Jamae is a 51-year old mom of three from San Francisco, CA. Her day job (and evenings and weekends job, too) is Director of Sunset Cooperative Nursery School. She excels at nurturing both children and plants, and is never afraid to get her hands dirty.
Prologue: I believe the stories we tell one another have the power to change the world. Especially the stories we tell one another about ourselves.
As a society, we focus so much of our attention on the bold-faced “success stories” of CEOs and best-selling authors, the famous and infamous. We get accustomed to glossy, polished anecdotes that are fun to read but hard to relate to. Too often — especially during these times of isolation and separation — we miss the remarkable stories that live all around us.
The neighbor across the street.
The woman behind the cash register.
The co-worker we see every day.
Captivating, inspiring, powerful stories live inside each of us. This series celebrates those stories with 15 interviews of women whose voices you likely haven’t heard before. (Since March is Women’s History Month, it seems like the perfect time for it.) I asked each of these women to share some of their personal story, and talk about how they have found — or are still finding — their own voice.
Today, we hear from Jamae.
In her own words:
I am bi-racial, bi-sexual, a cis-woman, teacher, mother, and activist.
I grew up mostly in California, though I lived in Maryland, Tennessee and New York briefly. I moved at least 15 times before I was 17.
I grew up in a house that was full of chaos and abuse, but also love. The love helped me to love myself and be resilient enough to seek healing later. The experience of both deeply shaped who I am today.
I had a lot of residual anger from my childhood experiences. I was easily triggered any time I felt I was being manipulated, bullied, or dismissed. But my intense reactions led me to sometimes act or respond in ways that I later regretted.
I’ve worked hard to shed that anger, and I am now trying to embrace vulnerability. I’ve been so intent on proving that I am strong, that I’ve had a hard time being vulnerable. I resisted asking for help or admitting that I was overwhelmed. This is still a struggle for me, but I am getting better at embracing it. I am grateful that I have people in my life with whom I feel safe enough to be vulnerable.
My mom really shaped my values, more so as an adult than as a child. Through her own internal work, she has modeled to me that not only can we heal from trauma, including generational trauma, but we can use our personal experiences and healing to help others.
What are some things about yourself that you did not get to choose?
The places I lived as a child. My stepfathers.
What are some things that you did choose?
My adult community and where I live.
San Francisco was the first place I ever felt at home in.
When did you first realize you were a feminist?
The memory that is coming up for me is from my freshman year in high school. I had turned my chair backwards and was straddling it, as were multiple boys in my classroom. My teacher asked me (and me alone) not to sit that way. When I asked my teacher why the boys were allowed to and I wasn’t, he said it wasn’t ladylike. I knew that was his reason, but was shocked to hear him say it out loud.
I refused to change how I sat. I felt so angry about it. Not just about what the teacher did, but about how many other teachers, administrators, and fellow students didn’t see anything wrong with it. I got the message that I was making a big deal out of nothing. That actually feels very familiar to many experiences I’ve had since then.
What aspect of your identity is most precious to you?
I am a lover. I am full of love for people and all of our complexities. As much pain and suffering as there is in the world, there is also so much glorious love and tenderness. Love is the healer of all things, and it makes me feel so good to spread it and support it.
What fears did you overcome in 2020?
Fear of sobriety — or maybe of my unmedicated feelings.
I stopped drinking alcohol in December of 2019. I realized I had been drinking to numb my hard feelings and that it was something I’d probably been doing on and off for years.
So, I got to face the hard parts of 2020 and the hard parts about myself, completely sober. It may seem like the worst time to have stopped drinking, but I have been extremely grateful for my clarity during such an insane year.
What voices get under your skin?
The voices of people (especially white people) who try to distance themselves from the racist actions of others, even when it’s clear that they have lots of work to do to recognize and address their own. We are all racist. Hearing people or communities talk as if they are the exception is exhausting and gets in the way of progress. It contributes to the continued oppression of and violence against people and communities who are BIPOC, LGBTQ, and disabled.
Tell us about a time when you felt silenced.
A few years ago, I started bringing awareness to instances of racism happening at an event I attend. The first few times I tried to expose and explore it, it was brushed off or explained away. It was implied that I was being overly sensitive, that I misunderstood, or that the intentions were good.
Working against that pushback was challenging. Sometimes I didn’t have the emotional energy to tackle it, and for a while it made it harder and less likely for me to speak up. This type of silencing and gaslighting can happen slowly and over time.
What are the situations or places where you feel most unwelcome?
To be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time in places where I don’t feel welcome. That is a choice that I am often able to make. I acknowledge that that choice is a privilege. Occasions when I am in spaces with conservatives can be hard for me. It feels like we disagree about so much. I am torn between biting my tongue to avoid confrontation or possibly exploding.
It is easier to speak up in the places where I already have relationships with people. Or in the times when I feel the most passion about something. I may not always articulate well if the space doesn’t feel safe, but if I feel passionately about something, it’s hard not to speak up.
How do you support other people’s voices?
I try to give my time to organizations that are doing good work, especially around arts and education, diversity and inclusion, the unhoused, and children’s rights. I volunteer as an advisory board member to a couple of such groups. I donate where and when I can.
