Jacob Sutherland of Catalyst: “Motivation ”

Motivation — In order to become a change maker, you need to have the motivation and drive to pursue the change you are trying to make. Often, change requires a lot of persistence because the issues we want to address are so complex. For me, having a strong sense of motivation has been the guiding sentiment for […]

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Motivation — In order to become a change maker, you need to have the motivation and drive to pursue the change you are trying to make. Often, change requires a lot of persistence because the issues we want to address are so complex. For me, having a strong sense of motivation has been the guiding sentiment for my pushes to increase voter turnout. Throughout my undergrad career, I motivated myself to encourage my peers to vote by setting goals for myself to stay on track, including setting out to host a voter appreciation breakfast in 2018, using my platform as The UCSD Guardian to provide voter resources to the student body, and checking in with friends several months before each election to ensure that they were all registered and ready to go.

As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacob Sutherland.

Jacob Sutherland is the editor for District One Agency, a writer at Catalyst, and a Substack columnist with PC Princess. He writes about politics, social justice, and local issues. Jacob graduated from the University of California, San Diego in 2020 with a B.A. in Political Science, and will begin graduate studies for a PhD in American Politics at the University of California, Irvine in Fall 2021.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

Thank you so much for reaching out to have this conversation today. I spent the majority of my childhood, up until I moved to California for undergrad, living in Wheaton, Illinois. My family has always been supportive of me — attending Irish dance rehearsals and allowing me to participate in protests and political rallies throughout the Chicagoland area — but I cannot say the same for my community. Growing up as the only out-gay kid in my high school class in a city which prides itself on having the second most churches per capita of any city in the US, I did not make many friends simply because I was viewed as an “outsider” for my sexuality. That said, I do have a lot of great memories from my childhood, and some of my closest friends I have today are from Wheaton.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Yes to both! Good and Mad — The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister is a book I have carried with me wherever I have moved for a number of years now. A friend had recommended me Rebecca’s book, and I found her discussion on the history of women using their anger as fuel for political change, ranging from suffragist marches to the White House to the #MeToo movement, to be really revealing for how folks from any marginalized background can center their frustrations and anger to create tangible change through a common sense of community.

As an undergrad at UCSD, in my specific college I was required to take the Dimensions of Culture curriculum, also known as DOC. Throughout this year-long writing program, students study issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, culminating in an end-of-the-year project where students research ways to combat an inequality they see on the UCSD campus. But DOC is more than just a writing course series — the program offers students a number of opportunities both on an off campus to combat bigotry and help expand equity within their own community. As a freshman, the DOC program was honestly one of the most impactful organizations I have ever crossed paths with. The coursework gave me a very comprehensive understanding of past and present inequities in the US, and served as the base point from which I have continued my work in civics ever since.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

My work currently is spread out between three different areas: I am the editor for District One, a POC-led digital strategy agency partnering with brands who share our beliefs in sustainability, racial justice, and community, I am a staff writer for Catalyst, an online journalism platform of activists and travelers which shares global events, world cultures, destinations, and social causes, and I run the Substack column PC Princess, which analyzes niche political issues through a social justice lens. Likewise, I previously served as News Editor for The UCSD Guardian up until I graduated in June, 2020.

Through all of these roles, I strive to center my work around social and civic equity. As News Editor, I facilitated collaborations with the U.S. Census Bureau to create a bilingual guide to the 2020 Census, hosted interviews with local elected officials and medical professionals to discuss COVID-19 safety, and created a number of voter resources. Currently, through my writing I work to highlight areas of inequity around the globe, as well as spotlight folks working to combat inequity. I’ve recently covered neocolonialism in the 21st century, highlighted inequities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution around the globe, analyzed modern day slavery, discussed the pandemic in terms of the United States’ colonialist history, and interviewed a number of folks working in the sustainable volunteer travel sector. All of this work is done with the goal to shed light on inequities that folks may be unfamiliar with, and to create a dialogue on how to make the world a more equitable place.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

