michelle jenab

American Voices – Our Q&A with Activist Michelle Jenab

America is an incredible country filled with talented people from all backgrounds and walks of life.

They may not always agree with each other – but Americans have a long-standing tradition of using dissent or passion to diffuse tensions, create conversation, and make peaceful improvements.

Here is an interview featuring one of those voices. 

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When I last saw Michelle Jenab, she was living in Brooklyn. Having lost her “Big Law” job in the financial crisis of 2008, she had turned lemons into lemonade and embarked on a solo trip, traveling, quite literally, all over the world, to 20 countries, and taking photos as she went. Upon her return to the US, I’d gone to visit her to see some of her pictures, which were lovely, and at that point, she was contemplating her next move.

She left New York for California some years back and has gone back to practicing law…but currently she’s only doing so on a part time basis. She works from home at a four-day-a-week position as a corporate attorney, but spends almost as much time organizing for social justice as she does working her day job. Her main focus these days is anti-racism, so I asked her to tell me some more. And so she did. We had a nice catch up on the phone and here’s (some of) what we talked about.

The NewsWhistle Q&A with Michelle Jenab

michelle jenab 1
Michelle Jenab (above); Photo Courtesy of Amy J. Smith

Date: January 11, 2017

Hometown: born in Kansas City, Missouri, but lived in Kansas City, Kansas until age three, then Wisconsin from three to 17, LA from 17 to 23, NYC from 23- 39…

Current town: LA

Occupation: corporate attorney and social justice organizer

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So what exactly are you up to these days, and what is your main focus?

Last year, last September, there had been a whole slate of police killings of unarmed black folks over the summer. And something in me just snapped. I had to do more than post things on Facebook. It was time to be visible and get out in the street and join the fight in a more meaningful way.

Initially, last year, I got involved in White People 4 Black Lives. It’s an anti-racist collective allied with Black Lives Matter – LA and the Movement for Black Lives as a whole. We work closely with BLM – LA and answer their calls to action. We educate fellow white folks on racism and how they can show up to fight it. We go to demonstrations and join in the action and we plan our own. We provide court support for those arrested in those actions. LA has been cracking down on protestors, particularly BLM, and protestors are being prosecuted here much more than in other US cities.

As my participation level has increased, I’ve been working on the education committee of the group, running a book club to discuss The New Jim Crow, and taking part in planning other activities, including marches, movie screenings, visiting speakers, educational sessions and workshops.

WP4BL is aligned with a larger national group, Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ). If you look at the website and poke around you can find educational resources about white privilege, racism, political education, police accountability, organizing kits to start your own actions – you name it . SURJ’s goal is to create seven million white anti-racists in the US. Not just non-racists, but active anti-racists. That’s 3% of the white population of the US, and it’s a tipping point for policy and substantive change. I want to be clear that this kind of action isn’t meant to be a replacement for the work people of color are already doing, or take the place of multi-racial coalitions, but it is answering a call from civil rights leaders to speak to our own community and bring it into the movement for collective liberation. Part of that is educating white folks so that people of color are not burdened with educating us on top of actually living with racism directed at themselves every day. Our aim is to call in other white folks, not to call them out. We’re encouraging long term commitment. Be an active ally, not someone complacent or giving lip service.

And I’m involved in a third, related group, AWARE: Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere. The group is 13 years old but I only got involved last year. It’s much more internally-focused, dealing with how not to be part of the problem and how to dismantle our own internal biases. More of coming to terms with our own racism and bad behavior or unconscious complicity in upholding the status quo.

On a separate note, last April, I got involved in grassroots politics in connection with Bernie Sanders’ primary run. We did a protest against CNN about all the free airtime they’d devoted to Trump while giving Sanders nearly zero. They even refused to cover the 2,000 people on their doorstep protesting. ABC had to cover us!

Through getting involved with the Sanders activities, I realized that everywhere I went I was linking up people from different groups and seeing a lot of the same faces. I’d see someone from an anti-racist group at a Bernie rally, or meeting with a Bernie group, I’d see someone I knew who did environmental work or was in a democratic action group with me or on the same advisory board of a progressive LA non-profit. There was a lot of overlapping. And that was a sign to me I was on the right path – it’s really all one movement, we just come into it from different points – some plug in through anti-racist work, some from LGBTQ* rights work, some from gender equality groups, but we are pushing for the same thing in the end, which is human rights for all people and collective liberation from oppression. So I’m a connector now, connecting people from different movements and building coalitions so we can all push together.

