The Feministing Five: Jean Melesaine

Black and white photo of Jean MelesaineI met Jean one sunny afternoon while she was in the midst of making this video. New America Media was holding a conference called Children in Poverty, and they wanted Jean to tell her story. Jean is a Pacific Islander, born and raised all over the San Francisco Bay Area and currently residing in the Hunters Point projects. For those unfamiliar with the San Francisco landscape, Bayview-Hunters Point is a segregated portion of the city, where most residents rarely venture. “The Point” represents a stark contrast to the rest of San Francisco’s expensive, predominantly white neighborhoods. A community on the margins, experiencing toxic pollution, unemployment and poverty, Jean calls this place home.

In and out of the system since the age of 11, Jean finally discovered her community at De-Bug, an amazing community organization in San Jose that provides a space for art and community organizing to come together. It’s an open space (multiple people have told me that De-Bug is the only space where they feel they can truly be themselves and be accepted) where folks utilize art for political consciousness raising. They host a darkroom, screen printing stations and a recording studio just to name a few of their amenities. Check it out if you’re ever in the area.

Jean works with youth, parolees and the Pacific Islander community by hosting media, writing and photography workshops. The video above is an example of Jean’s work and a very personal one at that. It’s a story about her family and the struggles they face in these hard times. But now, let me allow Jean to tell her own story.

Without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Jean Melesaine.

Anna Sterling: How did you get involved with community organizing?

Jean Melesaine: De-Bug saved my life. I’ve been in the system since I was 11. I used to be a criminal. When I came out of jail, I owed the county like $5000 and if you don’t pay within 30 days when you’re out they put you back in. I was gonna go hustle that money but Rog [my boss] basically gave me the check and said “Here, go pay that shit,” and didn’t ask for no receipt, no nothing. I’ve been a criminal all my life and they just gon’ trust you like that? I hella didn’t like activists or community organizations at first. I’ve been in organizations and because of how I look they would treat me weird, like, they would hide their wallets. De-Bug is super different. Pretty much everyone’s accepted.

Right now, I work with different youth and parolees. I go to schools and teach media, writing and photography workshops based off of people’s social biography. There’s a De-Bug motto that “experience is the ultimate authority.” No one can tell you what you’ve been through. We go into these schools and there’s all these bad ass kids but these kids aren’t bad because they wanna be bad. There’s reasons behind that. That’s just their cry for help. I was a hella bad ass kid so I know those kids. We organize around re-entry in Santa Clara county and do campaigns and legal work. We help families who don’t have money for lawyers and I work with the Pacific Islander community too.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

JM: That little kid in The Alchemist. He thinks he knows what he wants and has this goal. He goes through life trying to get that and in the end that shit was right beside him. He went through hella shit to get that thing that was right next to him but his journey was worth more than his goal. My sister is my real life heroine. She’s a soldier. I don’t know how the fuck she does what she does.

AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?

JM: The UC Berkeley kids! I can’t believe those fucking kids. They did a diversity bake sale [to satirize affirmative action].  I also saw these two white girls wearing costume headdresses trying to look like Native Americans. I wish I wasn’t with my little cousin.

AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

JM: [Figuring out] what does that mean? When people see the word feminism, to me, they think of white women or that white women coined the term feminist. It’s kind of like the term gay which is a white term to me. We need to challenge that term and break down what it means. It’s hella complicated– it’s kinda like saying you’re an activist. And, I wonder, if I do or say something does that mean I’m not a feminist?

AS: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

JM: I would take pho, Philz coffee, some fly ass girl from the Mission [San Francisco neighborhood].

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