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Hidden in Plain Sight: Media Workers for Social Change, Chapter 10
Elizabeth Gonzalez is the subject of the tenth profile in this series by Indybay contributor Peter M. Gonzalez is a veteran of Silicon Valley Debug who now works with New America Media in marketing to Spanish-speaking communities. In the photo below, she poses in a corner of the Debug building with a picture I took of her five years ago, at a police brutality demonstration. She talks in the article about how she's changed as a person since the picture was taken.
Elizabeth Gonzalez has a new job. She gets on the train in San Jose most weekday mornings at 7:45 and travels to downtown San Francisco, where she walks twenty minutes from the station to the office of New America Media. She works there in progressive marketing to the Spanish-speaking community. It’s a non-profit, but it pays almost as well as a corporate office job, and the benefits are good.
Gonzalez is thirty years old, and she lives with family members in a house her parents have occupied for twenty-nine years in East San Jose. It has been four years since she stepped back from an intense commitment to activism with Silicon Valley Debug, a pioneering radical community organization in San Jose. To make her living in the meantime, she had been working in her family’s restaurant on the Peninsula. Her father had started as a worker at the restaurant, but took more and more responsibility for running it, until the owner finally offered him the lease ten years ago. All of her extended family pitched in to make the place a success.
The job at New America Media came recommended to her by Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Debug. NAM has actually been a sponsor of Debug and other youth media organizations. NAM is also famous for running a news website, which connects many ethnic media across the country.
At first Gonzalez felt a position in the NAM office might not be right for her, and she hesitated to call Sandy Close, NAM’s director. But when she did, she found her skills and background as an organizer were what Close was looking for, and the job was going in a direction she liked. She’s never spent so much time in an office, but at the time of our interview, it was going well. Although it was getting a little chaotic at times, she said, “Debug got chaotic, and it didn’t scare me!”
The groups that use NAM’s marketing services are “mostly foundations or government agencies that want to reach the ethnic communities,” Gonzalez said. “They haven’t been able to, or what they’re trying doesn’t work. That’s where we help.” A recent campaign, for example, was for the flu shot. NAM is not working to push products, but rather to promote healthy behaviors and social services. Along with her organizing, her academic background helps in this work. In 2002 she transferred from Evergreen to Mills College in Oakland, a small private liberal arts school, where she graduated with a B.A. in Psychology in 2004.
She found in her studies, though, that some areas of psychology that interested her were disparaged because, as she pointed out, “you can’t prove them scientifically, yet … ” After college, she did training in hypnotherapy, and she sees clients who get quick results in reduction of stress and improved mental health. She has also been running a meditation circle on Tuesday evenings at the Debug building, which brings together a small number of dedicated people who find it to be a valuable part of their week.
Gonzalez was one of the crew that launched Debug early in the Silicon Valley “boom.” It started for her when she found employment for a summer on an assembly line making modems. The hours at the job were long—it seemed to her she would just work and sleep and go back to work. “All I had to do was press a button all day long,” she said, “it just sucked the whole life out of you.” The supervisors talked down to the workers, who were mostly Latin American and Asian, threatening to send them back to their home countries if they didn’t shape up, she said. Because they were temporary workers, hired from agencies, they could be let go at the drop of a hat.
Raj Jayadev was working with a magazine called Youth Outlook, an early NAM project based in San Francisco, and called Gonzalez because he was looking for people working in Silicon Valley factories to write their stories for publication. She came recommended by Californians for Justice, a social change group that she had volunteered with since high school. She said to him “Yes, I want to write something! I didn’t use my brain for three months!” She wrote out everything that she had experienced on the job in longhand, and left it in her mailbox for Jayadev, who put it in the magazine.
She soon met the others who, like her, had written their stories for Youth Outlook. These Silicon Valley writers wanted to form their own organization, which became Debug, and Debug became a phenomenon. “People saw themselves in print for the first time and they could relate [to each other]. Because at jobs, even though you’re surrounded by people, you’re alone. You don’t know what the other person next to you is going through, even if you’re going through the same thing.” Debug was uncovering a side to Silicon Valley that wasn’t about start-ups and stock options. It was coverage that was nowhere to be found—not in the San Jose Mercury, not on KNTV, and not in the Metro weekly. Yet that wasn’t enough: the crew knew from the start they wanted to be more than a magazine. They wanted to enhance the lives of the people they came into contact with as they gathered their stories.
