers at several organizations and schools.
“These trainings are meant to help the adults in these kids’ lives by understanding the often-invisible boulders they are carrying around their ‘invisible emotional backpack’ and give them tools and resources to help navigate mental health and physical well-being issues,” she said.
Gunderson said if she could turn back the clock, she would’ve been louder and made an impact sooner. Her hope is that people continue to link arms with others so that underrepresented individuals have the opportunity to live authentically. And that she wouldn’t be able to accomplish what she did without her support system.