When I bring speakers to our school or suggest a resource for our community, I pay attention to who I am centering. This is a newer practice for me and I regret not doing this sooner.
But mostly I think I support the voices of children. I do this by radically accepting and supporting all children, regardless of their needs. I am able to do this alongside the amazing teachers and parents that I work with every day.
How do you want to use your voice in the future?
I want to notice the places and spaces where I have privilege and use that power to lift those who don’t. Especially around equality.
Name a woman whose voice is meaningful to you:
Vanessa German. She’s a poet, a sculptor, painter, photographer, gardener, activist, badass Queen.
What is a value that has shifted in 2020 because of COVID / wildfires / election / remote work / all of it?
The importance of dear friends. I thought I already valued close friendships, but 2020 really challenged what those friendships looked like. It was interesting to see which friendships thrived during hard times and which struggled.
What values have helped you survive the emotional experience of 2020?
I value trying new things even if they are hard. This has been critical lately. I think I learned more new skills in 2020 than in the last five years combined. It’s amazing what we are capable of.
What gets you out of bed on the worst of days?
Connections with people, especially kids.
I’m lucky to get to work with young kids most days. Their unabated joy for life is contagious and full of hope. My own kids, in particular.
What is something you do/make/create that brings you deep joy?
Listening to music and dancing. I make dance moves!
Also, I love growing things and tending to them — houseplants, succulents, vegetables, herbs. It grounds me and is one of my mental health tools.
2020 gave me more garden time. Having my hands in soil became even more critical for my mental health than usual.
I also started making collages, painting and drumming. All were somewhat in response to COVID, but mostly about my grief and rage around the heightened and highlighted racial unrest.
After the murder of George Floyd and the following unrest, I started painting signs to help with my growing anxiety about our nation and the upcoming election. I started by painting a sign with Breonna Taylor’s name on it.
Then for the next couple of months I painted signs supporting Black Lives Matter and encouraging people to use compassion, critical thinking and their right to vote to make a difference in our country. I had some help. Friends donated wood and helped to cut it. A couple of friends helped paint. And a whole crew showed up to help line the Great Highway with the signs four weeks before the election. We put up almost 100 signs.
So many things came out of this project. Some expected and some not.
The most powerful signs were removed within a couple of hours, and some of the signs were vandalized with swastika stickers. It was disappointing, but not surprising. It simply reminded me of the importance of their message.
While strolling down the highway, I witnessed countless parents talk to their children about voting. I watched a mother stop at every single sign and read them out loud to her young son. I saw young people talking about how Black Lives Matter, and how they wished they could vote.
After a couple of weeks, more signs started popping up. People felt inspired to add their own. Broken signs were fixed by strangers.
A fourth grader who went to our preschool, Sky Bowling, chose the signs as the focus of her school project about art and activism.
Through the signs, I was connected to a local artist and general bad-ass, Ana Teresa Fernandez. She and I ended up working on an incredibly sweet and moving art project for our school that explored skin tones and the power of seeing yourself reflected.
It’s called the ME WE project. We learned that you can make any skin tone by mixing the same five colors — red, yellow, blue, green and white. All the children (and teachers!) at the preschool mixed paint to make match their skin and then painted their tiles. The tiles were then placed together in a mosaic and hung on the wall in the entry to the school. The ME is made from the skin tones. The WE is mirrored so that the kids can see themselves in the reflection.
So many conversations, inspirations, and processes went into this project and my guess is that even more will come out of it. The mosaic is a beautiful representation of all the ways we are the same, and all the ways we are different.
Ana and I, as well as artist and activist Georgia Hodges, were invited by a San Francisco city official to be part of a conversation about positive community responses to the types of reactionary pushback that can come from progressive art.
When I painted that first sign with Breonna Taylor’s name as a way to explore my own grief, I couldn’t have imagined how many things would come out of it.
We all have the power to inspire one another.
I am inspired by people every day.
Read more VOICES…
Shayna Hodkin is a Spellbinding Poet
Sam McWilliams is an Intrepid Cliff Jumper
Hattie Anderson is a Confident Black Goddess
Elizabeth Schroeder is a Swashbuckling Peacemaker
Nikka Diaz is a Natural-Born Empath
Kelly Galeano Arce is a Dauntless Truth Seeker
Tiffany Miller is a Nurturer of Dreams
Emma Rekha Marty is a Guardian of Hope
Natalie Patrice Tucker is a Mother of Dragons
Ruth T. is a Queen of Hearts
Tetyana Borshch is a Radical Daydreamer
Brittani West is a World Class Risk Taker
Tiffani Jones Brown is a Lionhearted Listener
Kathy Azada is a Bright Side Enthusiast
The titles for the VOICES Series come from Exercise #2 in the Permission to Speak Workbook. The exercise, “You have more power than you know,” encourages participants to choose a title from a list that is offered, or — if none of those titles feels right — to make up one of their own.
“Each of us is our own harshest critic, most of the time,” the workbook says. “We don’t always see ourselves as we are. We instinctively try to hide many things about ourselves — our failures, our mistakes, our weaknesses, our obsessions. …But the things that make you you also give you power.”
Each woman interviewed for the VOICES Series either chose a title for herself from this list, or gave herself a title of her own making.