Advice to Her Younger Self features female leaders who are harnessing the power of technology to drive change—and want to help the next generation do the same. These experts are using tech to build better communities and a better world as active members of the new field called Public Interest Technology, and they’re opening up to us about what they’ve learned along the way. This series is produced in partnership with the Ford Foundation.
Raising kids these days is daunting.
The news regularly features stories on immigrant families separated and detained at the southern border. Swastikas and black-face have made shockingly regular appearances in school buildings and on public property. Social media, where young people spend many waking hours, is a battleground littered with personal insults and violent threats.
“It’s a really hard moment to be a parent to young children,” admits Jessica J. González, mother of two boys ages six and three, “and to try to explain to them all of the hate and racism in the world that’s rearing its ugly head—but that has always been present, and that has largely informed the founding of this country.”
González is the vice president of Strategy and Senior Counsel at Free Press and Free Press Action Fund, intertwined non-profits that monitor internet technology to ensure that everyone has equal online access with the end goal of creating a just society. She she sees a direct connection between public discourse and all facets of the media—TV, the internet, radio, print—and understands first-hand how the messages we consume and receive affect how we treat others and how safe we feel within our own communities.
“I worry about the collapse of kindness and caring for our neighbors,” she says, and about our collective ability to build “a common understanding about what are facts versus what are opinions and hyperbole.”
At home, González turns the TV off in the afternoon because of the toxicity of the discourse it broadcasts. When her elder son watches Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, she sees his aggression spike. After her younger child sees something scary, he needs reassurance that he is safe. “That’s just a tiny example,” she explains, “of how impactful media is.”
And on the macro level, it’s just as potent.
“Even a minute of hateful content can change someone’s mind about issues like immigration,” González says, “or whether or not Latinx people belong here.” That she learned working at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, where she spent seven years before joining Free Press. “Hate does something chemically to our body. It instigates a hormone that actually can lead to cancer. Even if you agree with the hate, being exposed to really hateful rhetoric that advocates for violence against people not only impairs mental and emotional health, but also our physical health.”
One effective way to combat that, she argues, is with Net Neutrality—the foundational principle of which demands that Internet service providers make all content equally accessible. Providers must not block internet access. They must not prioritize content for any reason or slow down access to individual sites. Equal access, she explains, is “critically important for communities of color to share our own stories, in our own words—without any filtration, without any gatekeepers.”
As evidence, González points to De Su Mama, a blog her best friend started when she was pregnant, newly laid off and looking for resources about parenting biracial children. Finding none, the daughter of Cuban immigrants married to an African-American son of Baptist preachers started writing and posting letters online to her future daughter, creating her own resource for like-minded families—and an essential community that did not previously exist in digital space.
De Su Mama took off. González reports that thousands of parents on the platform now “share stories, anecdotes, challenges, frustrations, triumphs together.” In addition, the blog turned into a business, and its monetization opportunities enabled the founder to buy her home.
Net Neutrality made that all possible—because without it, sluggish access to the site might have deterred readers, thwarted potential revenue streams and imperiled the founder’s financial security.
This example demonstrates “the power of the open internet,” González declares, “to transform someone’s life, to build community, to tell stories that otherwise were very lacking on the Internet and certainly in traditional media.”
Though she’s a lawyer herself, González has always been compelled by storytelling. As a girl and then college student, she wanted to become a journalist, but scrapped the idea when she learned how few people of color worked in the field and how sexist it was. Instead, she became a teacher, and then earned a J.D. along the way.
Her later fellowship with the Media Access Project showed her how policy and law can effectively change the way media operates. It effectively changed the course of her life. “I fell in love with the idea that we could disrupt racism in the media sector and create new avenues for people of color to be media makers,” she says. “The media has been in the hands of white men throughout the nation’s history and has been weaponized against people of color.”
González is committed to social change, but she’s also a realist about how much one vehicle—the law or the media—can do to shift culture. “We still haven’t had that critical and open conversation about the history of racism in the U.S.,” she observes. “We haven’t dealt with our original sins—of slavery, and native genocide, and displacement—that media was used to legitimize for many, many years.”
Hatred online, she notes, is reflective of hatred offline. Little will change until we are honest about our past. González would know: In her hometown playgrounds in Los Angeles, she was the victim of anti-Mexican slurs as a girl; her father was a UPS driver who had to hide his identity as a child raised in a town where Mexicans were forbidden to live. A self-described “nerdy Mexican girl,” she was in her 30s before she ever encountered a pop cultural character she identified with on Ugly Betty.
Still, she considers herself lucky. “I’m a lawyer, I’m middle class, I’m white-passing,” she says. “There’s a ton of privilege wrapped up in that. I take very seriously my responsibility to not be the only voice, to make sure that other people can speak for themselves. It is my job to make sure that people are getting in the door, and getting a seat at the table, and that I’m not being used or tokenized in any way.”
In part, that sense of responsibility grows from the help and mentoring she got along the way. In fellowships and through the NHMC, she was introduced to colleagues who became vital mentors. People more senior than she was wanted to help her, one of a handful of Latinas in D.C., get ahead. She urges young people likewise to find wise advisors who can offer professional encouragement and guidance.
“We’re really underrepresented in the nation’s capital,” she explains. “I think there’s a real desire to reach back and bring others up.”
She also suggests they follow their gut. González spent a lot of time early in her career simply listening to others and unlearning some habits she picked up in law school. In particular, she had to stop relying solely on analysis and argument, and to start trusting her common sense and instinct.
At this point in her career, González feels a responsibility to help not just the Latinx community, but all people of color. Uplifting black and native women is something she thinks about daily, and her fight for an open Internet is a crucial part of that mission. She plans to continue fighting to make room for more voices and more stories, and she’s encouraged by recent surges of voter activism. She also plans to continue disrupting traditional media in the service of creating a more equitable and kinder society.
“I’m ready to do something radical on race and technology,” she says. “I’m here to do transformative work. That involves risk taking. That involves pushing the limits legally, policy-wise. That involves introducing ideas and projects that are ‘not politically feasible.’ If we don’t do it now, we’re going to look back 20 years from now and think, ‘I wish I would’ve started that thing.’ We can’t wait.”