By Trish Fontanilla
If you saw last month’s Filipinos in Boston interview, Christine Leider gave you a small hint of who we’d be covering this month. Thanks for the segway, Christine!
I was trying to remember how I first heard about Jennifer “J.J.” Javier so that I could do a proper introduction, but honestly, I think we’ve just been on a mutual friend’s personal Filipino meetup list, and never actually crossed paths (besides me looking her up after the last event). So last week JJ and I finally jumped on the phone to chat, and well here’s about a half of what we talked about. Don’t be surprised if her name comes up again in future blog posts!
Where are you and your family from?
J.J.: I’m originally from Long Beach, California but my family moved around southern CA when I was growing up. So we lived in Long Beach for awhile, Riverside, and Irvine. However my parents are originally from the Philippines. My mom is from Manila, and my stepfather is from Cavite.
Where do you work and what do you do?
J.J.: I work at 826 Boston, which is a youth writing and publishing center that serves underserved students by empowering them to find their voices and tell their stories. This way we can really uplift marginalized stories and voices, and also support students in gaining key communication skills. I manage the volunteer program here, which is about 700 volunteers across our different programs. Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization, and do everything from tutoring to editing books to working on our physical space and more.
As I was researching you for this interview, I landed on your LinkedIn page and saw you had a degree in Criminology, Law, and Society. Can you walk me through a little of your journey, from getting a degree like that to moving into a program like City Year and then paving a path for yourself in nonprofits?
J.J.: I decided to study criminology, law, and society because I was very interested in social justice. I really wanted to provide a level playing field for those that don’t have access to the privileges that other people have. I really wanted to work in that realm very early on. My parents, however, had a very strict route for me. They wanted me to have a more traditional role like a nurse or a doctor, and if I wasn’t going into medicine I better be going into something equally prestigious. So for a really long time I thought, maybe I’ll be a lawyer or a forensics psychologist. Neither of those things really interested me, but those were professions that pleased my parents at the time. Criminology was the core of all that. I loved the major though, and I don’t regret taking those classes at all. But I realized in year 4 (of 5) that I didn’t want to become a lawyer, even though I was on track to becoming one. I had taken the LSATs. I started to get references for different law schools. And then I freaked out and realized I couldn’t spend 3 more years living out a dream that wasn’t my own. So I decided to apply for a gap year program. I had heard about different programs through school like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corp, and City Year. I applied to City Year and chose Boston because I had never been to Boston before, and it was the farthest away I could get from California without leaving the country. I had to distance myself from my parents and their dreams for me. When I got into the City Year program, I joined with very little support from my family. I thought I would get some congratulations, but my mom was livid when I got accepted. She asked me how I was going to pay for everything, but I managed. So I did a year of City Year with the little I had in savings, and I found that I really love working with youth and civic engagement. City Year is dedicated to civic engagement, and shaping youth to become civic leaders. I really latched onto that because I think there’s something really beautiful about community service. You don’t have to have a degree, or look a certain way. All of that doesn’t matter when you are volunteering, you know, when you’re deciding to reserve some of your time to help others. And serving others looks different to different people. It can be a formal thing like beautifying a park, or it could be bringing dinner for a friend that’s in the hospital. The idea of taking care of one another needs to be fostered more in youth, despite who you are, or whether or not you have a degree, despite whether or not you speak English, or you’re this race or that. I wanted to get to the heart of that. And that’s why I’ve been on this path working towards social justice.
And so after City Year I worked at Cradles to Crayons, and then Tenacity for a few years managing their AmeriCorps program. I found my way to 826 Boston because of their focus on literacy, and their mission around lifting up marginalized youth. I used to read dozens of books growing up, and my mom used books as a way to learn English, so literacy hits close to home. Books really shaped me as a person.
What are your favorite spots in Greater Boston:
J.J.: I love Shabu Zen, which is a hot pot place in Chinatown. And I really like Pho Pasteur, which is also in Chinatown. Boston does really well with pho options because of the awesome Vietnamese population. Bukhara in Jamaica Plain is a really great Indian place. If you love steak, I love Boston Chops for special occasions. I also love Merengue in Dorchester, which is a Dominican restaurant. It’s fantastic and they do a lot for the community.
What are some cool Boston-based nonprofits in the city that you think people should know about?
J.J.: Ah, there are so many really great nonprofits in the city. There’s an amazing nonprofit called Urban Improv which is in Jamaica Plain, but they also serve Boston Public School students. They use life skills in theater, so they do improv with students and talk about real life things like teen pregnancy, drugs, sexuality and things that people / parents are afraid to talk about. Through the program students learn to navigate those issues in a healthy way.
Another non-profit / organization is Haley House. They do a few different things. There’s a residency program, they have a cafe, job placement for people that have barriers to entry, as well as tutoring. I love them because they’re local, they help people with job skills, and they make awesome food and host events like poetry slams.
Another organization I want to plug is ASPIRE (Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence). During my early years in Boston, I made some really amazing friends through ASPIRE. They’re working on some really great programs.
On Filipino Food...
What's your all time favorite Filipino dish?
J.J.: It’s impossible to name just one, but growing up I would always request mechado (tomato base beef stew). I have an aunt that makes it really well. When I was sick, I would ask my mom to make tinola (chicken soup). But I really love it all!
What's your favorite Filipino recipe / dish to make?
J.J.: I make afritada (chicken and vegetable dish with a tomato base) for friends that have never had Filipino food before. The first time I made afritada I looked at a recipe, but was like eh, so I called my mom. I used the recipe for measurements but got advice from my mom for ingredients.
On staying in touch…
Do you have any upcoming events / programs that you want to highlight? Are there ways for our readers to get involved with 826?
J.J.: Like I mentioned, volunteers are the lifeblood of 826, so we’re always looking for people to get involved. We hold information sessions twice a month (they have 2 info sessions coming up - August 8th and August 21st), both in person and remote. If anyone wants to help our students with writing, creative writing, storytelling, they can attend those info sessions.
Something really exciting that’s happening this year is that we’re opening up satellite writing center in the Boston International Newcomers Academy, which is a high school for immigrant students. All the students immigrated to Boston within the last 5 years, some within the last few months. The school’s amazing, and we’re excited to have a writing center there so we can work with them and publish some of their stories as well. If people want to get more involved with that project, they can also learn more at our info sessions.
We’re always looking for BOSFilipinos blog writers / subjects! If you’d like to contribute or have a suggestions, feel free to send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.