Fearless feminism

Jessica Yee talks about sexuality, race, youth engagement – and how they all fit together
Marlo Campbell

“One thing I can say about Catholic school is that it makes really great activists,” quips Jessica Yee, sitting at a downtown Subway restaurant a few hours before her flight back to Toronto.

The self-described “Indigenous feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter” says she found her calling at the age of 10, thanks to an anti-choice presentation during one of her elementary school classes.

Now 23, Yee is the director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, a peer-based organization she founded three years ago to promote healthy sexuality and sex-positive education from an Indigenous perspective. It’s a full-time job, and she spends 80% of the year traveling across the continent, providing resources to young people in remote Aboriginal communities, training service providers, working with incarcerated youth, designing school curriculums, and partnering with other like-minded groups on specific campaigns (she spent a month in South Dakota in the lead-up to the recent U.S. election, fighting against a proposed ban on abortion before campaigning for Barack Obama).

Uptown caught up with Yee during a late-June stop in Winnipeg. She’d been invited to facilitate a workshop at the Women’s Health Clinic, present The Highway of Tears (a documentary she directed and filmed about the notorious stretch of B.C. highway on which some 30 young women have disappeared) at Ka Ni Kanichihk and meet with government officials to discuss abortion access in the North, and was returning the following week to speak at the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network’s annual general meeting.

“Being a young, multi-racial native girl living in an urban centre, my whole involvement in reproductive rights and bodily autonomy isn’t a surprise,” Yee explains. “I think that the notion of rights over body makes sense if you’re an identity-seeking kind of person.”

Yee is definitely that kind of person. Part Mohawk, part Taiwanese, she’s worked hard to connect her feminism with her understanding of her own Indigenous heritage – something she only recently embraced during a trip out to B.C. when she was 20.

“I was amazed at how much the culture was out there, how proud people were, how much they knew,” she says. “In Toronto, you just kind of assimilate. You blend in.

“There’s no real place of gathering, I feel like,” she continues. “We have great places doing great work, but if I’m Mohawk and I’m not Anishanabe, I’m not Ojibwa, where am I, as a youth, as a young person who is supposed to carry on the culture, know my language, know my traditions, where do I go to specifically learn about that?”

The notion of tradition – particularly as it relates to young people – is a big part of the work Yee does.

“We accept all different kinds of oppression in the name of tradition,” she says. “I’m not sure who has claim on tradition. I mean, I guess it’s been elders, but just because you’re old, doesn’t make you an elder. Youth can be elders too. There’s a lot of youth who know ceremonies, who have knowledge, who have wisdom.”

Yee’s confidence belies her relatively young age. Speaking frankly about everything from sex work to the politics of decolonialization to her experiences as a blogger (her writing has appeared on high-traffic blogs such as feministing.com, rabble.ca and racialious.com), she’s not afraid to challenge people on their beliefs.

“I love seeing people having to move past their shit,” she says.

And, being a member of the demographic that she’s working with – one that’s overrepresented when it comes to poverty, STI infections, teen pregnancies and domestic-violence rates – Yee can speak from first-hand experience about what works and what doesn’t.

“It’s very frustrating for me sometimes, because I think that ‘helping youth’ can become so tokenized that people don’t even really know what that means,” she says.

“How much do we want to empower youth? Do we want to empower youth to the point where they’re taking space and power? Or do we want to help them to the point where, if they take it, then that means you as an adult are out of a job? That’s something I run into a lot of the time that’s very difficult to penetrate.

“Adults are very threatened by power.”

Original at Uptown

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