"One of the underlying principles that guides my moral framework is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means that people don’t have to meet some kind of threshold, they don’t have to look like me, think like me or worship like me in order to gain their worth, it is part of them just because they exist." Jennifer Thielen
I first met Jennifer about nine years ago when our children started preschool together. Over those nine years, Jennifer has proven her fierceness time and time again in her strength of both mind and body, in her ability to break things down and tell it like it is, and in her open mindedness. I am very lucky to have the gift of her friendship.
Out of all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of and why?
Right out of the gate you have the kind of question that makes me profoundly uncomfortable! When I think of something to be proud of, I think of capital P “Proud” - something that should be known and remembered, but in my mind I don’t have that kind of accomplishment.
That isn’t to say that I have not been proud of things that I have done, but they all seem so minor in the grand scheme. I’m proud that I earned my black belt at age 40, having starting training at 35. I’m proud every time I lift a larger weight in Crossfit, or manage a new movement. I’ve been proud of craft projects, of yard work well done (or even done at all), and I’m proud of how my kids are turning out (most of the time), although that is more about them than it is about me if we’re being honest.
This has started me down a rabbit-hole of thoughts about how we represent accomplishments as a society and how I personally interact with the idea of pride and accomplishment. In a media driven society we like stories about the extraordinary, and don’t make a big deal about the people who have “everyday” accomplishments. On a more personal level, I’m not a fan of being a focus of attention, and the idea of pride is very much conflated with the idea of attention-seeking, boastful behavior. I’m left wondering how much of that is just an inborn personality trait and how much of it is a socially acquired behavioral expectation.
What are you currently working on? How long have you been working on it? How did you become interested in it/ where did you get the idea for it?
I would really prefer to be working on something with a more visible end product, like sewing or gardening or coordinating household renovations, but life tends to have different plans. These days I’m putting what time I have into political activism. I’m involved at the local district level within the Democratic party for the first time and am officially an elected member of my Precinct. I’ve gotten involved because of the grassroots Our Revolution movement. I’m doing this to have a voice within the party that should represent many of my values, but often fails, in the hope that I can play some part in shaping where our party is focused in the future. I’m also spending lots of time contacting my state and federal representatives. My goal has been to take at least one political action per day, and my representatives have gotten lots of phone calls, faxes and postcards.
What issue are you currently most passionate about? What is the one thing you would like people to know or understand about this issue?
All of it. I’m concerned about human rights in the form of LGBTQIA issues, systematic racism and oppression, women’s rights and economic inequality. As someone with a science background, and an affinity for things like clean air and potable water, I’m very concerned about environmental issues, the impacts of the fossil fuel industry and the politics of climate change. I also worry about endangered and threatened species, about the overuse of pesticides, the conditions of farm animals and animal welfare in general. I have an interest in the education system, not just because I have children in public schools and universities, but because I want to live in a society with educated individuals who are prepared to face a complicated world.
If I had to find a way to put all my concerns under some kind of unifying theme, it would have to be one of compassion and equality. As a Unitarian Universalist, one of the underlying principles that guides my moral framework is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means that people don’t have to meet some kind of threshold, they don’t have to look like me, think like me or worship like me in order to gain their worth, it is part of them just because they exist. When you can look at another person and see that they matter, compassion seems to come naturally. With compassion, we can’t look away with callous disinterest when social systems or political systems or just the world in general treats another unfairly. I’m a white, cis-gendered woman in a “traditional” role of mother and housewife. I don’t have to deal with the drawbacks of systematic racism, although the privilege afforded me does affect my life. I’m able bodied, and don’t have to think about public and private spaces being physically accessible. These are just two examples of how these issues that I hold dear aren’t important to me because I am personally affected, but rather because others are.
I don’t think we need to see the sameness we share, or to see something of ourselves mirrored in the other person, but rather that we need to see all the diverse ways of being human as having that inherent worth. If more of our fellow citizens could look at other people as just that, as people, not as blacks, or gays, or muslims, or immigrants or as any other label but rather as people… if we could all look at each other and see the inherent worth we all hold, how could we not want a better world for all of us? How could we not want access to clean water for everyone? How could we not care about the impact on the climate will affect our lives?
What book or film with a female protagonist would you recommend and why? and/or What female author’s, artist’s, or musician’s work would you recommend and why?
We should just go straight to the dystopia section for this. I would highly recommend that anyone who has not read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale go ahead and do so right now. I’m pretty sure that novel has something to do with why I get so worked up about women's reproductive rights and the right to autonomy and why any male claiming a woman is “his” is likely to be met with a very angry feminist rant. It takes the idea of a woman’s sole value being in relation to what “service” she can provide for a man to, what one would hope, is an absurd extreme; however, if you listen to those who feel that women exist to be wives, mothers and domestics, it is a future that feels far more possible than I would like.
