Yesterday evening, Penn alumna Feminista Jones spoke at the Kelly Writers House’s Feminism/s series. Feminista is a social worker, black feminist and community activist. She has over 44,000 followers on Twitter and is responsible for creating hashtags that sparked global attention like #YouOkSis to address street harassment and the National Moment of Silence #NMOS14 to address issues of police brutality.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: Why did you choose Penn and what was your time at Penn like?
Feminista Jones: Well, I had actually taken a year off from college before coming to Penn and my high school guidance counselor helped me figure out where I was going to go and she was like, “Penn would be great for you,” so I decided to come here. I ended up double majoring in Africana Studies and Sociology, and I did some minor work in English and Women’s Studies. My time here was really life changing. I know this sounds really cliche to say, but I feel like I found myself here. I got involved with a lot of activist causes, particularly for affirmative action.
DP: Activism is an important part of Penn’s culture here, there are lots of groups like SOUL, who have had rallies and have also gotten some viral media attention. How would you compare the activism culture while you were at Penn to how it is today?
FJ: I think that even 20 years before I came, there was a huge culture of activism here at Penn, which kind of laid the groundwork for us. I love what I see here. I love that people as young as 17, 18, freshmen that are coming in, they’re like, “This is what we want to happen, this is the change we want to see, and we’re going to take steps to do that.” ... Today’s generation has social media, they have all of these other ways to get it out there. Back then, we didn’t have all of this, so nobody knew what we were doing unless it got written about in local newspapers, but now the world can see what they’re doing, so I think that’s probably the biggest difference.
DP: Feminista Jones is obviously not your real name. What was the decision to use a pseudonym? What came first — the pseudonym or becoming an activist on social media?
FJ: I started using the name on my blog. I had a blog that was about sex-positive feminism, and I kind of just took on the moniker. I thought it was helpful because as my reach started to grow, and as more people started to follow me, it became a safety concern. I use a pseudonym to kind of try to protect my identity somewhat ... It’s [the pseudonym] also really just representing feminism. This is it. This is Feminista, this is who I am, and I don’t shy away from that.
DP: You tweeted sometime in the fall about how Penn not giving you alumni recognition because you use a pseudonym. Could you explain that situation?
FJ: There’s a Facebook group for Penn alumni and I wanted to share an article that I wrote for Time magazine about black women and domestic violence, and they didn’t want to share it because it wasn’t listed under my given name, or my name that’s connected with Penn. I was really disappointed in that because you have an artist like John Legend, who Penn is really proud to say graduated from Penn, but Legend is not his name — it’s a pseudonym that he uses. Yet, they can promote his work and support his work and there are others who have done the same ... It was really disappointing and it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
DP: You said that you’ve been involved in activism your whole life. When did you decide social media was the best platform for you to use?
FJ: Well, I don’t know if social media is the best platform for me to use, which is why I do a lot of speaking, and I still go out and do lecturing, and teaching and things like that. Nothing beats connecting with people face to face. So I do a lot of traveling to schools. I think that social media helps with the reach. It’s helped with connecting to people that I may not have met in my travels.
DP: In December of 2014 at Penn, there were two incidents on campus regarding race and gender. The fraternity Phi Delta Theta had a Christmas card posing with a black sex doll that they claimed represented Beyonce, and they were under a lot of fire for that. The other incident was when an activist group went to Penn President Amy Gutmann’s holiday party and participated in a die-in, and Amy Gutmann joined them, and she received a lot of backlash from Penn Police. Do you have any comment on those situations?
FJ: I think that the fraternity issue is nothing new ... They have houses on Locust Walk, they’re allowed to do all of these other things, where they don’t have to include other people, so why is no one pushing against them and challenging them? I’m glad that there’s more sexual assault awareness on college campuses, but I think that this is nothing new. I’m not at all surprised that they did something like that. It’s sad and it’s unfortunate that it continues to happen and that it’s very abusive to the black students, the black women here ... In terms of the die-in, I also know that there are students who felt that it wasn’t as sincere as President Gutmann wanted it to seem, but I think it was important to have that visual of an Ivy League university president joining in on something like that. In my day, when Judith Rodin was here, she had a Kwanzaa tree with little figurines of black people hanging from branches. We’ve come a long way in terms of presidential holiday parties. For people to have backlash against that, the woman is allowed to take whatever stance she wants to take.
DP: Are there any new projects coming up that you’re excited about? You had a book recently come out.
FJ: Yes, I released a book in October called “Push the Button," and it’s doing really well. It’s totally independent and self-published. Given all the hype around “50 Shades of Grey,” a lot of people really loved my book because they’re saying that it’s actually a better story and it’s well-written. It’s similar themes, but it’s more of a black romance story. I think that it’s really important to write about black love and love between black people, because a lot of times when you think of movies and books that are celebrated, black people always seem to be in turmoil, like they’re always being harmed ... My next step is I’m planning a women’s freedom march. I’m hoping to have it here in Philadelphia, if I can get the proper permits. It’s really the idea of having women of color come together, in a large city and be able to express our issues and our concerns, and kind of make demands of our government.
This Q and A has been lightly edited for clarity.
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