A Conversation with Jennifer Esteen, Vice President of organizing for SEIU 1021- Part 1
Jennifer Esteen led a movement to save 41 permanent beds from being taken away from mentally ill people.to share her powerful story as a Black, masculine of center, gay woman who started organizing in her role as a registered nurse working with mentally ill and homeless people in San Francisco. She
Jennifer moved to the East Bay in 2003 from New Orleans and has lived in Ashland, CA with her wife and children since 2015. She is a dedicated public servant, social justice advocate and a former psychiatric nurse for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. In December 2019, Jennifer was selected to serve as Vice President of Organizing for SEIU 1021.
Transcribed from a recorded conversation between Seth Pinckney, Member Coordinator Action Builder, and Jennifer Esteen, VP Organizing SEIU 1021
Seth: Hi Jen! As I shared previously, Field Notes is a roundup of content intended for organizers, whether they work in politics, advocacy or obviously labor organizing. Our Action Builder toolset is designed in partnership with the AFL-CIO. My goal with writing Field Notes, and connecting with organizers like yourself, is to capture the stories of how people got started in organizing and to learn more about the campaigns they are leading today.
In conversation, we like to learn about their path into organizing and their thoughts on sustainability as organizers. I’m trying to understand what you do to keep going from day to day, and what are your steps and advice for other organizers who are trying to do the good work and hard work of organizing.
We can start there. This is pretty informal, and I know some things have changed since the last time we talked. Can you give me an update?!
Jennifer: All right, cool. So since we last spoke, I've been officially installed as the Vice President of Organizing for SEIU 1021. I just got back in town late last night from my first international executive board meeting. I met a lot of people who work through SEIU International, and they were from Puerto Rico, Canada and from all over the country. It was really cool to see the diversity of the group. You know, there's a lot of color. That was really awesome to experience. I've also since joined Emerge California. I’ve had the chance to spend my first weekend with Emerge, which is an organization that helps self-identified Democratic women prepare to run for office in California.
Seth: Those are some big and exciting updates. Very cool, tell me more.
Jennifer: Well, the Emerge family is rather special. Stacey Abrams from Georgia is an Emerge alum, the mayor of San Fran, London Breed, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf are both Emerge alums. Emerge has about a 70% win rate when people have gone to their training. And, you know, I don't know if you're familiar with some of the first. There are so many firsts. The first Afghan woman elected to office was in Hayward. She was elected to the city council. Hayward's right next door to where I live in San Leandro. She is also an Emerge alum and her name is Aisha Wahab and she's a real progressive. So there's a lot of strong women that come out of Emerge. And I'm hoping to be one of them.
I was also appointed to the Eden Area Municipal Advisory Council, which is an unincorporated area of Alameda County. It’s an area that is more brown, more black, more working class. One of the things about unincorporated areas is that they are not rural areas by any means. Definitely all city. But what that means is usually they are not part of the city for a myriad of reasons. Let me be frank, if you're an unincorporated area, you don't have representation, and when you often don't have representation, you are left behind.
As part of the advisory council, those are the areas that I represent. I have a total of 69,000 constituents who were previously unrepresented, except by the board of supervisors. In comparison, Alameda county has like a five billion dollar budget, and has, I think, 14 different cities and six or seven unincorporated areas. We're talking about a really big population, I think it is more than 2 million. When you have a county that size, how are you supposed to pay attention to these tiny little unincorporated areas? So representation is really key.
One of the things I discovered in our first council meeting last month was that there's an economic development agency that represents our unincorporated area and they were helping to build 200 new units of housing, which is rather amazing. But none of those units have a consideration for affordability. And in the Bay Area, we've been struggling with homelessness. For example, in San Francisco, we’ve got 17,000 homeless people. In Oakland, there's like 8,000 homeless people, and in all the neighboring towns, homelessness is a super huge issue.
Seth: You know, the common perspective on that we share, because recently I've been doing some reading about the black women organizing around housing in Oakland.
Jennifer: Yeah, Moms for Housing.
Seth: Yeah, that's something I want to dig into. Please share more insight.
Jennifer: Housing is a major issue. You know, initially when I started really digging into my activism, it was about housing for people with severe mental illness in San Francisco. It's difficult to witness the construction of homes that have no consideration for deep, deep affordability. Everybody says we have a crisis of building, and so the beautiful sounding thing is that we're building new units. But it's not about the number of homes that we need to build in Oakland, because right now there are four vacant units for every one homeless person. Isn't that wild?
Seth: Completely, and I think that's reflected across the country. But this is so resonant in your area. Just because there's such an abundance of wealth, that what’s happening with housing does not make sense at all.
Jennifer: Right. Right. It doesn't make sense. And it’s true, we have such a concentration of wealth here. We have the most billionaires in the world living in the Bay Area. There's like 79 billionaires living in the Bay Area, and 40 of them live in San Francisco. To have that much concentrated wealth and then have 17,000 people sleeping on the streets in the same exact seven by seven square mile city, it just doesn't make sense.
Seth: It's a crime.
Jennifer: It is a crime. So to not have policy in my home, in my area, that doesn’t consider affordability, I feel like that is going to be a major priority to get this unincorporated area to always think about affordability in construction moving forward. I mean, it would be a dream to have socialist housing where we really do mixed income the right way, and a sliding scale rent and mortgage considerations. It would be a dream to have real socialist housing.
I'm going to push really hard to try to get on the agenda some considerations from the planning department and some education. I want to try to get them to come out and make a presentation to the community about zoning rights, land use and what it takes to build. Because, unfortunately, we just gave the community this wonderful gift of two hundred units of housing that no one can afford.
Seth: So obviously you are incredibly busy right now, and it sounds like you're onboarding to several different and important roles in your community. I'd love to know more about any initiatives that are coming in your work that folks should be aware of?
Jennifer: Absolutely. I'm working now as the Vice President of Organizing for SEIU 1021. We cover everything from San Francisco all the way up to the Oregon border. So we have a huge area in northern California. We cover San Francisco, Alameda County, Contra Costa County, and because of that, it is allowing me to have a really expansive view of the world that we currently exist within. And I think that the next big action is going to be about juvenile justice reform. We are fortunate that in San Francisco we recently elected a new D.A., Chesa Boudin, who is a revolutionary unto himself. He's only been in office for about three weeks, and within his first week, he removed cash bail.
Seth: Now, that's action!
Jennifer: That is action. You know, and luckily, before he came into office, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors were very fortunate to also have some real progressive people there. They made a decision, along with the community, to close juvenile hall in San Francisco and that is going to take place at the end of 2021. So we have two years between now and then to figure out what is going to be the difference in juvenile justice. I think that we have an opportunity to make revolutionary change. We have a chance to create something that heals young people and that gives them a pathway to a great life if we can totally dismantle the school to prison pipeline as it is in the city of San Francisco.
My hope is to partner with institutions that are already doing the work, like The W. Haywood Burns Institute, which has been doing this kind of juvenile justice reform law for many years. I believe that we can take a regional approach to juvenile justice reform and begin working with the labor unions.
Because there is a big argument that typically gets in the way of criminal justice reform, which is what are we going to do about people's economic stability? We have to recognize that the racial injustices that created the school to prison pipeline and the economic injustices that created prison as the sole or main source of good and decent wages for people in communities, overlap. That economic justice and racial justice go hand in hand. So as someone in the labor movement, what a revolutionary idea it can be to say that our jobs might be tied into this criminal justice system, but they don't have to be.
And our young people who have been caught up in this criminal justice system can become contributing working people, union members, who have good skills and earn good wages. So if there's a way for labor to make sure that the current workforce still has work to do so that they can support their family, and that the people who are formerly incarcerated have some work to do so that they can provide for their family, and if the school system is a part of the training grounds instead of part of the pipeline to prison, then I think we have a real avenue for major change. And it's all happening. We have a path in San Francisco.
I hope that as a person organizing in labor, as an officer of the union, that we can be part of the driving force to change the face of what our future looks like because our future is brown. The majority of the people in the world are black and brown people. And all the things that are going wrong in this country are centralized around keeping a white majority, which is not going to happen anyway, because even if nobody else comes to this country, simply by way of birth rate, this country will no longer be a white majority in 10 or 15 years.
Seth: You're exactly right. In California, where you are, isn’t that the case already?
Jennifer: Yes, exactly right.Seth: It's inspiring, and as I’ve shared with you before, that the more progressive places, typically on the coasts, often set the blueprint for what other states can use as an example for their communities. For example, instead of building these quote unquote, juvenile justice centers, I'd like to see them be dismantled. While also coming up with and implementing ways to protect and cultivate our young people no matter where they live. And also, like you said, for folks that are making their livelihoods off that system, creating a path to less harmful means of employment.
Be sure to check out Part 2 of our conversation, where we dig deeper into questions about race and labor organizing, the future of work, and Jennifer's advice for people starting on their path to organizing in the next Field Notes.