I’ve been meeting people who are younger than me and full of energy and then people who are longtime dedicated activists. There’s a more seasoned circle of activists that includes some actors, like Frances Fisher. That’s how I found Americans for Democratic Action…and I’m hoping to become a board member of that group soon. It was started by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1940s and has been a progressive group working inside and outside the Democratic Party ever since. They just had a teach in about Jeff Sessions prior to his Senate confirmation hearings. But the average age is about 65-70 right now, so they’re getting a fresh infusion of energy from those of us under 45 coming in, and I’m excited to get going and learn from each other.

There are a lot of divisions on the left right now, and I’m trying to focus on issues rather than parties, and building coalitions for those issues. I have realized over the last year that I will never agree 100% with anyone on all political or social issues. But if there are issues we can agree on, I will work with you so we can both put our shoulders into it and push in the same direction.

There can be some libertarian position, they want to get rid of X. If I also agree that I don’t like X, I will work with them. I think we have more things in common across the spectrum of politics than otherwise and we need to emphasize the areas where we agree.

I’d like to leave behind the Bernie vs. Hillary infighting and spend our energy on what we can do together for the people while maintaining our deeply held democratic ideals. I have to focus on what we have in common rather than spend energy fighting with my allies! And we don’t need to be in the same political party to be allies on discrete issues. In fact, I would love to see more political parties and more reaching across party lines because the two party system is failing.

That can be easier said than done.

Sure, but we have to try. And there are so many areas available to plug into issues that people don’t normally think of – we have artists who can create murals, music, artwork, software developers and coders who can create voter info-tracking apps—there’s an entire progressive coders network. Fighting fascism with technology! And there are other creative niche areas. I’m happy that there are different ways to contribute. There is a progressive teenager in Scotland (the son of a friend) who was a big Bernie supporter and wanted to still help after the primaries; so I plugged him into the Progressive Coders Network and he now has a mentor! Making connections is good for me on a personal level —connecting people to take action gives me hope and it is easy to despair in this work sometimes.

Well, social media can also hurt causes, especially with how fake news can proliferate.

Yes, we are having “lessons learned” discussions on how to move forward more effectively with on-line activism. Some of what we are facing is new. There are so many threads to pull, so much new that we hadn’t seen before this election cycle. There is also a generational divide—the older generations may not have any idea what an effective tool social media can be for organizing and are missing out on very active discussions taking place around the world, some don’t know how to dig deep online or fact check articles they see on Facebook. And some young folks don’t have experience and tempered viewpoints and could benefit from focusing their energy more wisely.

Sure, there can definitely be generational issues. But I’m thinking of one of those Facebook postings I remember seeing that I liked. “Spend time with old people. They know things you don’t. Spend time with young people. They know things you don’t.”

I agree. We sometimes throw away knowledge from different times and places that could benefit us greatly. But I value different viewpoints. It’s a waste of knowledge if we don’t have older people get their voices into the mix and give us the gift of their experience.

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With all of this work you are doing, it sounds like you are going more than full time, and not getting paid for a lot of it. Is it possible for you to take a paid job doing this activism? Could you do it full time and give up the day job?

Well, when you accept money, sometimes it seems like you are just doing the work for the money and your credibility can take a hit. In anti-racist groups, there may be a need for a full time organizer, but there is push back and distrust when that happens. It’s similar to the difference between a paid lobbyist and a concerned citizen. And if anyone deserves to be paid, it’s those folks who have been doing this work far longer than me and don’t have the nice cushion I have with my ability to work part time and still make ends meet.

Well, I hope you don’t completely wear yourself out if no one is paying you for your skills and your time!

I do sometimes need to take a break, especially from social media. Over the holiday break I took a little time to sit and focus alone. What am I doing, what are my priorities? In which areas do I want to do more work and which activities can I let fall away?

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I do have some intentions. I want to bring some balance back in my life and do some prioritizing. I’m pulling back from some of the more administrative duties.   Because that’s like herding cats!

I personally don’t even want to be in the US. I have been intending to move since prior to my graduating law school in 2000. The plan was to work at my first firm at their New York headquarters for two years, then transfer to their Paris office. But they terminated most of my friends, fired everyone after 9/11 and the resulting market crash…and stopped all transfers to non-US offices! They offered me a job in another non-US office at one point down the road but they’d fired my friend and wanted to give me her job so of course I said no. Recessions and market crashes weren’t in the plan but they did give me the opportunity to stop, take a step back and look at what was and wasn’t working in my life.

Where are you thinking of living, if not the US?

