HILDALE — In honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, USA Today Network recognized 10 women in each state and the District of Colombia as Women of the Century for their contributions to their respective states.
Hildale City Mayor Donia Jessop was one of them.
In addition to being elected the first woman mayor of Hildale, according to a USA Today article, Jessop was chosen for her outstanding efforts in the dramatic modernization of the Short Creek area and leading the way toward revitalizing the community’s history, boosting the economy and bringing in new infrastructure and recreational activities.
‘I wouldn’t let my kids be separated from me’
After being born in Short Creek into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Jessop was excommunicated in 2012 and then returned years later to help rebuild the community. In 2018, she became the first woman to be elected mayor of Hildale.
Jessop told St. George News that after she found out she was being honored as a woman of the century, she was sitting with her friend Shirlee Draper talking about how baffled she was.
She said Draper told her the following:
You did this all of your life because of who you are, the choices you made all of your life – it’s your nature. And so to you, you don’t seem remarkable, but you are to everybody else. You stand up for all of us.
Despite the vote of confidence from Draper, who is also a former member of the FLDS church and director of Cherish Families, an advocacy program for victims of abuse, Jessop said she is still overtaken by the news.
“You know, you go through your day just being, and you don’t realize that you’re actually making a mark – that people are actually paying attention, that you’re making a difference,” she said.
Jessop’s pioneering spirit started young. When she was in high school, she started the first debate team for her school.
“I didn’t even know what a debate team was, but one of the teachers there told us that he would sponsor us and help us if we would do it.”
The newly formed debate team went down to Tucson, Arizona, for a competition that ended up being the only year they were able to do it, since the school disbanded the team immediately after.
“Because we don’t argue,” Jessop said, referring to what she was commonly told growing up in the church.
Jessop was first married at 17 years old to her high school sweetheart, a marriage that went against the system, as it wasn’t appointed by church leaders.
“We had to fight our way back to be accepted again in the community and into the good graces of our families and the people here,” she said, “which made me so, so determined to be that perfect wife and mother, to show people I deserved a place in the community and in the church, which is one of the reasons I was in the church for so long because I was going to prove I could do it.”
After Warrren Jeffs took over, everything changed and daily life quickly soured, she said.
“It was very very stressful. There were new edicts every week that we needed to change or do or people to shun. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go to church.”
Jessop stayed in the community for 15 years under Jeff’s rule before she left.
“When they said they were going to start separating families, that’s when I said I couldn’t be a part of it anymore,” she said. “I wouldn’t let my kids be separated from me.”
‘We were just standing up for our people’
In 2012, she and her family left the church and then moved to Santa Clara. After three years of being away, they decided to go back to Short Creek to help restore the community. In 2017, Jessop said she was at a meeting and they were looking for someone to be mayor, and she felt the urge to raise her hand.
“I just had a very clear understanding that that was what I was supposed to do,” she said. “For someone who came from a very religious background and then didn’t believe anymore about – you know being led by the spirit – I just felt that absolute knowledge that this is what I was supposed to do.”
It was that moment that drove Jessop to begin campaigning.
“It was a huge deal. We were going to be standing up in the face of our family and people that we loved, and we would be shunned even more because we were already apostates and now we’d be coming back and look like bitter apostates, like we were fighting against the church – which we weren’t; we were just standing up for our people.”
Jessop said she went into being a mayor without any political science background or any knowledge of what to expect. After a successful campaign, Jessop took her seat as mayor in 2018. Since then, she said, both men and women in the community have told her that her becoming mayor made them feel empowered as well.
“It really speaks to the change of the community and the thinking. I definitely have nonsupporters, but I have more supporters than not.”
In just two years, Jessop has invoked dramatic change toward modernization and economic growth. Property values have increased by 300 times, she said, and people are able to buy their homes for the first time. They have also brought in a football field for Water Canyon High and have developed mental health resources for the community. She said Hildale is also – for the first time in many years – free from all lawsuits.
For Jessop, her role really comes down to doing what’s best for humanity and being a conduit for the myriad of voices in the community.
“Being able to speak through love for my people has been one of my greatest accomplishments,” she said, “because it’s not getting up and yelling and screaming and demanding love and respect, but it’s earning it through being kind and listening – truly listening – and making people feel heard.”
The feeling is reciprocal, she said, as they have been feeling the love from the state of Utah and beyond.
“Where I came from a place where we were told that nobody cares – we weren’t wanted by the world – and then to be treated so kindly by so many people, I am just blown away.”
Her son Mitchel Jessop posted the following on Facebook about her recognition:
When she told me she was running for major I was happy because I knew she could make more change then anyone. I have seen her handle disrespect with more honor then a queen. And take praise more humbly then a peasant. Everyday she works herself into exhaustion building our community into a destination. I’m so blessed to have been raised by such an amazing example. Thank you mom!
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