So what was to be done? They had meetings and retreats where they brainstormed—drew out their dreams for themselves and for Debug—and then took steps to make those dreams real. They held workshops on writing and photography. Someone wanted to do art, and a successful artists’ group was formed. Someone else wanted to do television, and a public access show got underway. A Debug radio show on listener-sponsored KKUP began. They incubated small businesses for themselves, among them the manufacture of bicycles. They became key players in the movement to reform the San Jose Police Department. They got a building all their own, where they installed the only rental darkroom in San Jose. The editorial meetings held in the Debug building became known as a safe place for people with life problems to come and get help to help themselves, whether it be medical, legal, or just someone to listen. This is just a glimmer of a history of accomplishments that will perhaps someday be written out in detail by the volunteers that made it happen.
“Debug made us view the world through a different lens,” Gonzalez said. Instead of being defined by a factory job, a person could identify as an artist, a rapper, or a poet. “We were all defining ourselves. Just the fact that you could figure out how you were going to get to your dream, and that someone is going to support you—that’s something I don’t think that any of us had before.
“Debug changed my life. I don’t know who I would be if I hadn’t run into Debug. We operated from [this perspective]: ‘You are important, your experience is important, it doesn’t matter what title you have, we respect you, and you’re valuable.’”
I had approached Gonzalez for our interview because of a photograph I had taken of her that was kind of iconic for me. It was at an anti-police brutality demonstration in 2006. She was yelling into a megaphone surrounded by people holding signs on a sun-baked street in San Jose. I had seen a lot of pickets, and it seemed to represent them all. I found out not long after taking the picture that she worked at Debug. It came back to mind as I was working on this project, and I contacted her through NAM.
She emailed me that she knew the picture, but that she had changed since then. I was curious as to how and why. In an email preparing for our interview, I asked her to address the question: “Who was that person in the photo?”
For one thing, she was someone had taken police issues to heart, and was in the forefront of protest. “Living on the East Side,” she said when we met, “we have a lot of police and you always see the same thing: one car with one man pulled over by five cop cars and who knows how many police, you know, for no reason. You can’t even look at a police officer without him turning around and pulling you over because you happened to glance that way. It was something, and still is something that I care about a lot.” Along with the recognition of injustice came a feeling inside. It was the same when she studied Chicano movements of the 60s in Ethnic Studies, and took other history courses in school: what she learned about social injustice in the world raised her consciousness, but it was also a cause of her anger.
“When you asked me who was that person in the photo,” she continued, “I think I was really an angry person. When you learn that stuff it makes you angry, at first. All I saw was the messed up things in the world. So how could you really be happy? And of course you want to do something to change [the world] … but now my thinking is really different from what it was then. You can’t always be fighting; you have to enjoy life, too. And if you’re always fighting and struggling, of course that’s all you’re going to see in your life. And if you could just breathe … “
“The anger can only take you so far. If somebody thinks [about fighting and struggling] I don’t think it’s wrong, but it’s just not what I want to motivate me,” she said. Then she took what she wanted to say to the level of philosophy: “If you are operating from love, you are not only changing yourself, but you effect every other person, and they can operate from love too, a little bit more than they could before.”
To get back to the beginning of this kind of thinking for her, I asked Gonzalez what got her started on psychology, an interest that she told me predated her interest in media. It turned out to go back to high school. And like many in the profession, she studied it partly in order to understand her own family. She told me that her father is an alcoholic, and that it meant a lot of drama for her mother. She said, “I felt like a lot of people suffer in silence. They don’t know what to do about it, not even myself.”
“My dad was not a nice person all the time. Of course, not when he drank. He’s a good friend, and he’s a good father, and he works hard for his family but drinking made him into a different person.” Her mother learned English and got an education over her husband’s initial protests, and she also turned to her church for support. “It’s just made her so much stronger … my mom was a big source of inspiration for me.”
Gonzalez said she has time for her family now in a way she did not when her activism was all-consuming. I think I understand her choice. She hasn’t lost her acute awareness of the need for change. She’s just taking a different highway to get there.