I am thinking of moving to Vancouver, or a little outside Vancouver, somewhere I have access to a city but can also be a little more isolated. I am hoping to do what I can on the ground to see the US through to the next presidential election and then start a new chapter elsewhere.

And I’m always searching for balance. One way I created some was to have my work schedule reduced to four days a week, 9 to 5. And when I’m done I shut that computer off. That’s unheard of at the kinds of law firms I have worked. I couldn’t do all that I do if I were working a full-time attorney job, especially with New York hours.

So I’m working on figuring out the areas that make me happy and getting traction and movement. And moving away from what doesn’t. It helps that I am single with no family obligations and don’t have kids.

I was just thinking about that. Because I do have two kids and I do a lot of volunteer work, local things, related to the community and their lives. I work on the PTA, volunteer to help out with the local arts organizations to help raise money for my older daughter’s dance school and youth choir. I just spent a few hours on a focus group to get parent input on our school district’s science curriculum. I’m not sure any of that is really activism, though.  How would you differentiate between volunteerism and activism?

That is a fantastic question and one I’d never really focused on! I’d say for me that volunteering is filling an existing need but not changing the reason the need exists. Working in a soup kitchen to feed the hungry is definitely needed, but it’s not eradicating hunger or homelessness. Activism is not just patching a hole in the system, but trying to restructure the system so that hole is never there in the first place.

So, since you’re trying to change things systematically, are you getting any push back? Are you playing a personal price for your work?

I’ve been getting some push back from acquaintances I don’t see on a regular basis on my political efforts in particular. I’m very “anti-establishment” and horrified by the money in politics, especially after Citizens United. I am very far left (under US standards) and think we need to stand firm and hold leaders accountable even on our “own side.” I definitely get some dismissiveness and condescension from folks on social media but nothing worse than that. We have the audacity to think we can make change! We speak out against corruption in our own party! A lot of people just say, “that’s the way it is. Why do you care? Why does this matter?” and I am stunned.

With racial issues, people sometimes ask, “Why are you making this about race? Aren’t we supposed to be colorblind?” People have written treatises on why “colorblindness” doesn’t work, as good as it sounds. But there’s not too much push back in my close circle, at least. I grew up in the Midwest but left at age 17, and have lived in some of the most cosmopolitan places in the nation and world since then. Some people don’t have much exposure to the rest of the world and are genuinely ignorant of how anyone else lives. I try to treat those people with compassion, because ignorance can be remedied whereas it’s more difficult to combat outright hate.

I do a lot over social media and I do work in person. I have been warned by other lawyer friends that speaking against the government officials, law enforcement, etc. could put me in jeopardy of losing my entire legal career, so I have made backup plans just in case I do.

Some people treat Bernie supporters like we are all obnoxious millennials. And we aren’t all like that (nor are we all millennials). A friend of mine was called “rebel scum” by someone in the California Democratic Party!

Ha! Sounds like Princess Leia!

Yeah, Yay, Rebel Scum! Luckily this friend is a huge Star Wars fan and took it as a compliment. But the powers that be don’t give up power easily. So there’s always going to be resistance to change.

In terms of personal consequences…have I alienated people? Yes. Any of my close friends? No. I haven’t paid a large price, although it can be uncomfortable to detach from any privileges that go along with accepting the status quo. Just some resistance and push back and people thinking I’m a lunatic for thinking things could change.

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You’re doing so much work on racial issues. Are you optimistic at this point about race in our country, or are you more discouraged?

I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic. When things are rough, that’s when people do wake up. The smallest change is beneficial.

I’m a little afraid that people who have been activated by the upcoming Trump presidency, but who may not personally suffer great consequences from it, won’t necessarily stick around. If they haven’t been active before now, maybe we can’t rely on them. I don’t know, I hope that’s just my being pessimistic.

But here’s a nice positive thing. Both of the anti-racist groups I’ve been working with in LA have had so many new people at their meetings over the last six months – to the point that we do not have enough physical capacity to fit the whole group in the room. It used to be 20 people or so at each meeting. At the last meeting there were 110 people and not enough chairs. People sitting on the floor in concentric circles and spilling out the door. We are going to need larger venues! So that’s encouraging, and why I’m cautiously optimistic.

For white folks, in our immediate lives, we’re not generally severely impacted by racial issues, so people can easily be lulled back to sleep. So we’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

I was recently asked if I was a pessimist or an optimist. I think I’m a realist.

Well, there’s a lot to be alarmed about. There are some pretty disturbing trends that I don’t want to see normalized.

