20 February 2014

A STROLL WITH JESSICA MINHAS (For World Day of Social Justice)

"In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up in a thousand fold in the future." ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

(Image Credit: Jessica Minhas)
Jessica grew up in an environment no parent will wish for their child. One filled with addiction, racism, and curse words, and these in turn had so much negative effect on her mind that at a point she even began to think she was black--no thanks to how Grand Pa treated her. Now all this can set-up a child for a sad, depressed, inferiority complex-filled adulthood right? Well, that's the twist in today's story. Just as gold passes through the heat of the mine to become pure, Jess grew above the limitations of her childhood into an adulthood filled with hope, love, and beauty.

Jessica is a speaker, activist, TV Host and producer specializing on culture and media's impact on women. Her work has taken her around the globe exploring issues such as human trafficking, child labour, medical tourism, youth advocacy, and much more.

Also former Miss Florida USA and 4th Runner-up for Miss USA in 2003; Jessica told me about her passion for volunteering and fighting for justice; and also explained how she grew from the very many ugly things said to her as a child to winning beauty pageants. Here's my stroll with Jess;

Ebenezar: So let's start from where it all began. What point in your life did you look at yourself in the mirror and say, "I want to become a social Justice activist, and a humanitarian"?

Jessica: You know, growing up in a house where all you see is abuse and addiction day in, and day out, can make you really start to question life, humanity and, "What does all of this mean?" For me, I felt so silenced and broken that I started from a pretty early age trying to help others live better lives because it gave me hope in the midst of my circumstance. 

So I was constantly volunteering to; one, get out of my house; and two, to see that life could get better. So I think the first time I actually did something in line with my future calling as an "activist" was when I was in middle school and I convinced my best friend, Lindsey Knight, to make wreaths and decorated pine cones for the neighborhood nursing home. We spent a few weeks every day after school with hot glue guns making this pathetic Christmas ornaments and then went to the nursing home after school where I tried to slowly make my way through Christmas Carols key by key on the piano, and Lindsey sang with the elderly. It was quite a pitiful show but it reminded me that even the talents we think we are miserable at can be a part of making an impact in the lives of others.

Ebenezar: Awww, that was cute. The UN says we advance social justice when we remove the barriers people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, and the likes. My question is, why do you think we still have these barriers in this 21st Century Internet age? Despite all the civilization. 

Jessica: Yeah, that's a great question. I am sure we have all wondered why there's so much hate, and how it's possible for humans to treat each other the way we do. I think the first thing that comes to mind is one of the first stories in the Bible, where God kills an animal to cover Adam's shame. So this idea that shame is the strongest human emotion next to love, I think dictates the way we interact with one another. Our behavior and choices are likely always coming from a place of love or of fear and shame. I think having conversations around the difficult topics like war and inter-religious conflict will, and have already, continue to break down the barriers between us by creating understanding and working towards peace together. 

Ebenezar: Still talking social justice, let's talk about race. The funniest part of your TEDxFiDiwomen talk was when you said as a child you believed you were black...(hahaha) like seriously?

Jessica: I know, right? So awkward!

Ebenezar: (haha) It was funny. But on a serious note now, what are some ways we can sensitize kids about race and racism to check racial discrimination?

Jessica: I totally believed I was black, and it's because I was never exposed to other races in my very homogenized community. My grandfather was white, and he was also very racist. So until I was exposed to diversity, I didn't comprehend there were more choices to ethnicity than white or black. It was a crazy-making process because I was told I was Indian, but wasn't shown anyone else that looked like me. And, so I felt lost when it came to "choosing" a race. 

Jessica during field work in Zambia
(Image Credit: Jessica Minhas)
I think young people now are fortunate in that those conversation and barriers surrounding race are in the media so it makes it more acceptable to talk openly and ask questions. My grandfather was born in the 1920's in rural Wisconsin, so he didn't choose to look at the world differently then how it was when he grew up, and he very much felt I had to view it the same way he did. Thank goodness for social media and this global conversation around how similar we all actually are as humanity. I think, again, the more we talk to each other, the more we will foster peace and understanding across borders.