The Fifth Sacred Thing is by Starhawk and has an almost utopian society carved out in a dystopian world. It’s billed as a clash between the “best and worst of our possible futures." The utopian society has features with which I take issue, and I wouldn’t call it perfect, but in many ways it is a far cry better than what we have now. One of the concepts presented by this society is that all work is valued the same. The society supports the necessary training for those with the calling and talent, so no one goes into debt trying to find their place and people are free to pursue what they love, not what will pay the rent. So, for example, the doctor doesn’t go into debt to gain their training, but then the doctor’s time isn’t valued any more than that of the teacher, or the trash collector. That brings about an equality that will never be found in our current system where certain kinds of work are deemed more worthy than others.
As part of my increased political activity, I am trying to work on expanding my awareness about how issues impact people with life experiences that differ from my own. To that end I have been trying to pay attention to more politically minded women of color on social media, with the intent of also start looking into more print and film works from the perspective of people of color. Conflicts surrounding inclusiveness and intersection of race and women’s issue that arose in relation to the Women’s March opened my eyes about just how much of the popular feminist “agenda” as it is widely promoted is about the issues of relatively privileged, white, cis-gendered women. While, excluding the unique challenges of those who don’t fit that narrow definition of a woman was never an intent on my part, it was a reality in the way I related to feminist issues and is something I want to correct. Lots of different sites have published lists of WOC to follow on Facebook or Twitter, and I just saw this one on Upworthy in the past few days. So far some of my favorites so far are Kat Tanaka Okopnik, Ijeoma Oluo, and Valarie Kaur.
As far as artists, I would love to suggest folks check out Karen Hallion. She does lots of fandom crossovers, including Disney Princesses, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Labyrinth, Agent Carter… the list can just go on and on. Lots of her work features empowered feminist characters, often with that very theme highlighted. I might own several shirts with her work printed on them.
Name one woman who has influenced you/ had an impact on you, perhaps as a mentor. Why and how did she impact your life?
I’m discovering a theme with myself in that I don’t do a good job at picking one favorite…
Obviously my mother had a great deal of impact on my life, being the woman I was around the most in my younger years. From my mother I learned how to bake, and make crafts, and that I was just as capable of moving heavy objects, handling the finances, or picking up and using a power tool as anyone else. I’m not sure I would have turned out quite the same if I had grown up with a stereotypically delicate “tv mom." My grandmothers and maternal aunts were never what I would call outwardly meek or submissive women either, and I am very thankful that I grew up in a family of women who were a little outside the “norm," each in their own way.
I think about some of my teachers, which is no surprise considering how many teachers are women, but in some ways it is a surprise to me how few stick in my mind as having a real impact. I had a science teacher in middle school, Mrs. Bennett, who was widely considered one of the meanest teachers ever, and I loved her. Her class was strict, but she truly enjoyed science, and it showed. I don’t think I put it together at the time, but it was encouraging to see a woman who had a real interest in science and wasn’t “just” teaching. Another of my teachers, Dr. Hendrick, taught US History with a similar enthusiasm when I was in high school. I didn’t go into that class with the same positive predisposition towards the subject as I had for my middle school science class, but she has stuck in my mind as one of the more positive women role models.
If I had to narrow it down, I still come up with two people, because I can’t pick just one. I met Lolly first; I had just graduated high school and was working a retail job. I got pulled off the sales floor to work in the Frame Shop under this white haired northern lady who walked around like she owned the place. Well, she didn’t own the place, but she mostly got her way because she was usually right. I have to admit I was a little intimidated at first. Lolly was outspoken, direct and just bossy! She ended up becoming one of my best friends and someone I love dearly. She had run her own photography business prior to managing the Frame Shop and had the confidence and presence of someone who was comfortable being in charge. I loved going over to her house and listening to stories about when she was young and dating, and when her kids were young and about what her family was up to these days. My middle child is named after her husband, who was as kind and caring a man as I ever met. He died suddenly, and Lolly felt his loss strongly, but didn’t let it crush her. Charlie had done much of the car maintenance, household finance and so on, but rather than letting it overwhelm her, Lolly pushed through and did what needed to be done. She’s still a force of nature, and I hope to be like her when if I ever bother to grow up!
Paula was one of the professors in the biology department. Her specialization is Entomology (the study of insects). Now, Paula didn’t have the same kind of intimidating presence that radiated off Lolly, and a casual observation might lead you to think she was almost demure, but that just meant she could catch you by surprise. She has a fierce intellect and an incredible sense of humor. She is not what I would consider a pushover in any sense of the word. I took her class on insects and was hooked. I switched over to her as my major advisor and did my research project in her lab. It was on insect collecting trips with Paula that I learned I am not a good choice of navigator. It was when visiting her and her husband (who happened to be a cranky history professor whom I adored) that I first tasted Indian food. I don’t know if she realized it or not, but being around her did a lot to broaden my worldview.