We have a lot of problems to address, which is why it is great that there are so many ways to work against them. People like to think racism is just for old folks. But look at Dylann Roof. It’s not just old people. Some things have gotten better. But I’m watching much more closely these days and things are frightening.

I think Trump is a mirror of the ugliest parts of our culture and our society. The light’s been shined on what is really bubbling under the surface of our country’s facade and it’s discouraging and heart-wrenching.

It’s a cliché, but we live in interesting times. So, Vancouver? You really are thinking of moving to Canada?

I’m scouting it out and am thinking of buying property up there. Maybe a vacation place, to spend time up there. I’d go back and forth across the border.

Would you become a Canadian citizen? Could you?

I don’t think I would change my citizenship at this point, but I’d choose to spend a lot of time up there. The culture up there is less greedy and less aggressive. The priorities in LA seem to be skewed toward money, power, and fame. Plastic surgery. I don’t identify with American culture, particularly that part of LA culture.

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So what would you suggest are helpful ways for white people to work against racism?

I’d say start by reaching out to organizers who are doing the work. There are many organizations that have great materials and information. People shouldn’t isolate themselves. Look for an existing organization in your area, and if there isn’t one, think about starting one. Get that conversation started. It starts with educating yourself. There’s a great essay by Peggy MacIntosh called Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. It’s about white privilege and what we normally don’t see as white folks walking through a largely white society. Being an anti-racist is about listening to people of color and members of oppressed groups in general, and not challenging them when they tell you their reality. It’s about amplifying their voices rather than only getting yourself heard and constantly centering discussions around yourself and what you consider to be “normal.”

I have definitely had some frustrating and fruitless conversations about privilege; it’s a term that really seems to set some people on edge.   Because often people are blind to their own privilege and their own luck (and I’m certainly not immune to that myself). And many people feel that the term implies that they have it easy…and they certainly don’t. So what does work?

Our organization is one that works by calling people in, rather than trying to shame them. It’s not going to work for everyone or every situation, and is really focused on the “well meaning” folks who are trying to do the right thing but don’t know where to start, or whose good intentions may actually cause harm to the communities they believe they are helping. We try to be humble, to explain that we are all in process and will never stop learning. We explain the history of segregation to people that don’t know it, and why it happened. A lot of resistance comes from not being in contact with people of color, not knowing people of color personally. Sometimes you don’t know right away if an area is racist or not because technically there’s no one to be racist against! Some places are very white, like where I grew up. And we have to commiserate, to understand and accept that if we’ve had different experiences, that both of our realities can be true and respected.

For example, I grew up in Wisconsin and my experience was that the police there were nice and helpful. It’s true. They were. But from where I was I had no ability to see how they would treat a person of color. My friends of color’s reality was very different, yet both were “real.”

So, one issue is convincing people that their experiences are not universal.

Yes. And on things that have really worked, have you read The New Jim Crow? It goes into how the upper classes keep the poor white workers and people of color segregated and in conflict. Look into Bacon’s Rebellion to see how far back it goes.   There they pitted white indentured servants against African slaves, and handed those indentured servants another group to be scapegoats, someone that they can look down upon. It’s a called a “racial bribe.” A lot of people have an interest in keeping us fighting against each other. And immigrants are made to be scapegoats, too. People are blaming immigrants for society’s problems and not blaming the elites and the billionaires hoarding money. Racism is a social construction that’s depriving all of us of beneficial relationships, community diversity, connection: it creates isolated, hateful, fearful people.

I have that book downloaded on my Kindle and it is on my (long) list of books to read. I have heard very good things about it.

I think it should be mandatory reading for every American! But it’s tricky. We want to see results from our work, especially us Type-A folks who went to law school. But for anti-racism, you can’t take a short view. We are fighting 500 years of history drenched in racism, everything from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Down to denial of wealth accumulation, home ownership, loans. There is redlining, excluding people of color from neighborhoods and jobs, then criminalizing what people have to do to live and eat.

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One thing that I think is difficult for people is that the one word, “racism,” can cover so many different things. Some people use it to mean individual action, or individual prejudice. Other people use it only to mean structural racism or institutional racism.   Then people in the social sciences tell us that everyone is racist. And I guess that’s a good theoretical point, and we should all be aware of prejudices and fight prejudices in ourselves and in others, but it’s not terribly helpful, as far as practical matters go.