 Ebenezar: Very true, i agree with you on that. I strolled with the CNN Freedom project last year; they are one organization doing a lot in fighting for social Justice around the world. But let's see ,bringing it to an individual level; what can we do as individuals--in our own little ways--to uphold social justice? Because we can't just leave the fight for only activists, or can we?

Jessica: I'm so glad that you asked that! There is so much that you can do as an individual. What you're doing now is incredible. Having conversation and fostering understanding is an easy place to start. Looking people in the eye when you speak to them, talking and really listening to your neighbor who may be really different from yourself, mentoring youth in your community and offering your specific talents and gifts towards a cause your'e passionate about are easy ways to uphold social justice. 

Ebenezar: Okay?

Jessica: I'm in a counseling school at the moment because I wanted to understand more thoroughly how to help survivors of slavery rebuild their lives, and something interesting I hear over and over again is, "We can only offer freedom to others insomuch as we have freed ourselves." So this idea that we each take a look at our own stories and heartache and do our best to work through the pain and then celebrate the freedom that comes from healing will have a tremendous impact on your life and the lives around you. It's a ripple effect, because the truth is, we absolutely cannot leave it up to activists to make change happen. It must be a community effort, and then a global effort. But it truly starts with ourselves first. 

Ebenezar: Very well said Jess. very well. coming back to you; you were Miss Florida USA in 2003 and 4th runner-up for Miss USA in 2004. How did you manage to grow from inferiority complex you suffered as a child--with Grand Pa calling you names, and you thinking you're black--to actually winning beauty pageants, I mean that's something, I'd really love to hear the story behind that transformation.

(Image Credit: Jessica Minhas)
Jessica: Wow, thank you so much! So kind of you to say- and you did your research! 

Ebenezar: (hahah) Thanks. Sure, I did.

Jessica: I hardly ever talk about my time in pageants. (laughing) Yeah, I mean, what's funny is I never did pageants before that one and I never considered myself "pageant material". Weeks prior to the pageant, I had just gone to India and Nepal for the first time to try and locate my biological family. While I was there I learned about child sex slavery and saw first hand just how hard it is for young people to rise above poverty in the developing world especially in conflict zones. I also met this incredible young guy, Ben Ayers, who at 23 had already founded an organization called Porters Progress which was helping porters learn English and their worker's rights in Nepal. I was so inspired by his bravery, tenacity and dedication that I came back to Florida inspired to do something tangible for the survivors I had met during my time in India and Nepal. 

My best friend Tara's parents ran Applause Salon in my hometown, and suggested that I do the pageant as a way to bring awareness to my cause through a pageant platform. When they suggested that I remembered I laughed out loud because I hardly considered myself beautiful enough to win a beauty contest and I had just spent three weeks not showering and hiking up and down mountains, but I knew they had a point so despite everything in me, I said "Yes". Actually winning the pageant was profoundly shocking for me because I was struggling at the time with my self-worth and identity. I cried on stage because I was so shocked and thought that they may have made a mistake and that it was the cruelest joke ever. 

Ebenezar: Awww, that's so touching...

Jessica: I was just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask for the crown back. (haha) I eventually moved to New York and modeled and acted for a few years hoping that if I couldn't locate my biological family, maybe they could locate me instead if I was on TV, and even during that time I still struggled with feeling beautiful and worthy. It's taken a lot of counseling, and lot of learning what it means to be kind to myself, and to offer grace to myself in order to find value in who I am, and to start believing it. 

Ebenezar: Whao, that's a whole lot of transformation, well done. You've also done Humanitarian work with a lot of established organizations and Government organs such as, the US Department of defense, the House of Commons, MTV... Just to name a few. What will you consider to be the zenith of your Humanitarian work? What's that thing you'd really want to achieve before you know, "yeah, I've arrived".

