As vice president of strategy and senior counsel at Free Press and Free Press Action Fund, Jessica J. González helps lead the charge to transform media and realize a just society.
Ford: What keeps you up at night?
Jessica J. González: I worry about the state of dialogue between people and how we’re communicating with and connecting to one another – or not – Media and technology play a powerful role in that. I’m a mom. It’s a hard moment to be a parent to young children and to try to explain the hate and racism that’s rearing its ugly head, and to explain that in the historical context of racism in media that goes back to before our nation’s founding. I worry about the collapse of kindness and caring for our neighbors, and what that will mean for our kids.
So where do you see technology playing a role, encouraging civility and connection?
The open internet can flip that script because it allows people of color to speak out and in our own words. The media has been in the hands of a privileged few throughout the nation’s history and has been weaponized against people of color.
But the open internet has in many ways democratized speech. It’s critically important that our internet service providers do not block, discriminate against content, prioritize content, slow us down, etc. It is important for communities of color to share our own stories without gatekeepers, with low barriers to entry, but also for us to start small businesses and to organize on behalf of our communities.
At Free Press, we support everyone’s unfettered right to get on the internet. And we also believe that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have a responsibility to not amplify trolls and bots who are online with the core purpose of promoting hate, racism and division.
How did you get into this work?
As a kid I wanted to be a journalist but I grew disenchanted with the field once I learned more about pervasive sexism and racism in the industry. In law school I got a fellowship with the Media Access Project, which was doing public interest work in the communications law sector. I fell in love with the idea that you could transform media and journalism with law and policy.
After law school, I became a teaching fellow at Georgetown Law. We were working on diversifying broadcast media ownership. When I was there, I met the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which had a campaign against hate speech in media. I started doing pro bono legal work for that campaign and found my passion, which I continue to work towards today at Free Press.
What do you wish you had known starting out that you know today?
To trust yourself and follow your heart. I did a lot of sitting back and listening for the first few years. I was not someone who came into the field and had a million ideas that I was willing to share. I was nervous. It was a very white-dominated space. It was a very male-dominated space. I had to unlearn things I learned in law school. Law school teaches you how to analyze and argue, but it sometimes makes you forget common sense.
What were some unexpected obstacles you came upon in your professional path?
Radical, transformative work on race and technology requires risk taking, and sometimes pushing policy wonks out of their comfort zones. In politics, it’s easier to block something than to create something. And when we see racism in media and tech, there’s not a lot we can do as a legal matter. So we have to get creative. We have to build power. We have to mobilize folks to speak out for what they want. That can be hard. That involves introducing ideas and projects that are ‘not politically feasible.’ But we can’t wait for feasible. Sometimes we have to go for it.
What’s the most exciting thing about the growth of public interest technology?
The fact that last year we passed a bill to reinstate Net Neutrality through the United States Senate, which was a Republican majority, speaks a lot to the power of people to have their voices heard. That didn’t happen because we had a bunch of slick lobbyists. That happened because people spoke out and called their member of Congress. That, to me, is the most exciting thing about expansion of the field: the ability of the people to truly inform policy.
To what extent do you feel that, because you are Latina in a field that’s mostly white and mostly male, that you have an extra responsibility to your community of origin?
I worry about this often. It’s challenging being the only Latina in elite rooms. At the same time, I’m a lawyer. I’m middle class. I’m white passing. There’s a ton of privilege wrapped up in that. I take very seriously my responsibility to make sure that other people can be in those spaces to speak for themselves. Black and brown unity is critical. Uplifting Black and Native women, in particular, is one of my goals.
I’ve come to understand that it’s my job to ensure that I’m not being asked to speak for others or being tokenized in any way, while also standing in my power and speaking my truth.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jessica is one of the Public Interest Tech voices we’ll be hearing from as part of this series over the next few weeks. Join us as we speak to thought leaders and discover their unique paths.