Yes, to have a meaningful conversation you have to level set on what you are describing in the moment. There’s a big difference between unconscious bias/behavior and overt racism. We can’t work with 100% of people. Right now the focus in our groups is going after the low hanging fruit. The well-intentioned folks who want to get involved and who are unclear about history and unconscious behaviors…but good intentions aren’t enough. People at Standing Rock for example… it’s great if white folks answer the call to stand with their native brothers and sisters. But don’t go in as a white male and try to save the day and tell the native folks “how it’s done.” That’s at heart a Native American fight. The indigenous people are leading — follow their lead. Don’t have a white colonial attitude. Don’t make assumptions that you know better. That kind of thought and behavior has really screwed up movements and actions. Good intentions can sometimes make things worse.

True, there can definitely be bad and unforeseen consequences of good intentions. But bad intentions just about always make things worse!

True! But the sense of entitlement some white people have…the more you observe it, it starts to make you sick. And then you think of all the years you didn’t see it and it makes you sicker.

It starts to sound very daunting, really.

We’re looking for progress, not perfection. We can’t change everything. We can chip away and make some progress. Activism is the rent for living on this planet!

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I know you don’t have kids, but what thoughts and advice do you have for parents? We want what is best for our children and we want to protect them and keep them safe, of course, but parents, at least most parents I know, don’t want their kids growing up without an awareness of real world issues, including racism.

There are resources for parents, educational programs. At farmers’ markets in LA there are booths about teaching kids about racism. And that’s something that White People for Black Lives is actively working on.

There are so many different ways to take action. Not everyone is taking it to the streets. Some people aren’t physically able to do so, but they can provide childcare to others who are. People on our educational committees can’t all go to rallies. Some people use wheelchairs…but they can get on conference calls and participate on speakerphone.

Matt McGorry, an actor, has helped with our work; when he’s joined groups or posted things to social media, he’s gotten so many views! Celebrity can help the movement. There are different ways to attack the problem. There are many methods of doing things. If you can’t sit through a three-hour meeting, we want to help you capture any moment of energy in a private way. That’s how we build a community of like-minded folks.

Social media can help us but it can also harm us. When people are sniping at each other, nothing is moving forward. Facebook is not good for in-depth conversations.

Yeah, it’s hard to get a lot of nuance and it’s difficult to read tone online, so things can get ugly fairly quickly. And also, I think, there’s a lot of ignorance…a lot of what I know about different people from different parts of the world, different races, different religions, comes from having spent time with people from different places, people who look different from me, who have different cultural and religious traditions. I know about Jewish dietary rules, and fasting for Ramadan, and black hair, and all kinds of things, because of the people I’ve worked with and the people I’ve gone to school with. In New York City, you encounter such a diversity of people…but everyone doesn’t experience that.

Trevor Noah recently said that racism doesn’t hold up well to contact.

I think he’s right. Or maybe I just hope he is. On to a few more personal questions, what is your favorite movie?

There are too many to choose from! But I am an absurdist and sci fi fan at heart so anything Monty Python or Terry Gilliam would be up there along with a lot of Kubrick films. Anything Mel Brooks and/or Gene Wilder. Or Marty Feldman. See? Too many.

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What’s a book that everyone should read?

The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander. And Living in the Tension by Shelley Tochluk.

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If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?

“Waking up” earlier and connecting with more of humanity.

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What is the best advice you’ve been given?

“Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.” Professor Kellis Parker.

Aww…I can just hear him saying that!  What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I spent a good portion of my childhood in monasteries, and my mother entered a convent when I was 17.

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What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?

Physically?– Either jumping off a 1,600 foot cliff in Brazil to paraglide or intervening in an assault when I didn’t know if the attacker had weapons. I also constantly find myself around deadly animals for some reason but so far, no dying!

When you were traveling all over the world, what was your best experience? Your worst?

Volunteering at a wildlife refuge in Namibia for a week was extraordinary, feeding caracals and meerkats by hand, grooming cheetahs; feeding baby baboons and changing their diapers was a kick too!

The worst was being harassed as a single woman, which happened in many countries but most aggressively in northwest India. I was also groped in South Africa in a small village which ended up causing a huge political issue in the village.

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Last but not least, is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?

 Yes!  I already mentioned:

Showing up for Racial Justice

AWARE: Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere

White People 4 Black Lives

And a phenomenal new legal resource for the Los Angeles community started by BLM attorney Nana Gyamfi: Justice Warriors 4 Black Lives

And a long-time resource for lawyers seeking to protect First Amendment/protester rights: National Lawyer’s Guild

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PHOTO CREDITS

Lead-In Image (Eagle) Courtesy of James Grant Ferr / NewsWhistle.com; Picture of Michelle Jenab Courtesy of Amy J. Smith

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ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE

Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com