Jessica during field work in Cambodia
(Image credit: Jessica Minhas)
Jessica: That's a hard question to answer because history shows us that change takes time. We know from the abolitionists and activists who have gone before us that it can take your entire lifetime to see significant change happen. People like William Wilberforce, for example, who was at the end of his life before he accomplished abolishing slavery in England. I would love it if I lived to see slavery completely abolished. And while that's most certainly my hope, in the meantime, I find tremendous joy in my one on one interactions with survivors whose lives have been rescued, and provided with the freedom each of us deserves. 

Ebenezar: Okay, now permit me to say this openly, Congratulations on your wedding! I wish you a very blissful marriage, but I was just thinking, don't you think Marriage might slow down your activism a bit? You know you've got a husband now and before you know, kids will come, and you'd have so much responsibility on your hands. The way i see it, you might not be able to travel as much as before. What do you think?

Jessica: (Laughing) Yeah, that's a great point. What I always used to say to friends about marriage was that I not looking for someone to be "married" to in the conventional sense of traditionally having kids, you know the whole nine yards, so-to-speak. 

I was, instead, looking for a partner and someone who shared my vision and whose heart beat in the same way mine did; you know, for the widow, for the orphan and on behalf of the oppressed. Someone who was as passionate about social justice as I was and who, as I often said to my best friends, "I met in the field surrounded by orphans." And, that is literally my husband, Chris. He was doing social justice work in India in leper colonies and was interested in similar economic development work for survivors of trafficking that I had done in Thailand well before we ever met. His family even founded a children's village in Zambia called Village of Hope for HIV/AIDS orphans which is nearly completely self sustaining off of local micro businesses his father created. It's incredible- and I never actually thought someone like him existed- but I'm so thankful he does and that our paths crossed at the right time. Having children will be such a gift if we are indeed blessed with them, and I imagine we will bring them into our story of offering hope and redeeming the lives and stories of others together. 

Jess and Chris on their wedding day
(Image Credit: Jessica Minhas)
Ebenezar: That's so sweet. Are there other sides to you apart from the activist side most of us know about?

Jessica: I am starting my own foundation called "I'll Go First" which I hope inspires and equips survivors of trauma and abuse to share their story and embrace a holistic restorative process. This came out of my own reluctance for a long time around telling my story. I felt ashamed and silenced by my shame for so long. And, then I got to this point with myself where I was convicted because here I was encouraging other survivors to share their story and to not be ashamed by it, and yet I couldn't do that for myself. 

So, I'll Go First, was born out of this desire to speak up for the voiceless and give words for what is typically held in secrecy, and to show others that healing is possible and worth the fight. I'd love for you to be a part of the conversation!

Ebenezar: Of Course! I'll love to; just let me know when i can come in. Thank you so much for your time Jess, i really had a great time strolling with you.

Jessica: Thank you ever so much Ebenezar.

To keep up with Jessica's work around the globe, follow @JessicaMinhas or visit Jessicaminhas.com

Jess has said it all. Social injustice is something we've all got to fight and speak out against whenever we see it. One blind eye to injustice is the same as one silent support to evil. When you see something bad, speak out. Act. Change it. Speak out for those who don't have a voice and don't be shy to help whenever you get the opportunity to do so.

See you guys tomorrow when I'll be strolling with Professor Alexander Arguelles--one of the world's foremost polyglot--for International Mother language day. Remain blessed till we see again, Jesus loves you

                                                                                                                 Ebenezar Wikina

"But you must defend those who are helpless and have no hope. Be fair and give justice to the poor and homeless" (Proverbs 31v8-9 Contemporary English Version)

                    THE STROLL                                                                          WORLD DAY OF SOCIAL JUSTICE 2014                                                          All Rights Reserved                                                                                         Stories. Ideas. Inspiration. Global Development.


  1. I like this woman. She is beautiful and has found the true meaning of leaving. I wish young Nigerian girls will learn a thing or two from her life of sacrifice.
    Thank you for this stroll Sir Wikina.


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