Jillana Peterson

Photo by Jillana Peterson

We all use extrapolation in our lives. It’s a large part of our decision-making process—taking past information and projecting it to make predictions. Ruthless extrapolation, however, describes information extrapolated beyond its context. One example Professor Tom Murphy of University of California, San Diego provides is people in the ’60s believing we’d be on Mars by 2020 simply because of the rate technology was growing at the time. He also notes that the way many people use of the phrase “common sense” is synonymous with ruthless extrapolation.

Now let’s apply the concept to our biases. Think about someone you consider kind and intelligent who just happens to belong to a group you disagree with (Democrats, Republicans, anti-vax, pro-choice, etc.). Do you see them as a reason to reassess your understanding of the individuals in that group, or do you instead choose to view them as the exception?

All this to bring up the very thoughtful Jillana Peterson. Jill grew up in northern Wisconsin between Eau Claire and Minneapolis. “I didn’t necessarily see eye to eye with everybody,” she says. “But I really loved this whole spectrum of opinion—political, religious. I also come from a household where my mother’s a Jehovah’s Witness and my dad’s a Lutheran. Always in my life seeing how people with very different philosophies or beliefs coexist and get along.”

Like many kids growing up in the ’90s, Jill had the dream of moving out to Seattle to be at the heart of the grunge scene, but that changed when, in 2005, she had the opportunity to be the first member of her family to go to college, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to be specific. When she first arrived in Madison, she says, “I was like a kid in a candy shop talking to people on the streets. I made friends everywhere I went because I was so excited to be surrounded by people.”

Photograph provided by Jillana Peterson

Being around a much larger number of people meant being exposed to a lot of different ideas and worldviews. “I grew up my whole life with people just demonizing Madison and Milwaukee.” In terms of ruthless extrapolation, there were people in those numbers who probably didn’t know many others from Milwaukee and Madison.

On the other side of the coin, while at university, “I was always feeling like I had to defend everything outside of Madison to people who would make these comments. ‘No one’s educated.’ ‘No one cares about things.’ I’m just like, this is my family you’re talking about. These are my neighbors. Even if they have different politics, they’re not bad people.”

Not without her own views, living between two very predominate Wisconsin perspectives exposed Jill to a wide range of individuals. Effective communication was not only vital to maintaining the relationships she’d established at university and at home, but taught her to start from a position of respect, rather than malice, for individuals who didn’t share her opinions.

Jill landed a job at the university after she graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and Scandinavian studies, one year before Scott Walker signed Act 10 into law. The effect of Act 10 was detrimental to Jill’s plan to retire with the state. She remembers seeing her work benefits disappear, forcing her to ask some pretty tough questions about whether to stick it out or change lanes. As for the state of the state, the polarization is ongoing.

Photograph provided by Jillana Peterson

Fun Fact: in 2005, Jill had to defer her enrollment to college when diagnosed with a rare cancer after struggling for years to get doctors to believe her pain. Okay, maybe not a fun fact, but fact with a happy ending as, after three years, she finally received the lifesaving chemo, surgery, and radiation she needed. It’s probably the most important lesson she’d received in learning to be an advocate for herself, showcasing that we’re not as far removed from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as we might hope.

Jill tells those she works with and mentors to “be an advocate for yourself in any way that you possibly can. Especially women. People tend to be, ‘Oh, you’re hysterical.’ How do you get around these issues? Keep seeking second opinions until you find someone who hears what you’re saying.”

Tying it all together, Jill was derailed from her career, but she’s not the sort to wait around until someone gives her direction. A Silicon Valley tech startup, Zendesk (zendesk.com), caught her attention, and though she had her reservations, she went for it. “It’s a career I never saw myself having, and that really set a tone for a lot of my giving back. … [A career in tech] is a good job. It’s a way to impact other people on a larger scale, and you’ll be able to use it wherever you go.”

Photograph provided by Jillana Peterson

That’s where a lot of Jill’s focus has been lately. Helping others learn self-advocacy isn’t just about making sure you’re being heard; it’s about adaptability. In the tech world, things change so fast. “Kids will ask, ‘What coding language is the best to learn?’ If I tell you one to learn now, it’ll already be out of date much faster than if you’d asked that questions in the ’90s.”

And what is communication, whether to a machine or person, if not one of the most sophisticated models of adaptability. Where computer code is oftentimes a very precise communication, the daily interactions we have with humans function more fluidly with the potential for dramatic redirection or abrupt endings. Being on the advisory board for the Information Technology Academy, a large piece of Jill’s heart lies in her work with young students to find and develop their own voices, and she sees tech as something many people don’t realize can help them do so, especially women and communities of color.

From falling through the trailer floor of her house at a young age in rural Wisconsin to attending UW–Madison, working with entrepreneurs and nonprofits, and finding tech to be a viable career for herself, Jill has exposed herself to an abundance of people and lifestyles. It might be difficult to determine just where in our lives we use ruthless extrapolation, but to minimize it, perhaps we can take Jill’s advice and ask ourselves “Where do we find our shared humanity? And then build from there.”

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson