An interview with Jessica Xie, Chairman for the City of Pasadena's Human Services Commission by Elizabeth Harris
Activist, Community Leader, and Entrepreneur, Jessica Xie is a proponent of equality and inclusivity in her community and everywhere she goes. When the pandemic hit, Jessica stepped in to support the homeless and the Black Lives Matter movement. I spoke with Jessica about her passions and activism during the pandemic.
Jessica, you do a lot. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I wear a lot of hats. I am a Business Information Security Officer (BISO) for a large financial institution, and I also serve as the Chair for the City of Pasadena’s Human Services Commission. As a BISO, I help shape our global cyber strategy and ensure it is integrated back into the business. In my capacity as a Commissioner, I help bridge the gap in equity, diversity, and inclusion for the City’s human services, which impact the unhoused, foster care youth, and other vulnerable population groups within the City.
Due to the global pandemic, we are focused on our homeless population because CDC regulations have led many homeless shelters to reduce their bed size--some by 70%. I’m working to make sure those displaced by COVID-19 are not forgotten and properly cared for.
I am weary to call myself an activist because I know activists who do incredible work. I graciously accept being put in this category, but do not feel worthy of the honor. I do my best to educate my community, so in turn, they can educate theirs. I firmly believe you change the world by changing the world around you.
You’ve spoken a lot about how your background has influenced this passion for activism, raising social issues, and equity. Can you tell us about that? You are a great example of a fighter!
I am a first-generation American, but in another life, I would have been fourth-generation. It was due to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that my great grandmother was wrongly deported to China, a country she’s never been to. In one fell swoop, she lost her home, life, and friends, and was forced to start anew in a foreign land. It wasn’t until 40 years later after the act was repealed that my grandmother was able to reclaim her citizenship and immigrate her family back to the US. I was raised in a Chinese household in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood with gang-presence. The Christmases we didn’t celebrate at home, I spent drinking champurrado and playing Loteria with my friends and their family. And although I embraced their culture, they didn’t always embrace mine. My friends were often the same people who put me down because of my ethnicity.
I grew up ashamed to be Chinese—ostracized even. From the eye-tugging and name-calling to ignorant questions like if I ate dog, being Chinese became very inconvenient. On top of going to school, being a first-generation meant being the family correspondent, test prep tutor, translator, and secretary—all at the young age of 9. Because immigration policies taught us to assimilate, I grew resentful towards my family for not learning English, not realizing they didn’t have the time or resources to learn a new language while juggling multiple jobs to put food on the table.
Because of the model minority myth, where Asians are perceived and expected to be perfect, there was very little room to ask for help. At 10, I started my first graphic and web design business to help pay the bills. The idea that Asian Americans are monolithic, well-educated, and successful in nature is detrimental to society. There are a host of disparities within the Asian community that many overlook, but many use our perceived success to drive a wedge between other racial and ethnic minority groups.
Because of this myth, I was always given the benefit of the doubt in school. I saw the system work for me in ways it didn’t work for my peers. They were targeted, marginalized, and funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These families are similar to mine with histories of poverty, abuse, and neglect, who would have benefited from additional educational and counseling services, but instead, were isolated, punished, and pushed out.
Over the years, more and more of my peers would go missing, and I wouldn’t know if they were missing because they didn’t want to be found or if they were in jail—that is a closure many friends and families don’t get. This is one of the reasons why stewardship is so dear to my heart.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take all those lessons and channel them into creating equity for others.
You are engaged in a lot of community work. When the pandemic hit, what happened to all those groups? How did you adapt?
When the pandemic hit, the first people I thought of were families that depended on schools for meals. Many depend on schools to provide shelter, meals, and other resources that they may not have otherwise. I grew up depending on free lunch as well, so I understand first-hand how difficult it may be. Once the pandemic hit, I reached out to local service providers and the local school district’s Director of Health Programs to ensure those needs were still being met.
I was also reaching out to seniors and registered them to Great Plates, a state program that provides three meals a day for California’s older adults. In addition to that, I reached out to my community and offered to grocery shop for those who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19.
Aside from that, I wanted to ensure, again, that our homeless population had somewhere to go. Not only was I working with our Commission’s school district appointee, but I was also reaching out to our local shelters because many have had to reduce their bed size by 60-70%. Paired with the economic downturn and folks already living at or below poverty, it’s the perfect storm. We are going to see a significant increase in the homeless population.
Some experts predict as many as 250,000 will become homeless. That’s why these eviction moratoriums are so important. That’s why these local, state, and federal programs are so critical to our communities. That’s why we need to be more engaged in politics and stay informed.
You’ve been active in supporting the Black Lives Matter group and getting information out to your community of COVID 19 during the pandemic. What are some of the things you have achieved that you are proud of?
Hands down, it would be education. There are so many significant moments in history that are left out of history books, and it’s our responsibility to teach ourselves and actively seek the truth. There are folks that argue, “Slavery was over a 100 years ago and we shouldn’t have to pay for the wrongdoings of our ancestors.” To those critics, I ask what are you doing now that creates a better system? How are you using your privilege to create equity for others?
Society has targeted, marginalized, and exploited the black community for centuries. Listen to the pioneers of hip hop. That genre served as a vehicle for social protest. Listen to the lyrics.
The vernacular used and imagery lyricized exposes daily struggles in underserved communities. They are calling out for help. How many artists have you heard reflect on doing time in exchange for their family?
That’s a system that we created. That’s a system everyone needs to come to terms with and really understand, so we can move forward collectively.
With respect to Black Lives Matter, how many people were killed after George Floyd? Because he certainly wasn’t the last. We are in the middle of a modern-day civil war. The list did not start with George or Breonna or Dominique Fells and Riah Milton, but it needs to end now.
Educating my community has been so fulfilling, but the path forward is on all of us. It starts with challenging what you know, becoming more civically engaged, educating not only yourself but your family and friends. This is something we need to do together; this is on all of us.
What are some of the issues you are passionate about?
Everyone should have the resources to achieve the American Dream. As a global leader, we need to take responsibility for the impact we have on the world and denounce policies that are detrimental to society like the profiteering of punishment and criminalization of poverty. Some issues I am fighting for:
Universal Healthcare. Americans should not be denied healthcare because we put them in a system where they cannot afford it.
Clean Energy. Renewable energy is not only more efficient, resilient, and reliable, but it also improves human health by providing better air quality. If we do not take care of the Earth, there will be no Earth to inhabit.
Eradicating Homelessness. There are an estimated 553,742 people in the United States experiencing homelessness on any given night. We have work to do (e.g. housing first; affordable, bridge, and low-income housing)
Education Reform. Trump started a culture war by exploiting the fact that we, as a nation, do not have the same baseline of facts. “Those who do not learn history are destined to repeat it.”
Criminal Justice Reform. We need a system founded on accountability, rehabilitation, and restorative justice.
We need to start thinking about the future and be proactive instead of reactive. What kind of example do we want to be for others? What space do we want to create for our grandchildren? What possibilities do we want to make available for future generations?
How can we support you, your work, your initiatives?
Follow my journey on Instagram @jessxie. My goal has always been to empower folks to make positive contributions to their community. You have so much potential to make a difference. Nobody knows your community better than you.
If there is an issue that concerns you or needs to be brought to attention, feel free to reach out to me. I would love to learn more and connect you to the right resources. Everybody’s story is important.
Are there any groups, charities, or organizations you would like to give a shoutout to?
Shoutout to all the citizen journalists who risk their lives to expose the truth behind what’s going on in our streets; the protestors who show up every single day to fight for their rights; the folks who educate their community and mobilize them into action.
Shoutout to Black Wealth Matters, which is an educational series put together by my friend Serria Rego. She’s put together a great group of industry experts, from various walks of life, to talk about issues that impact black wealth. From race and politics to educational activism, this is a series I encourage everyone to check out. For more information, visit @BWMseries on Instagram.
Keep up to date with Jessica’s work by following her @jessxie on Instagram.