Jessica Yee is the Founder and Executive Director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, a North America-wide organization devoted to reproductive justice, sexual health and youth empowerment. It’s for youth, by youth – its oldest employee is twenty-five and its youngest is fourteen. Half of America’s indigenous population is under twenty-five, and Native Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS, and by sexual violence, so the NYSHN serves a vital purpose. You can find out more about their work in community-building, curriculum development and youth training here.
Yee, who is twenty-four and from the Mohawk Nation, describes herself as “an indigenous hip hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter,” and has been doing sexual health advocacy work for a decade. She is the first inaugural Chair of the National Aboriginal Youth Council at the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, and a member of the International Indigenous HIV/AIDS Working Group. Her writing has been published at Racialicious and in Indian Country Today, and she’s also written not one but two books, the recent Sex Ed and Youth: Colonization, Communities of Colour, and Sexuality and the forthcoming Feminist Education Now: Youth, Activism, and Intersectionality. It was a pleasure to talk to her – and a miracle to get just half an hour with such a busy and important young woman, who’s already achieved more in her twenty-four years than most people do in a lifetime.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Jessica Yee.
Chloe Angyal: Tell me about the Native Youth Sexual Health Network: What is it, and what led you to found it?
Jessica Yee: The Native Youth Sexual Health Network, a North America-wide organization working on issues of healthy sexuality, reproductive justice, cultural competency and youth empowerment. We’re the only organization in North America that works in the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health for indigenous people. And we’re a youth-led organization – our oldest staff member is 25 and our oldest staff member is 14. We work across the US and Canada to advocate for and build strong, comprehensive and culturally competent sexuality and health education programs. It’s important to understand strong indigenous sexuality, and what I mean by that is that it’s important to understand that a lot of the frameworks that we use in the sexual and reproductive health world are indigenous concepts. Things like feminism, gender equality, gender spectrum and gender identity have been going for a very, very long time. And I’m very proud of that, as a Native person, that I come from a society that is matriarchal and matrilineal. Sexuality and reproductive health have been politicized and medicalized, but if you understand them as rights over your bodies and spaces, we have believed in that for a long time, and how fundamental that is to our existence. That’s why we do the work. The other reason we do the work is that as Native American people, we are most highly represented in so many health disparities. For example, even though we only make up 2% of the US population, we have the highest rate of HIV, we have the highest rates of sexual violence and domestic violence, and the list of our health issues goes on. It’s really paradoxical: On one hand, there’s this strong indigenous sexuality background that we’re coming from, but today it looks very different. There’s a lot of reasons for that, and colonization is certainly one of them. I think a really quick way to understand that is that if you’re going to colonize and destroy a people, you will take away their most powerful ability, which is their bodily autonomy and their ability to reproduce. And we’re still reeling from that today.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
JY: My mind immediately goes to Wonder Woman, but everybody says that. When I was growing up, I really loved Jem and the Holograms. I thought that was a really cool show. But that was when I was socially unaware and just watching cartoons. I used to really love Xena, and I think it was because I was really coming into my own as a racialized young woman and as a Native woman, so I really identified with the whole warrior woman. But then I don’t really like Xena for a lot of reasons now.
My heroines in real life are my mother. I learned everything from her. I learned masturbation from her, I learned feminism from her. It was not a choice for us to be pro-choice growing up; we had to be. I learned everything from her – she was a sex worker and she was very upfront about her reality. She had an abortion at a time when it was illegal, and I learned everything about the work I do right now from my mom. I feel very much like that’s my community.
Also Katsi Cook, a world-renowned midwife and environmental justice activist from my mom’s community. She put up the first traditional birthing centers in native communities some forty years ago, and was a huge reproductive justice advocate before the word even became cool. People like Loretta Ross will quote her as their inspiration, and I always feel like I’m continuing on her work.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
JY: One is the Arizona immigration law, and the other is the niqab. I’m really wondering what the feminist response is to those. I wonder about what gets considered a feminist priority and what doesn’t. It makes me really angry, to be honest. The niqab ban is legislating what women can and cannot wear, and I would think that is inherently a feminist issue. Same goes for the law in Arizona, but I hear women saying that it’s not our issue. And I feel like when issues of racial oppression are brought up, we get all kinds of uncomfortable and unsure. It’s inconceivable that this could happen in Arizona. In no other place in the world have I heard of what’s being done, that kind of human rights violation. It is unconscionable, and I’ve seen how amazingly feminists organize when it comes to the usual suspect issues, and I think it would be so beneficial if there were the same degree of response and relentless energy put to work on these other issues. From an allyship perspective, we can say to all the white old men that are happy with this law, we can say, “You know what? We’re white women, and we’re not happy with this law.” I would love to see the same degree of mobilization from feminists on those issues.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
JY: I still feel like it’s very uncomfortable to challenge and be critical of feminism. And one of the biggest problems is intergenerational sharing; that needs to happen more. The right is doing a really good job or organizing youth, and certainly during the Obama campaign the left did a great job of mobilizing young people, but I’d love to see that in feminism as well. I go places where women in the room probably fought for a lot of the rights that I enjoy, but I don’t know their stories. One of the things I always recommend is that the older women who have paved the way share those stories, with at least one young woman. Tell their stories, not just the big stories, but the little, everyday stories. And we need to bridge that gap because the right is doing a great job of manipulating and exploiting youth, and it scares me. In Canada we have the March for Life, which is this big display of pro-life… disgustingness, and they can get 10, 000 youth mobilized in Ottawa to talk about being against abortion. But could we as pro-choicers get 10, 000 youth out? I don’t think so, not right now we couldn’t.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
JY: Maple-drizzled salmon, which is nicknamed Indian Candy on the West Coast, a Shirley Temple, because it has three things in it (orange, Grenadine and Sprite) and my mom.