My passion for using writing as a means of change stems from my involvement in political activism throughout high school. Following the end of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, I attended the inaugural People’s Summit that year in Chicago. During a session on civic responsibility, journalist Nomiki Konst said: “If you see stories going untold in your communities, its your job as an engaged citizen to go out and tell them.” That message really struck me — having grown up in a community with such a strong hegemonic culture, the idea that I could go out and ensure everyone’s lived experiences were valid in the eyes of broader society and the media really struck home. After the convention, I switched gears and applied to college for a major in Political Science, and in the meantime I joined my high school newspaper, both journeys I have continued throughout my undergrad years and beyond to this day.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I was at The UCSD Guardian, we had virtually no time to make the transition from in-person living, working, and playing to experiencing life in an entirely remote environment when the pandemic began in the US in March, 2020. We all were finishing up our final issue of Winter quarter, as well as studying for our final exams. This disruption forced the majority of us to leave San Diego and return home. Subsequently, we decided to do a series called “Quarantine Chronicles” where a member on our staff would take over our Instagram for a week to document their lives, and then at the end of the week they would publish a reflective essay. I took the first swing at this project, and this week in April, 2020 was honestly one of the most impactful that I have had throughout the pandemic. Really being forced to show readers both how far my imagination can stretch with limited options available as to what to do (at the time, my state was in virtually a complete lockdown) and having to open up about my relationship with Wheaton, a community I returned to, was for me a chance to be honest with myself, not only on that first week in quarantine, but also to reflect on my decision to go to UCSD in the first place. I also found that this week was one where I really got to connect with our readers, albeit virtually, in a manner that I had never been able to before.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

As I mentioned early, the DOC program at UCSD was very influential in my journey to promote social and civic equity through my work. The program itself is spearheaded by Dr. Amanda Solomon Amorao, a prolific researcher whose work includes focuses on US multiethnic literature, Asian American Studies, Filipino/a/x American cultural productions, critical race studies, decolonize group pedagogues, and women of color feminism.

Dr. Solomon was more than just my DOC lecturer — she was and still is an amazing role model who I look to for inspiration and insight on how we as individuals can do social justice better, and she is one of the people who inspired me to even pursue a PhD in the first place. I would not be the advocate for justice that I strive to be today if it were not for Dr. Solomon.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me, “making a difference” is rooted in the idea that no step forward is too small. Often, we get bogged down in trying to push for massive change at a wide-reaching level. I don’t say that to discount this form of change-making, as without it we would not have many of the social standards in place that we take for granted today. But I do think its important to make this distinction because it is so easy to give up on a cause when you reach for the biggest goals and they may not necessarily be within reach.

What I mean by no step forward being too small is that we also need to make change at a more personal level. In 2017, the library board of a community neighboring mine was set to vote on whether or not to ban an LGBTQ children’s book from their collection after a complaint had been filed by a parent. In what would have been a routine meeting turned into one of the first mass showings of support for the LGBTQ community within my home county — over 150 people showed up to voice their opinions, with the vast majority being in support of the book remaining in the library. Their support resulted in the board voting to retain the book.

While this may seem small (after all, it’s only a children’s book in one suburban library), this difference that these community members made in voicing their support spoke volumes to the LGBTQ community in the region, arguably serving as a catalyst for further LGBTQ inclusivity in the county, such as the first ever Pride parade in the region the following year and the inaugural Pride Week in my hometown in 2020.

