After police violence in San Jose erupted during protests over Minneapolis cops killing George Floyd, hundreds of speakers poured into online government meetings to air their grievances.
In the era of Zoom and COVID-19, Mary Jessie Celestin, a 21-year-old activist, is building a connective digital platform for budding activists she says is just as important as marching in the streets. Navigating through bureaucracy and connecting to local leaders is difficult for activists becoming politically involved for the first time, she said, especially in the digital age.
“I got a bunch of DMs (direct messages) of people saying, ‘Wait a second. Why are these meetings at 9 a.m. on a weekday?’” she said. “And everyone’s like, ‘Wait, what, why would you have public meetings that impact citizens at a time when a majority of your community is at work and unable to attend?”
Celestin founded San Jose Strong, an activism group connecting and mentoring community organizers, to educate the public about local government and organize demonstrations in the South Bay.
While the group’s focus is San Jose, organizers also have worked to promote social action in neighboring Santa Clara County cities.
Despite living in San Jose since she was 11, Celestin said she felt disconnected from what was happening in local politics even though she consistently voted since she turning 18.
“Up until this summer, if you had asked me, ‘Oh, what do our councilmembers do?’ or ‘What is Mayor (Sam) Liccardo all about?’ I probably really couldn’t answer that,” she said.
She said people demanding change need to know who has the power at a local institutional level.
As an engineering student, Celestin saw that the virtual and physical infrastructure could silence certain voices and allow some groups to be overlooked — especially amid the pandemic.
“Our ways of structuring cities promotes isolation and loneliness if you’re not somebody who’s extremely active at looking up all of these things all at once.” Celestin said.
But as scrutiny of racial issues intensified in San Jose, so did collaboration between activists.
Over social media, Celestin connected with other activists to organize demonstrations such as Walk4Solidarity, a march through the Los Alamitos Trail to stand in solidarity with an Asian couple who was racially harassed there.
San Jose State political science professor Garrick Percival said the activism would most likely attract people already following local politics closely, but added that it could unite more people to address specific issues.
“There’s a difference, of course, between people who are organizing and debating political issues versus the traditional watchdog role that media companies have played,” Percival said. “Social media does contribute to help strengthen people’s connections to their community.”
San Jose Strong organizers say the website they’re developing will bring more connectivity to South Bay activists organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It makes information accessible to anyone,” said Francis Beckert, 17, who is helping build the website. “If we have a centralized platform in San Jose, there’s so many cool things we can build off of that.”
While the group is involved in on-the-ground activism, San Jose Strong members are building a mentorship program to educate budding activists on how to organize. They say the platform can help connect people who may not be able to protest in the streets.
Beatrice Piña-Torres said she’ll focus on first-generation university students in San Jose Strong’s mentorship program.With a newborn child, she said having an online platform to connect with the activists is essential.
“My husband is an essential worker at a hospital. So if one of us were to get sick, get COVID, it would really impact our livelihood and, of course, we’re trying to keep our baby safe,” Piña-Torres said. “Not all of us can participate in protests so we’re looking for ways to make an impact and difference without having to be out there, and San Jose Strong really provides that.”
Celestin said San Jose Strong also aims to increase voter turnout but it’s not the only way to make change.
“My hope is just that everyone’s getting more engaged across the board so you’re going to show up at the polls. You’re going to listen to people’s stories,” Celestin said. “You can just find the space to make your voice heard and to use whatever platform you have to advocate for everyone around you.”
San Jose Strong’s website is expected to launch this month.
Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.