By Mauricio La Plante
September 9, 2020 September 9, 2020
After police violence erupted in San Jose during protests against police officers in Minneapolis who killed George Floyd, hundreds of speakers flocked to online government meetings to voice their grievances.
In the era of Zoom and COVID-19, Mary Jessie Celestin, a 21-year-old activist, is building a digital connection platform for aspiring activists that she believes is just as important as marching on the street. Navigating the bureaucracy and connecting with local leaders is difficult for first-time political activists, she said, especially in the digital age.
“I got a number of DMs (direct messages) from people who said, ‘Wait a minute. Why are these meetings held at 9am on a weekday?'” She said. “And everyone says, ‘Wait, what, why should you have public meetings that affect citizens when a large part of your community is working and unable to attend?”
Celestin founded San Jose Strong, an activism group that brings together and mentors community organizers to educate the public about local government and organize demonstrations in South Bay.
While the group’s focus is on San Jose, the organizers have also worked to promote social action in neighboring towns in Santa Clara County.
Though Celestin had lived in San Jose since she was 11, she felt disconnected from what was happening in local politics, despite having been voting since she was 18.
“Until this summer, if you’d asked me, ‘Oh, what are our councilors doing?’ or ‘What is Mayor (Sam) Liccardo about?’ I probably really couldn’t answer that, “she said.
She said that people who are calling for change need to know who is in power at the local institutional level.
As an engineering student, Celestin realized that virtual and physical infrastructure could silence certain voices and allow some groups to be overlooked – especially amid the pandemic.
“Our way of structuring cities promotes isolation and loneliness when you are not someone who is extremely active in looking up all of these things at once.” Celestin said.
As racial issues intensified in San Jose, so did activist collaboration.
Celestin connected with other activists through social media to organize demonstrations such as Walk4Solidarity, a march through the Los Alamitos Trail to show solidarity with an Asian couple who were racially harassed there.
Garrick Percival, a professor of political science in San Jose state, said activism would most likely attract people who are already closely following local politics, but added that it could bring more people together to address specific issues.
“There is, of course, a difference between people organizing and discussing political issues and the traditional surveillance role that media companies have played,” said Percival. “Social media helps strengthen people’s connections with their community.”
San Jose Strong organizers say the website they are developing will provide more connectivity to South Bay activists organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It makes information available to everyone,” said 17-year-old Francis Beckert, who is helping build the website. “When we have a centralized platform in San Jose, there are so many cool things we can build from.”
While the group is involved in local activism, members of San Jose Strong are building a mentoring program to educate budding activists about the organization. They say the platform can help connect people who may not be able to protest on the street.
Beatrice Piña-Torres said she will focus on first-generation university students in the San Jose Strong mentoring program. With a newborn child, an online platform to contact the activists is essential.
“My husband is an important worker in a hospital. If one of us gets sick and gets COVID, it has a significant impact on our livelihoods and of course we try to keep our baby safe,” said Piña-Torres. “Not all of us can take part in protests, so we’re looking for ways to make a difference and make a difference without being out there, and San Jose Strong really offers that.”
According to Celestin, San Jose Strong also wants to increase voter turnout, but that’s not the only way to make changes.
“I just hope everyone down the line gets more involved to get you to show up on the polls. You will listen to people’s stories,” Celestin said. “You can easily find the space to make your voice heard and use whatever platform you need to share with everyone around you.”
The San Jose Strong website is expected to be released this month.
Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.
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