Taking Social Activism on the Road
By: Jenny Chen
One road closed, and another opens. Recently, my brother Jack and I reluctantly ended the publication of JJ Express Magazine, after a good run of nearly ten years. This year, we won a grant from the Davis Projects for Peace to go on a road trip this summer across the United States, telling kids our story and encouraging them to start their own projects.
We proposed to travel the country to the states with the lowest rates of youth volunteerism and conduct interactive workshops to show them how it was possible to do what you do for fun to make a difference in the community. We would walk them through potential obstacles and how to overcome them.
But most of all, we would offer what has been the most valuable thing that I have received from my experience at JJ Express Magazine as an “accidental” social activist – a sense of belonging to a community.
We want to help youth leverage their local community as a resource. We want to encourage them to strengthen their communities by being a rallying point through their change-making projects. And we want to connect them to a sense of the wider change-making community: strangers all around the world who are willing to reach out a hand and stand shoulder to shoulder to better our lives together.
We invite you to follow us on our road trip at www.wewerehere.blog.com. We will also launch a video web community featuring youth from the road trip at www.peacewashere.org in September.
JJ Express Magazine
About ten years ago, we started JJ Express Magazine as a series of magazine covers filled with interesting quotes and fun facts.
We posted the cover every month in the lobby of our apartment complex much to the delight of our mailman who said it was a welcome respite from his rounds. Later, I aspired to create a more hefty publication and we copied out a four-page newsletter of movie local and classroom news by hand. We distributed the publication to our friends and teachers. But I didn’t know that my dream of creating a magazine like American Girl or Cricket would catapult me into a world that I hadn’t previously known.
In 2005, we found a granting organization called Youth Venture which gave start up grants of up to $1,000 to youth starting community service projects. Our magazine idea wasn’t yet a community service project, but the prospect of funding was too good to pass up.
We tweaked our idea to utilize both our passions – art and writing to create a magazine that used comics to talk to kids about social issues. Whether we knew it or not, social issues had already become part of the fabric of our lives. We knew what discrimination was since we lived it daily as part of our Asian American experience, and my mother was educated in Germany, where she learned the eco-responsibility that she instilled in us.
Our curiosity and sense of responsibility urged us to look further and more deeply at the social issues present in our society. At the same time, we didn’t want to fall into the trap so many adults did when talking with our age group about social responsibility – preachiness.
We were sick of required student service learning. We were sick of boring, abstract words like poverty, animal rights, etc. We were tired of seeing statistics and having newspapers thrust at us. In fact, the only thing I ever read of the newspaper as a high schooler was the comics section. Why not use comics then to talk about social issues in a fun and approachable way – a way that we and our peers, understood?
Youth Venture loved the idea. In May 2005 they sent us a $1,000 check. They called us “change-makers” and “social entrepreneurs.” I had no idea what those words meant but it sounded cool anyway. I was asked to help build their website community for other youth activists. I sat on the selection panel for teams that applied for funding and I was invited to speak at their Youth Summit in the summer of 2008.
Our first issue of JJ Express came out in August 2005. The cover featured a cerulean dragon with a mischievous smile, diving for a shining ball of light at the bottom of the ocean. It was illustrated by Alexis Cala, a graduate student at the Academy of Art University who had allowed us to use her artwork.
There would be many people like Alexis – Lacey Louwagie, then the managing editor at New Moon Magazine who became our mentor, local students who participated in our editorial panels and gave their feedback to help put together the magazine, and hundreds of artists who volunteered their time to illustrate the comics that we came up with.
There was Therese from the Philippines who illustrated a Manga style comic about Karen Carpenter’s fatal battle with her eating disorder, Anais from France, who maintained a comic series called Katrina about a fun loving but spoiled girl who still has to encounter things like a dirty neighborhood stream.
Our goal was to include as many different styles of artwork and topics in our magazine as possible and the amount of different people we met through this endeavor was dizzying. But one thing was common among all these people – they all wanted to help to make social issues part of the mainstream dialogue.
And that was what social activism began to mean to me. Not some distant, abstract idealization of peace. Not politicians shaking hands and smiling for the camera. Not even people marching and waving flags. It was the community that mattered most to me. The people who, regardless of background, age, or interests, somehow bump shoulders and come together. I hadn’t set out to be a social activist. I just wanted to start a magazine. But somehow I had found my way into the arms of strangers who held out a helping hand to make this world a better place.
Of course, for every Alexis, Therese, and Lacey, there were the naysayers. An executive director at a local arts organization misled us to print an issue of our magazine to raise money for her failing organization and as a promotion for her husband’s newly launched farmer’s market.
We were only able to halt printing at the last minute when I realized what the plans were for the magazine, but not before we had to suffer a severe setback – our magazine printing for the Fall 2008 issue was pushed back indefinitely, while we scrambled to reorganize and we had to keep subscribers waiting. Others who didn’t see us as a group of youth to exploit just dismissed us entirely. We were laughed out of offices. Our emails were ignored. Others told us that we were wasting our time.
A Good Run
JJ Express had a good life. Throughout the course of its run we published quarterly issues for three years and many readers told us they enjoyed reading the comics and learning new things. We were honored with grants and awards from Best Buy @15 Foundation, Disney, and America’s Alliance for Dropout Prevention. But most importantly, we worked with hundreds of artists who would sit at their computer half way across the world working feverishly while we were at our computer in Rockville, Maryland trying to make deadline.
Still, by the fall of 2009, I sat Jack down for a talk. We were spending close to $1,000 to print 500 copies. Our five-year projection told us that we would soon be spending more time raising money than creating the magazine. So we decided to put it to rest.
It felt like I was murdering my baby. The magazine that my brother and I had worked on for close to ten years was about to fold. And I was going to be the one to pull the plug.
“I just don’t feel like it’s sustainable anymore,” I told my brother, Jack. “How expensive is it to print full-color? How many trees are we killing with every printing?” Jack sat in the office swivel chair where we had planned many issues of JJ Express Magazine to make deadline, with his head in his hands and an expression of one who’s just had a plunger pulled in his gut. The color had drained from his face.
I knew how he felt. I was right there with him in that whirlpool of flushing emotions…
For many months, whenever anyone asked, I would lie and tell them that JJ Express was still going on. I was too ashamed to see disappointment on their faces and failure written across my forehead. I didn’t clean out our old JJ Express things, which at this point had taken over my bedroom, sprawling under my bed and covering my bookcase. Cleaning would make things too final and looking at our old comics, birthed from our minds and brought to life by our artists and readers would be too sad.
Jack didn’t have any tolerance for this. “But it’s not a failure,” he said when I was about to send an email to an old advisor about how JJ Express was still doing wonderfully. “Being a social entrepreneur means knowing when to stop. It means knowing when to move on and be flexible.” What was he saying? That I hadn’t failed as a social activist? That starting and ending JJ Express Magazine had been the right thing to do?
Indeed, he was right about moving on. Doubtless, JJ Express Magazine was a beginning, not an end. It was not about a door closing, but about opening doors. In a large measure, thanks to JJ Express Magazine, we won the grant from the Davis Projects for Peace to go on a road trip this summer.