Featured UCLA Feminist: Jessica Yen

Photo by Sarah Al-Qatou

With UCLA Homelessness Awareness Week kicking off this upcoming Monday, this week’s Featured Feminist Friday is 2018 Executive Director of UCLA Hunger Project, Jessica Yen. Jessica Yen, a third-year microbiology, immunology & molecular genetics student, sat down with FEM to talk about her role in starting a new project, Bruin Dine here at UCLA, being an executive director (ED) of a large and growing campus organization, and how feminism has impacted her life.

Jessica explained that Bruin Dine is a collaborative effort between Hunger Project, Swipe Out Hunger, and Bruin Shelter to serve free dinners consisting of the leftover hot food from the dining halls. The event is designed to be open to the entire UCLA community, but specifically caters towards food insecure students. “Our goal is to reduce food waste, and food insecurity amongst our own Bruin community. It’s hard for one student organization to handle all this, so it was nice that these three groups came together — there is a larger impact when the organizations unite on projects.”

Regarding her role as executive director of Hunger Project, Jessica explained that Bruin Dine is one of the projects that she sits on the committee for as ED of Hunger Project. She explained that a new advocacy committee was started this year, led by one of the members. “We are very focused on ‘action’ but now we want to put more focus on advocacy.” The site directors are in charge of keeping open communication with different UCLA regulatory groups, such as SOLE UCLA, and on the legislative side, the group attends town council meetings, so people can learn more about these issues. They also speak to the Homelessness Policy Director for the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I believe it’s important we have a voice,” Jessica expressed, “and encourage more responsible policy making.”

When asked about her personal goals for the year, Jessica stated, “Educating the UCLA community about homelessness.” She explained this is best done through partnerships. Some of Hunger Project’s off campus work with organizations and projects include Monday Night Missions (MNM), Shower of Hope, and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless). “With Monday Night Missions, we serve food on Skid Row on weeknights. Shower of Hope is under MNM, they offer free showers to people who do not have access to bathrooms. Their services are located in Highland Park, South Pasadena.

When asked how her experience has been as a woman in this role, Jessica smiled. “Early in my life I had strong role models, no one told me I wasn’t capable.  Growing up, my parents always pushed me to do my best. Accomplish something and keep working to see what you can accomplish next.  Within the student organizations, I myself have not experienced discrimination: it’s been mostly about the passion. Who is willing to put in the work — that is what shines through in the results. Within the environment of UCLA my experience has lent itself to being accepting and open, making it easier to progress.”

Jessica noted, “A lot of environments aren’t as encouraging as UCLA can be, and lend young women to think they need to ‘stay in their place.’  If you haven’t seen female leaders then you would feel like certain things aren’t attainable — that it is weird, or abnormal to possess those roles. I think in any other environment my experience would be very different.”

When pressed on who has inspired her, Jessica noted her fellow board members. “Disha [Samaiyar], is a senior, and wasn’t on board last year either. Her accomplishments this year have inspired me.” Disha led the organization of Friday Night Mission: the Ackerman Greenhouse to SkidRow food project. “She shows me if you have the idea you can make actual changes.”

“The whole school can seem so vast and intimidating at times,” Jessica sighed, “but it’s largely about talking, having meetings, and taking steps to accomplish the things you desire. Ideas are inspired in collaboration; no idea is independent, we are all inspired by one another.”

On working and co-planning with the team involved in Bruin Dine, Jessica noted, “The board for Hunger Project I would say is two-thirds women, and specifically this year, the members are primarily women, as well. I think in reflection there is always a large presence of women in these organizations.”

“We’ve started a lot of new projects, which I largely attribute to the passionate people on board.” Jessica once again paid tribute to her fellow Hunger Project member, “Disha [Samaiyar], and everyone who wanted to be involved with it collaborated to get it started. Our new advocacy committee is so passionate, and in my position as ED I just try to help makes these projects happen and facilitate them into actions.”

When asked what advice Jessica would give to our readers, on taking on positions of authority, Jessica noted that at first it was kind of overwhelming take on such a large role: “I was intimidated having to lead the meetings, and it was a lot coming from general committee. When there is a lot to take on at once, you have to learn and grow into the part.”

“I must say,” she paused, “don’t be afraid to take on what seems at first like a lot. If you’re intimidated but you know you want to be a part of it, you’ll grow into the role, there is always a learning process. Don’t be afraid to take on the challenge. You function based on what you have to do.”

Jessica explained that she too experienced uncertainty. “Before, I would think, ‘Oh there are a lot of people who could do this better than I could.’ But you have to realize, why can’t it be me, why can’t I do that? If I’m telling myself I can’t, I won’t do it. You’ve got to say, ‘I have experience and I have the passion, I can be the one to take on this role.’”

When asked what feminism means to her, Jessica’s response was simple. “Everyone being seen equally. Feminism should empower men and women to accomplish what they strive for, regardless of gender identification.”

“I think I was aware of it early on,” Jessica reflected, when asked when feminism came into her life. “I got a better understanding in middle school and early high school. Before, I didn’t know what it meant. Growing up in the Bay Area, it was very progressive, people would say feminism is equality between men and women. Even still, it was definitely during high school that the stigmatization to the term was cleared up for me, and I realized it truly meant equality — if true equality already existed, we wouldn’t need the term ‘feminism’. Why should equality be controversial?”

When asked when her “feminist awakening” occurred she responded, “I guess it’s when I started hearing ‘women aren’t that good at math — are you sure you want to do that as a woman’”.

“For a while, I wanted to be an orthopedic doctor, and my dad was worried that would be a hard career path because of the physical nature of the job. I did gymnastics as a kid and would think to myself, I’m a lot stronger than boys I know, so why shouldn’t I do this physically strenuous job? And I was a year ahead in math, so why would math not be a good fit for me? My personal experience contrasted the box society was trying to put me in. My dad has always had the highest opinion of me, but his comments reflected society — a backwards idea of what women should be and are,” Jessica continued.

She described a disconnect in the generations: “My dad always said ‘You, Jessica, can do anything.’ But he had been taught when he was a child that not every woman can do everything. I just wanted to say: ‘But dad, I am a woman.’”

On how feminism has impacted her life, Jessica noted, “In the past, it absolutely empowered me to see women fight for opportunity, and support one another. But it frustrates me seeing people’s reaction to women fighting for their rights, it frustrates me that people still have to fight for their rights.”

On where she sees feminism going? Jessica noted she hopes it is seen for what it is: equality. “It could be that the times are changing, or that I’m in California, and in college, but I see progress being made, I see more women leaders in the workforce, in the government.”  When questioned how far in the future she saw this occurring, she was somber. “To be honest it’s going to take time. Action, legislation, a step by step. But things are definitely progressing faster and faster. I hope when I have kids they have even more opportunities than are available to me now.”

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