Jack Stephens is quite literally a jack of all trades. He organizes with the anti-imperialist, national democratic organization Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance, or, BAYAN) and has been organizing with them for the past six years. He serves on the executive committee for San Francisco Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (SFCHRP) and also sits on the board for the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN). He’s worked the graveyard shift full-time as a UPS employee loading trucks for over five years and is the union representative at his work, organized by Teamsters Local 2785. If that list of occupational and volunteer community organizing (and acronyms!) wasn’t enough to exhaust you, he’s also a full-time graduate student at The Graduate Theological Union studying Divinity and a soon-to-be ordained priest at the Episcopal Church.
When he’s not constantly on-the-go, reading a book from his expansive personal library, he’s teaching himself guitar and singing. His favorite thing to sing is country, Irish ballads and campesino music, an ode to his mixed heritage of Guatemalan and Irish. He can also teach himself new languages, like the time he learned basic sign language in about two days to give a tour of San Francisco to a visiting community organizer from out of town.
Did I also mention that he’s Jos’ and my roommate? I’ve seen firsthand how tirelessly Jack works– supporting, organizing and advocating for the issues he believes in. Despite the fact that I don’t know anyone busier than Jack, he’s probably the calmest, most easy-going person I know and have ever lived with.
We sat down for an early morning chat to discuss his thoughts on what it’s like to live with two feminist bloggers, San Francisco class structure, how human rights is inextricable from women’s issues, petit bourgeois feminism and more. Also, find out which of my past interviewees he would take to a desert island after the jump!
Anna Sterling: How did you become involved in all the community organizing you do?
Jack Stephens: I grew up with union politics in the house. I always had it in my consciousness growing up working class in the southeastern part of San Francisco. Both of my grandfathers were in unions. My dad was a shopster for his union and my mom was a member of the union for the California Nurses Association.
Junior year of high school back in 2001, I started organizing with this solidarity organization connected to Uhuru, which is a black Marxist-Leninst organization. Everyone knows Uhuru because they hear Chairman Omali in Dead Prez’s CDs. I was connected to one of those organizations, specifically because they were focused on working class issues and radical politics. Then, I got into college. Because I grew up in the southern part of the city near Daly City with a large Filipino population and a lot of my friends were Filipino, I started organizing with this anti-imperialist, radical student organization called League of Filipino Students that was connected to the community outside of San Francisco State, the community I grew up in.
AS: How does gender play out in the work that you do?
JS: In the San Francisco Bay Area, the vast majority of working class are women. In the healthcare industry, a lot of caregivers are women. They tend to be older women in their 50s or 60s and they also tend to be immigrants from Philippines. You can’t tackle the class question or any question of inequality without also tackling the gender question and fighting for women’s rights and liberation. San Francisco is a very polarized city. Many people call it an hourglass class structure. It has a lot of rich at the top, barely any middle class, and a lot of poor at the bottom. Most of those poor who are workers and face the brunt of illegal wages and long hours are women. You have to recognize that gender plays an extremely important role in the organizing of the working class. If you don’t, you’re not going to be successful in having systemic change that will help women, immigrants and the working class gain a better foothold in this society.
AS: What kind of work is SFCHRP doing right now to address these issues?
JS: We’ve been doing organizing work back and forth between here and the Philippines. There was recently a political prisoners tour that just happened in SF. The main speaker was Tita Angie Ibon. She was member of the National Democratic Front in the Philippines. She was illegally arrested and was the oldest political prisoner to be released. Linking human rights work in the Philippines with work here, women’s liberation is front and center. In the Philippines, there’s a huge civil war going on between the communist New People’s Army and the reactionary Philippines’ government. Women tend to face the brunt of counterinsurgency programs, which are funded by the U.S. army. [Women are] the ones who are targeted. This goes back to the days of the HMB (Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan), which was the communist insurgency in the 1940s and 50s. The Philippines’ national police force and army would go into towns and the first people they would arrest were women because they were the backbone of the communist insurgency–that tends to be the case today. The Philippines’ government will target women on purpose especially in a country that is still semi-feudal. There’s a lot of attitudes against women that they face and are fighting against.
Through SOMCAN, we’re fighting policies of gentrification and displacement [here in San Francisco] that the city’s been doing for 30 years. Women are the main organizers for that. It’s usually immigrant and working class women that are facing the brunt of city policies pushing them and their families out.
AS: What does feminism mean to you?
JS: The main thing it means is liberation. You can’t separate working class policies from women’s liberation. If you start to separate that, you’re not really liberating the working class because you’re missing more than half of the population. There’s a lot of forms of petit bourgeois feminism, just concerned with equal rights issues and not necessarily concerned with liberation issues or organizing against the capitalist system. If you separate feminism from immigrant politics, then you’re not helping anyone but the petit bourgeois, usually white women.
AS: Who are some of your heroines?
JS: One would be Lorena Barros. She was the founder of MAKIBAKA in the Philippines back in the late 1960s. It was an underground revolutionary women’s organization that was fighting for the national democratic revolution. She was focused specifically on women’s liberation but also within the context of the revolution to overthrow oppressive feudal systems in the Philippines which affected peasants, which obviously affected women, and to overthrow the exploitative capitalist system in the Philippines. She was a true heroine because she actually did action on the ground. She wasn’t necessarily doing speaking tours or writing books. She wrote great stuff but she was also a true revolutionary. She saw she needed to take arms to free women in her country. She ended up being a key figure in the New People’s Army. She ended up being killed and ambushed by government troops. She was 27 or 28 when she was killed. She’s one of the main heroines that figures prominently in the work that I do.
Another heroine is Mairéad Farrell. She was a key figure in the Irish revolution. She ended up being arrested for her work in the provisional Irish Republican Army. While she was in prison in Ireland, because the north is still occupied by British troops, she was one of the key leaders in the dirty protests. A lot of us hear about Bobby Sands and about a lot of the men in the hunger strike and dirty protests, but the women’s wing of the IRA prisoners were also dirty protesters and hunger strikers. She ended up being released sometime in the mid-1980s. She continued to do work for the IRA. She too was murdered, by British SAS agents around 1988 or ’89 when she was on an IRA mission in Gibraltar. The British state found her very threatening. Those two sum up how I feel about heroines. They’re people who do boots on the ground action.
AS: So what’s it like living with two feminist bloggers?
JS: It’s hella fun because you and Jos are hella cool people. We get to nerd out over feminist theory as well as hella dumb pop culture stuff like Mad Men. That’s our big nerd-out moment. Living with two feminist bloggers is the shit.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one drink, one food and one feminist. What do you pick?
JS: One drink? It’d be coffee. I need that working the graveyard shift. I’ve been working graveyard for 5 years now. I survive on coffee because I usually get five hours of sleep a night. One food? Ravioli. There’s pictures of me as a baby, like 1 year old, eating ravioli. It’s always been my favorite. One feminist? I’ll bring YenYen because she’s really entertaining.