HELENA — Friendship Center Executive Director and former State House of Representatives Minority Leader Jenny Eck has announced she’ll be stepping down from her current position after receiving an international fellowship to pursue a master's degree in Peace and Conflict Resolution.
Eck leaves a definable impact on the state of Montana through her advocacy and political career.
Fresh out of school, Eck and her husband moved to Helena 13 years ago after he got a clerkship with the State Supreme Court. The plan was to only stay for a year, but they didn’t count on falling in love with Big Sky Country.
“I was a stay-at-home mom for a few years after we first moved here and then I got my start in politics when the Obama campaign opened an office in Helena and they were looking for a volunteer coordinator for Lewis and Clark County. I applied and got the job and was hooked,” said Eck.
Eck would continue to work for the Montana Democrats before being hired as committee secretary at the State Legislature. She says it was during that time she realized she wanted to run for office and represent others like herself who didn’t have a voice in state politics.
“I got to listen to all the bills and discussion and realized the voices in the room weren’t representative of what I represented; which was a mom with two kids in a middle-class family facing all the challenges middle-class families face,” said Eck.
When Judge Mike Menahan stepped away from his seat to serve in the 1st District Court in Montana, Eck decided to run for office while working for the Montana Department of Justice. She initially faced a crowded primary with two other more well-known Democrats.
“I ran a 14 month campaign, which in the Legislature is a long time,” Eck said. ”But I knocked every door in my district three times.”
Eck was elected to represent House District 79, assuming office in 2013. Her time in the Legislature included serving as minority whip and eventually minority leader for House democrats.
“Being minority leader was an amazing experience. Leading the caucus through special session was quite an intense experience. I learned a lot about the budget,” recalled Eck.
Under her tenure as a legislator she helped reform sexual assault and domestic violence laws, increase consumer protection and pass Medicaid Expansion.
“One small bill that I worked on that was important to me was addressing transparency in parole hearings. Having a bill pass that just laid out that if you’re going to have a hearing for someone who’s up for parole it needs to be videotaped and it needs to be made available,” said Eck.
“The other thing I’m really proud of is passing discrimination and harassment rules for the legislature. When the Me Too movement came out it was very clear we had issues at the capitol," Eck added.
The former minority leader said she made lasting friendships on both sides of the aisle while working as a public servant and hopes civil political discourse can return to all forms of government.
“I would say by and large the people up there were doing [the job] for the right reasons, and I wish more people knew of that,” said Eck. “There’s a lot of beautiful work that is being done up there but it’s not always covered. We cover the big fights right, but there’s a lot of bills that pass with 80 to 90 percent of votes.”
Eck says she was also proud to be a visible leader that hopefully inspired other women and girls to take on leadership roles.
“You know there just aren’t that many women that have that much exposure and it’s important,” Eck said. “Girls are paying attention around the state and I took that really seriously. It’s not just about what I’m doing but about what I represent.”
Eck announced in 2018 she would not be seeking reelection, having recently been named the new executive director of the Friendship Center and wanting to step away for family reasons.
The domestic violence shelter was not in the best place when Eck took over, having been in a transitional period for more than a year.
“The budget was in rough shape and there had just been a lot that had been left by the wayside just through all of that transition,” explained Eck. “When I came in it was really about rebuilding all of these different aspects to make sure that we had a strong, strong foundation for the organization.”
Over the next couple years Eck worked to diversify the organization’s funding sources and seek out new donors and grant opportunities.
With new stable funding, the Friendship Center was able to increase their staff and the number of people they could serve. The domestic violence shelter saw an increase of more than 170 unique individuals served from 2018 to 2019.
The Friendship Center is the only organization in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson, and Broadwater counties dedicated to serving survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and stalking through safe shelter, crisis response and advocacy. They provide confidential services to anyone who has suffered from these types of violence, free of charge.
The increase in funding under Eck meant the organization could also offer more programs like increased education and outreach to schools and legal services for their clients.
“Providing more legal access for civil needs for our clients and now having a full-time outreach coordinator are just some of the things we couldn’t dream about doing when I started,” said Eck.
Eck’s last day with the Friendship Center will be April 2 before beginning her Rotary Peace Fellowship -- a full scholarship that will allow her to pursue her Master’s Degree in Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
Only 50 students in the world are awarded the fellowship each year.
While there she'll be working on gender-based violence happening in Southeast Asia.
“I've had the opportunity to do some diplomatic exchange work while I was in the legislature in Southeast Asia, traveled a little bit in Indonesia and have worked with women's groups in Myanmar,” said Eck.
Eck says honestly it’s hard to leave her work at the Friendship Center and Montana. However, she’s confident that the next executive director to step into the position will be joining a great organization on solid footing.
“I know that whoever takes over next is inheriting a very healthy organization with a lot of options for where they may want to take it,” said Eck.
Eck says she is grateful for all the support she’s received these past years, but most importantly for all the families that trusted and believed the Friendship Center could help them find a better future.
“I would say to the people we have served and will serve in the future, I am just grateful for their courage,” said Eck. “It takes a lot of courage to come forward and tell your truth, to decide to leave and start over. To jump in and hope that it's all going to be better. It’s hard for me still to even fathom the amount of courage that takes.”
At this point Eck says she’s not 100% certain what will come after she earns her Masters.
Montana is her home, even if she has to travel away from it for a while. The values, lessons and stories from the treasure state and its people will always be with her.