The first thing you notice about her is her smile. It’s a big smile – really big - warm and inviting. Behind the smile are twinkling brown eyes belonging to a mom, educator, music lover, amateur chef and fashionista with a flair for style. And tattooed on the inside of her right wrist are the numbers “365”, forever immortalizing the number of electoral votes Barack Obama received in 2008. Meet Zakeisha Steele Jones, whose quiet work behind the scenes is changing the face of our communities.
Born in Los Angeles, the family moved to Las Vegas to advance her father’s career when Steele-Jones was a small child. Richard Steele became the second African-American in the history of boxing to become a licensed referee. He went on to referee 167 world title fights and land a spot in the Boxing Hall of Fame. After retiring, he opened the Richard Steele Boxing Center. Its subsidiary organization, the Richard Steele Health and Wellness Community Center, is a haven for at-risk youth.
While her father was out in the community her mother fought the battles on a smaller front at home. Zakeisha remembers little “snapshots of Democracy;” such as her mother refusing to cross the grocery store picket line and keeping her daughter home from school on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday before it was a state holiday in Nevada. “Mom could have just said I was sick, but I was proud of her telling the truth about why she kept me home,” says Steele-Jones about the excuse note she brought back to school with her the next day.
“Mom was the one who laid on the horn in solidarity when we drove past a picket line and who spoke out against inequality and injustice. Dad was the one who started a non-profit organization to help the less fortunate, and who brought the strangers home for Thanksgiving dinner.”
The eldest of two children, Steele-Jones graduated from Chaparral High School in Las Vegas, went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. for a year and then returned to UNLV where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1998. At that time, UNLV held one commencement exercise every Spring. Zakeisha was a winter graduate. So she started a petition for a winter ceremony, an idea that was both applauded and resisted.
UNLV administrators said it was logistically impossible but Zakeisha came up with a workable plan and UNLV held its first ever winter ceremony for more than 1,000 graduates on December 19, 1998. “Everyone said it couldn’t be done, but I believe there is always a way to make something happen,” says Steele-Jones. Fifteen years after Zakeisha first raised the question, winter commencement exercises are the norm and thousands of students have benefitted from the efforts of one person with a clip board.
Today, Zakeisha is a school teacher, mom to two daughters and wife to a labor organizer with IBEW local 357. Labor values/issues are common discussions around the dinner table. She was an active volunteer in the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, continued with Organizing for America post-election and remains active in the President’s re-election campaign as a Neighborhood Team Leader.
She is uncomfortable talking about her achievements. The former president of the Las Vegas Chapter of Mocha Moms, Inc. is also a member of the Stonewall Democratic Club of Southern Nevada, the Clark County Democratic Black Caucus and the NAACP. She is also the recipient of various educational awards and acknowledgments.
Fiercely passionate about injustice, she feels called to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. A 2012 graduate of the EmergeNevada program, she recently ran for Clark County School Board and lost. It was her first time running for public office.
“I learned a lot from that experience,” says Steele-Jones. Being a strong advocate for education, the office seemed like a logical fit for her but she doesn’t see herself as a political person. “If taking action to improve the social situation for people in our communities manifests through a political office, so be it.”
Like her mother, she is vocal in her criticism of injustice. Like her father, she gets out in the trenches to help make change happen. As a blend of both parents, she takes action but rarely takes any of the credit. Her style is active engagement and low profile. But with her own children, she makes sure they see her in action and assume age-appropriate responsibilities as much as possible.
“Without a doubt, my greatest wish for my children is for them to have as many options and choices available as there are possibilities. I want them to be treated equally. The best way I know how to teach them to advocate for that is to show them. I want them to know that even when they’re scared, if they can push through that fear, many doors will open up. It’s okay to be afraid when trying something different or something big, but fear does not have to stop them from achieving their dreams."
Steele-Jones has a lot of supporters out there and her political story is not finished. We’ll have to wait to find out if she comes back as a political candidate or continues the road she’s been wending the past 20 years. Regardless which path she chooses, our communities will be the beneficiary.
THANK YOU Zakeisha for your service to Nevada and our communities!