No step forward is too small, because each step forward lays the groundwork for further progress towards justice and equity.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Motivation — In order to become a change maker, you need to have the motivation and drive to pursue the change you are trying to make. Often, change requires a lot of persistence because the issues we want to address are so complex. For me, having a strong sense of motivation has been the guiding sentiment for my pushes to increase voter turnout. Throughout my undergrad career, I motivated myself to encourage my peers to vote by setting goals for myself to stay on track, including setting out to host a voter appreciation breakfast in 2018, using my platform as The UCSD Guardian to provide voter resources to the student body, and checking in with friends several months before each election to ensure that they were all registered and ready to go.
  2. Education — Change is only as strong as the knowledge that supports it. I consciously will make an effort to remove myself from a movement or cause if I am too uneducated to make any meaningful contributions, and then take the time to seek out knowledge through academic and social resources. Throughout summer 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement, after attending several protests, I decided that I could make more of an impact by taking the time to educate myself (one book that specifically stuck out to me was Caste — The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson) and donate to organizations working directly on racial justice, rather than passively protesting or wasting time tweeting. With the information I gained through taking the time to educate myself (a continual process that I don’t believe ever ends), I have been able to better support the BLM movement through the organizations I donate to, sub-causes I actively support, and through the work I do as a writer.
  3. Attention to Detail — Because change is so complex and requires a good deal of knowledge in order to be lasting, maintaining a high standard of attention to detail is crucial. This is especially true given how easy it is for social movements to be forgotten or disregarded simply because of a few small mistakes. As News Editor for The UCSD Guardian, I was especially cognizant of details when we transitioned to our virtual environment due to the pandemic and were publishing informative pieces on the virus. This attention to detail was crucial, because in order to convince folks to follow health and safety guidelines, we first had to make sure that the information we were publishing was as accurate and up-to-date as possible.
  4. Organization — If I could emphasize one thing and one thing only from this entire interview, it would be the importance of staying organized. And I think its important to separate this from the topic of maintaining a good level of attention to detail because organization is not solely tied to the details (although they are very important) — organization allows folks as change makers to maximize the impact of the change they are trying to make by allowing them to stay on top of everything that needs to be done across all degrees of detail. Last summer, two friends and I noticed that there had been no shows of support for the BLM movement in a neighboring community, so we decided to host a demonstration that would be part protest, part donation drive, and part petition drive. Because of how multifaceted this demonstration was going to be, we had to maintain high levels of organization when planning out the three different components to the demonstration, as well as in organizing folks to attend and making sure that we were following all local rules and regulations. This organization paid off, and we were able to have a successful demonstration which showed that the community stood in solidarity with the BLM movement.
  5. Patience — Change doesn’t happen overnight, and often it doesn’t even happen in our lifetimes. This fact can be discouraging for many. However, it is important to remain patient in the quest to change the issues you see in your community because the seeds you plant today, no matter how small they may be, will lay the groundwork for folks down the road to continue realizing your vision for a more perfect world. I am very aware that my Substack column, PC Princess, has a fairly small audience, and only garners a handful of clicks on social media. However, I remain patient and persistent in highlighting niche political issues which may have otherwise gone unnoticed through this column because I know that if I am even able to reach one person and have their opinion change to be more inclusive, then that person will be able to go on to their circles with this information, and subsequently to other circles until the change I advocate for in my column is realized. Slow and steady really does win the race.

What are the values that drive your work?

My education at UCSD was rooted in the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. These terms are often thrown around as buzzwords, which after a while causes them to lose their meaning. However, these principles at their core are the driving values for the work that I do. Whether you define your community to be as large as the world or as small as your neighborhood, diversity will always be present, and is something which should be celebrated. But to celebrate that, you must allow folks to feel included and ensure that everyone is allowed an equitable chance at success in life. It is very important to me to keep these principles in mind constantly, whether I’m working on a new article or writing post cards to get out the vote or fundraising for an important cause, because they are so vital to ensuring that our future is one rooted in justice for all.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

I’ve often struggled with staying grounded, not because I don’t have a good sense of what my purpose in life is, but because life itself can move so quickly that you struggle to catch your breath. Throughout undergrad, I was a full time student, worked close to full time at a local juice bar, and put in an ungodly amount of hours writing for The UCSD Guardian. There were many nights where I would come home exhausted and contemplate whether or not the culture of hustle that I had created for myself was really worth it.

