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This blog post is the first in a series here at Scarleteen profiling young people worldwide who are activists in some way in the fields of sexuality, sex education and sexual health.
Jessica Danforth is a one-person whirlwind for change. The 26-year-old founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, with headquarters in Toronto and Oneida, Wisconsin, she travels around North America and internationally advocating for culturally appropriate sex education in indigenous communities. A self-described “multiracial Two Spirit Indigenous hip-hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter,” she’s the executive director of NYSHN, the first chair of the National Indigenous HIV/AIDS Council, a North American co-chair of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and has somehow found the time in her seriously packed schedule to edit two books and pick up several awards for her work along the way. I managed to catch up with her during an hour of rare down time to ask her a few questions about how she got started in this field, why she does what she does and how she finds the energy to keep going.
NYSHN is a truly grassroots organization, started in her Toronto basement almost ten years ago with the help of her sister and best friend, and it came about because of an obvious need for culturally appropriate sex education. It started out of necessity, she says – people contacted her looking for information they couldn’t find elsewhere. The organization was formalized when she was 18, and has grown in size and reputation since, but the first few years were key to its development in terms of finding a direction and developing a working philosophy. The voices of young people have always been key in what NYSHN does, as has a resistance to typical disease-control models and risk-centered ideas of sexual health. As Jessica puts it, “being Indigenous or being a young person is not a risk factor," it’s how society treats those groups that really makes the difference to their health. She resists looking at things from a “deficit model” point of view, choosing instead to frame the challenges facing Indigenous communities as realities. Her beginning in activism at a young age – starting with volunteering at a family shelter when she was ten – was heavily influenced by the fact that she didn’t see her or her family’s realities and experiences in the responses of governments and other organizations to things like drug use and sex work.
Building an organization from scratch is hard enough, but it can be especially challenging when you’re a young person. Being taken seriously can be difficult, which is frustrating to someone who has never seen her age as being a barrier to doing what needs to be done. She shares the story of getting her first volunteer gig, explaining that while shelter workers had thought she was a young adult when talking to her on the phone, they were shocked to discover that she was 10 years old when she met them in person. She was equally shocked that anyone would think that her age could disqualify her from participating, never having seen it as a problem before. But, as she puts it, “it needs to get done, so it needs to get done." (She did manage to convince the shelter staff that she was capable of volunteering, by the way, and the rest is history.)
Throughout our conversation, the subject of interconnectedness keeps coming up. It's clearly central to the everything she does and the community-building work she wants to help foster. A big part of what makes NYSHN work so well is its integration with all aspects of life and the recognition that no issue - including sexuality - exists in a vacuum. As Jess says, we “don’t have the privilege of looking at things in isolation," using the Alberta tar sands as an example. We can’t just look at what the oil industry in Alberta is doing to the environment, she explains, we also have to think about what it does to communities, to our bodies and how we interact with the environment as well. (For a rundown of what exactly connects STIs and oil extraction in Alberta, there's a great piece in this STI zine. The article starts on page 9.)
She’s determined to foster connections within and between communities as a vital part of integrating the work of NYSHN into the bigger picture, and has done a huge amount of work to build connections between Indigenous young people and community elders. Two groups that are not often included (somewhat ironically) in dialogues about what they need and want can benefit hugely from working together, and work very well together. Programs like the Grandmother Spirit Project, which you can find out about here, is a perfect example of how young people and elders can work together to accomplish some amazing things that benefit everyone involved.
One of the main things I took away from our discussion, and appreciated most, was her forthrightness in acknowledging how her views and beliefs have changed over time, and how that has shaped the work that she does. She’s “participated in things that I’m probably against now” and explains that from the ages of 16 to 20, she went through “the first three waves of feminism” and came to the conclusion that “I didn’t think all women were oppressed in the same way just because they were women." She even edited a book on the subject, entitled Feminism For Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism.
She’s not one to shy away from controversy, either, and while she prefers not to be the only voice of NYSHN, she’s more than willing to put her name behind anything controversial if needed. In the hour or so I spent talking to her, she highlighted topics and ways of thinking about issues I’d never been aware of, particularly in relation to colonialism and its effect on Indigenous communities and law. She pointed out that “we only look at why things are legalized, not why they were illegal in the first place”. Indigenous peoples’ understanding of their history is key to wellbeing, and it’s a human right to have access to information about that history, she says. Part of NYSHN’s mission is dealing with colonialism, critical conversations and critical actions; linking back to the idea that nothing happens in isolation, that “we don’t have the privilege of looking at things in isolation." The effects of colonialism pervade everything – bodies, communities, environments – and that needs to be recognized and dealt with.
Considering the amount of travel she does (she’s on the road most days in a given week, moving all over North America to work in Indigenous communities from New Mexico to the Yukon and everywhere in between) I have to ask how she keeps motivated, how she has the energy to keep doing what she does. She acknowledges that sometimes it’s not easy, that there are days where she just wants to sit back and take a break, but says that “youth and the communities we work with really fires me up” and considers that the difficulties of doing what she does are “minimal compared to what our ancestors went through”. Her continual reflection on past mistakes is a big part of her motivation as well – she wants to keep making it better, keep learning and improving.
Taking a step back out of the spotlight is part of this process of learning. Although she’s the executive director and arguably the most visible person in NYSHN, it’s not about her, and her willingness to step back and let others be heard is extraordinary. She wants “the measure of what we do to be about opportunities we’ve given others," and is eager to share the responsibility with other young people, explaining that sometimes the best thing you can do is step away and let someone else have the chance to speak up.
Eventually, we arrive at the question of what she hopes to accomplish, a question she finds difficult to answer. Ultimately, she says, this work isn’t about goals, it’s not about getting to a certain point and saying “Okay, we’re done."
“It’s not project or workshop based,” she says, “this is about a way of life," and reclaiming a way of life that was in place before. She references a favorite quote by Daniel Quinn to help explain this: “If the world is saved, it will not be saved by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all." The philosophy of NYSHN is built around the idea that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach, that providing support to people to do what they and their communities think is best is what’s key. There’s no “parachuting in” to solve problems, she explains, it’s about meeting people where they’re at and doing what fits best in that specific context.
Does she have any advice for other young people who may want to get involved in activism in some way, I ask, while recognizing that everyone’s situation is different? She responds that it’s about strengthening the collective, and most importantly, holding people accountable. She goes on to say that if someone says “I support youth," we have every right to speak up and ask them what that means, to hold them accountable to that statement, to ask how, exactly, that support will be enacted. She also emphasizes that we need to stop putting conditions on what success looks like and what it means to be an activist: “If you can get up in the morning and look in the mirror and like what you see even for 20 seconds, that’s activism." People need to know that they’re enough and that what they’re doing is enough even if it may not seem like they’re doing “as much” as others. (Hear, hear!)
I wish I’d had more time to talk to Jess, but time zone differences and busy schedules interfered. However, if there are any of you out there thinking about getting involved in activism and starting your own organization of some kind, she’s happy to talk about it, to share her experiences (mistakes as well as successes!) and has given me the go-ahead to share her contact information. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, get in touch through the contact us page of the NYSHN website, or follow her on Twitter: @Jess_Danforth
If you know of any awesome young activists out there who you think should be profiled at Scarleteen (or if you are one yourself and want to share your story!) you can let me know by emailing email@example.com