First, I just wanna say: this meme slinger profile featuring Jessica Lee is BAD ASS. Check it out. Jessica leads the social media coordination in Utah for much of the work against tar sands, pipelines and refineries, and solidarity with Indigenous leaders, and also amplifies the local work against deportations. Utah climate justice organizers are known for pushing our whole movement forward, in terms of escalation, and more and more in terms of intersectionality and anti-oppression - connecting the dots of injustice and learning to lead from behind the frontlines. Jessica’s interview (and work), for me, is the real embodiment of this push, and of powerful leadership by example.
Where are you based and how did you get there?
I’m currently based out of both Salt Lake City, Utah, because it’s home, and PR Springs, Utah, because it’s where my emergency heart lives.
What campaigns are you working on right now - what are you trying to accomplish?
I’m incredibly lucky to be organizing with Peaceful Uprising, and also the Utah Tar Sands Resistance, as part of a coalition of communities working hard to stop tar sands and oil shale strip-mining projects in the Colorado Plateau area, specifically the Book Cliffs in so-called Eastern Utah. 32,000 acres of public lands now managed by a Utah agency, but which were traditionally Ute land, and which sit next to the Ute Ouray Reservation, have been leased to a Canadian company called US Oil Sands. This year, they started construction on one of the first tar sands mines in the U.S., with other tar sands projects also threatening Colorado, Wyoming, and Alabama. More tar sands and oil shale strip-mines are in the works in the Book Cliffs, as well as fracking wells, pipelines, an oil refinery, a nuclear power plant, and a two-line highway which will cut through beautiful wilderness, all of which will devastate the land, air, water, and people of the region, and would effectively turn the region into a sacrifice zone.
Tar sands would be brought by truck, rail, or pipeline to be refined in one of the five oil refineries in or near Salt Lake City. The racial dynamics in Salt Lake are very clear: the east side is predominantly white, and the west side is mainly comprised of communities of color. All of the oil refineries are located on the west side, and the refinery pollution (including pollution from Alberta tar sands already being refined there) is a major contributor to the horrific air quality here, air quality that has been the worst in the nation for several years, and which physicians have called a human health crisis—one that affects those living in the shadows of the refineries first, longest, and hardest.
My work includes not only stopping these extraction and refining projects from taking place, but also addressing the blatant environmental racism being enacted by the state.
What is it about the promise of social media and storytelling that excites you? What’s your greatest hope for using social media to support climate justice in Utah & beyond?
Climate Justice is all about working at the intersections of environmental degradation, and the oppressions and inequalities perpetuated by racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. What social media provides are places and platforms for traditionally marginalized voices, such as those of women, people of color, LGBTQ, and the disabled (namely those most harmed by inequalities), to speak their truth. Often we wait for someone else, a celebrity, the mainstream media, a politician, to give our story credibility, to speak out about injustices and oppressions, and yet instead our stories are pushed aside, ignored, and our voices silenced or co-opted. Social media allows us to create our own credibility, and to tell the stories that need to be told to those who most need to hear them. One of the most powerful things about social media is that by creating and promoting our own narratives, we are able to force those who wish us silenced to pay attention. I truly believe it is because of social media that we are now forced to pay attention and talk about indigenous sovereignty and resistance, about rape culture, about immigration, about tar sands, and numerous other issues that society at large would rather have remained invisible. Social media provides us with a lot of power, including the ability to connect our numerous communities and struggles, and grow into powerful movements. That being said, those in power are aware of this power and seek to use our most useful tools against us, so it’s often a fine line between speaking your truth and putting yourself at risk.
OK, so we’re calling this a “meme slinger profile” - but do you see yourself as more of a community organizer who can sling memes, or more as a meme slinger who can organize their community? How do YOU keep from being put into the “digital box” that many online organizers get put into?
I see myself first and foremost as as organizer, one who just happens to use social media as a tool in their organizing. Honestly, I fell into doing social media out of necessity, simply because I saw the need in campaigns I was working on, and taught myself the skills so that my work would be more effective. There are some very powerful things that can happen in an online forum, and yet we’re losing sight of the fact that Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other platforms are simply tools we use in our work. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many shares, likes, or re-tweets you get. What matters is if the mine gets shut down, if the deportation is stopped, if justice is found. I try not to get too caught up in the interwebs unless I need to, and I participate in a lot of the other tasks and support roles that are needed to run an effective campaign.
Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising both do an wonderful job at weaving in connected struggles into their climate justice narrative - like immigrant justice and supporting Los Canales. What advice would you give to fellow climate storytellers—especially those who came up through the environmental ranks—for incorporating the other facets of climate justice into their social media work?
The quick answer is that I can’t sit by and do nothing while my friends are being deported. They’re my friends, and I would do everything I can to keep them from harm. But I also think it’s deeper and more complex than that. Often times campaigns and organizations get very caught up in their immediate goals, and refuse to “dilute” or “pollute” their messaging by addressing intersecting issues. These same groups will often recreate the very systems we’re supposed to be fighting, such as racism, or sexism, by excluding frontline communities, or only allowing them to participate in very exploitative and tokenizing ways.
Our work should not, and cannot, be one-sided. Climate Justice is not about the conservation of land or the protection of wilderness. It is about how those things intersect with justice for those most impacted by degradation and inequality. Does a community being ripped apart by deportations have the resources to fight an oil refinery or a strip-mine? And if we in the climate movement do succeed in shutting down that oil refinery, but the community surrounded it has disappeared, or is suffering, is that really a success? Would we in the climate movement even have any hope of shutting down the refinery without the community’s involvement? The most powerful resistance comes from those who most suffer from oppressions, and if we have any hope of moving forward and surviving as a movement, or even a civilization, those are the folks we need to start taking leadership from, and do all we can to support.
Can you tell us a little bit about your process for when you sit down and make memes? What are a few of your favorite tools — both virtual and real? (i.e. - Do you sketch first on paper, and then bring to life in PicMonkey? - the more behind the scenes you can be, the better!)
I’m very lucky to have worked with some extraordinarily talented photographers and videographers over the last few years who have created some amazing images that I get to work with. Once I have an action to promote, or an article, and I have an image to start with, I’ll do a lot of brainstorming, experimenting, and adjusting as I go. I’ll usually use PicMonkey when I have internet access, and GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program—an open-source program available for free online) when I don’t. I really believe in social media being free and accessible to everyone, and I use, and train folks to use, tools that reflect that.
What are some things you get up to when you’re not busy meme-slinging?
Writing. Reading (a lot). Cooking. Cuddling with my cat. Holding my community. Surviving. Attempting to travel through time and space.
How can folks find you via facebook, twitter, instagram, etc?
- Facebook: Private (sorry!)
- Twitter: @ninsiana0
Some recent examples of Jessica Lee’s work:
- Education campaign on the proposed Uinta Express Pipeline, which would take waxy yellow and black crude from the Uinta Basin to the Salt Lake City oil refineries.
- Women of Action Against Violent Extraction (WAAVE) stop a bulldozer and shut down initial work at the site of US Oil Sands’ processing plant.
- Los Canales: Fighting for Life in the Sewers of Tijuana