What I found worked to re-center myself to continue achieving my goals and staying true to my purpose was honestly my small daily planner that I carried with me everywhere (I still use one daily). I would meticulously plan out all of my responsibilities each week for the various facets of my life, and then when possible, I would schedule time to remove myself from the world that was the “UCSD-Juice-Guardian” hustle and hop on a bus to explore new coffee shops. This gave me an opportunity to just zone out for a moment and give my mind a much needed break. After these short coffee excursions, I would return to my planner refreshed and ready to tackle the remaining tasks I had for that week.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

I am very concerned about the state of our world as it stands currently. Hate crimes are on the rise, efforts to disenfranchise folks are in full swing, and mental health is still heavily stigmatized (not to mention the pandemic’s end seems like nothing other than a fantasy). And with talks about returning to a sense of normalcy, both with the upcoming end to the pandemic and the current transition away from the last presidential administration, I worry that this new “normal” will look so much like the last “normal” that we collectively will make the same mistakes again that led us to the chaos we find ourselves in today.

My vision for the world is one where everyone is free to openly be their authentic selves, so long as their authentic self does not interfere with someone else’s authentic self. That does not mean that, for instance, gay people should not be allowed to get married because it “interferes” with the beliefs of certain circles of Christians (that is a falsehood, as whether or not someone gets married does not affect anyone other than the person getting married and their partner). Rather, it means that we would live in a world where hate crimes and hate speech are treated as what they are — bigotry. For far too long, we have allowed bigotry to go unchecked, and in my ideal world we would have mechanisms in place for accountability, as well as people in power who would be willing to use these mechanisms for accountability.

I don’t see my world vision as one rooted in cancel culture, but rather, one that is rooted in a culture of accountability. We owe it to those who have been wronged by the current system for far too long to push for this level of accountability for bigotry.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

Given my background in political science, I’m afraid my steps to bring my vision into reality are fairly unoriginal. I would first immediately enact into law the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the Equality Act, and the American Dream and Promise Act. These three pieces of legislation are currently bills in Congress, and if made law would make the right to vote a genuine reality for most, put folks in the LGBTQ community at an equal standing under the eyes of the law to the rest of the country, and finally allow DACA-recipients a genuine opportunity to get citizenship.

Going forward, I would use my resources to expand upon equity by making higher education and healthcare rights rather than privileges, and work to reinterpret the way we approach the issue of free speech. To me, it’s disturbing that we are one of the few nations in the Global North which does not allow for the banning of hate of any kind. We need to have mechanisms in place for accountability under the law for the hate one puts out towards other human beings, and I would hope that with my limitless resources, I would be able to make this accountability a reality.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

Empathy is something which I would like to think we as a society strive towards, but regardless of whether or not that is true, we do not do a good job at instilling this value in young people from a very young age. I truly believe that our education system must reimagine the way we approach history and the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Empathy can only come once one has a solid grounding in understanding why marginalization occurs, what privilege means, and how we can approach the world through an intersectional lens. I don’t proclaim to be an educator, but I would think that a good way to do this would be to start talking about inclusivity from a young age, and then every year after gradually add in further, more complex topics to develop a baseline standard of understanding for the world that is shared by everyone.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to make change. This thinking that I had to wait for someone to tell me that it was okay to break with the status quo and demand a better reality held me back for a long time, because there will honestly never be someone who can or will give you permission to try and break hegemony. This is something you yourself must recognize and do on your own. And don’t worry about standing out from the crowd — you’d be surprised at how many folks will join you in your fight for a more perfect world once you take the first step towards justice.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Rebecca Traister, without hesitation. As both an aspiring writer and an avid reader, Rebecca is truly someone who I continue to find inspiration through in every piece of writing of hers that I come across. I know earlier I mentioned her book, Good and Mad, as having made a significant impact on me. Other pieces of her writing that have been very inspiring to me that I would highly encourage those interested to check out include “The Birth of an Extraordinary Modern Progressive Movement,” “The Poison of Male Incivility,” and “Racism Doesn’t Blink,” all articles which can be found on The Cut.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

If folks reading at home are interested in keeping up with my writing, my column, PC Princess, is available for free on Substack. Likewise, I can be found on Twitter at @jacobsuther.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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