Youth Q&A with Jeannine Pearce: Reflections on Overcoming Trauma, a Recall Effort, and Sexism at Work

Mar. 11, 2019 / By and

This Q & A is part of our ongoing city leader series featuring interviews and collaborations led by Youth Reporters ages 15 to 25. Photos by Crystal Niebla.

On Sept. 17, 2018, VoiceWaves youth reporters were invited to interview second district council member Jeannine Pearce at her city hall office.

She gave way to a tearjerking account as she recounted her mother’s tragic passing, while also sharing her struggles as a woman climbing the ladder in male-dominated activist spaces. Pearce’s successful fending off of a recall effort also helped straighten focus for her vision — for city departments to become more trauma-informed.

Below is the transcript of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.

VOICEWAVES: What made you interested in politics as a kid?

PEARCE: Well, I’m a lifelong rabble-rouser. I started organizing in the fifth grade. I organized for animal rights and a recycle drive in the neighborhood. Growing up in Texas, it was always really interesting because my mother was a staunch progressive. She taught me to speak up for those that can’t speak for themselves or find themselves oppressed. It was just was very natural for me.

I never thought I would run for council or be in local government. When I came to Cal State Long Beach, I had the opportunity to meet some awesome organizers and good people and I found myself at LAANE which is a nonprofit that does policy work. Ten years later, I’m here. I saw an opportunity in the city council to run because there wasn’t someone that was running that had my values and my community’s values.

VOICEWAVES: Can you tell me a little about being a woman in politics? What’s something you want to tell young women who are thinking of running for office one day?

PEARCE: Get thick skin [laughs] and don’t back down and trust your gut. Being a woman in politics is extremely challenging. When I found myself at LAANE, I’d started as an intern. I worked my way up to organizer. When I became a director, I found myself the only woman in a room full of men at the table, much like this. I found that even though I was sitting in a room full of progressives that cared about the same values, they cared about women, I would have to say my piece two or three times. I would have to say it two or three different ways. And whenever a man would say the exact same thing and everybody supported them, I would have to call them all out on it, too. So, you got to be on your toes. You also have to understand that everybody has a different lens. Some try to communicate in different ways. Trying to build relationships even though we might not agree on the exact policy is really important.

Being a woman in politics, it’s OK to wear that on your sleeve, to have that different lens with you on every item that you lead. Governing for equity — where we talk about how does this impact those that have the least — is the most important role we can play as women in politics.

VOICEWAVES: You used to be a community activist and now you’re a council member. In your opinion, which job is harder?

PEARCE: [laughs] Well, I’m still a community organizer. I think politics is a little bit harder, but the rewards are really amazing. In politics, I often have to remind myself that I did my best work when I was able to build relationships with people. It’s not about all the things that we disagree on but let’s decide on what we have in common and build power from there. While it’s harder, it’s busier, it feels there’s more on the line it. I also still get to be a community organizer. I also still get to work with the grassroots folks. I like to organize from the inside.

VOICEWAVES: What does it mean when you say you’re a community organizer? What do you do?

PEARCE: I build relationships with people that have common interests, like building a safe community, helping everybody get over their fears. There is a six year life expectancy difference between downtown and Tenth Street. It seems to be really easy for me to get things done in downtown but with Tenth Street, I’ve been fighting to try to get the street repaved, to try to get traffic calming measures since I’ve been in office — two and a half years of trying to do that. I have been working with that community to organize, to build more community members, to build more pressure, to get things done. Building trust and getting people to understand that whenever they come together — with more than just themselves — they’re able to build power and to push against bureaucracy, which sometimes is just stale. That is being an organizer: building relationships, building power and making sure that the people’s voice is heard.

VOICEWAVES: There has been a rise in suicides in Long Beach. How do you plan to go about helping lower those rates? And what resources are you offering?

PEARCE: It is one of the numbers that is most troubling for me. In this district, we have a very dense population here. We also have very public places that people commit suicide. We’re really fortunate that Long Beach has our very own health department; most cities don’t. We’re working on an education drive with our health department and police department to get out the 1-800 numbers. Another thing is making sure that we are very much aware of trauma.

I come from a life wrought with trauma. My mother committed suicide in 2009, a month after I graduated from Cal State Long Beach. So, I’m very familiar with the impacts of it. I also found her four times as a kid with suicide attempts, but didn’t know where to go. [holding back tears] I didn’t know about resources, didn’t know how to talk about it, didn’t talk about it to anybody at school.

So we are now talking about trauma resiliency, that trauma can build up, and that trigger can be something that is triggered. By being able to talk about that outside of school, outside of city hall, outside of nonprofits that typically do that work, is important.

Going door-to-door in my district, my staff or myself provide resources saying ‘Hey, just so you know — we have a health department. Here are some great things they are doing.’

We’ve had community events with our health department, fire department, with police to talk about trauma resiliency and to know what kind of flags are out there and who to call. Part of it is making sure people understand that it happens a lot, that people are depressed, and that’s OK, that we have resources and that it’s OK to call them.

Often, my office is a resource for those that are struggling with their mental health, as well. We should normalize the fact that therapy is a great thing. I often talk about that I go to therapy. I talk about that I go to group. I talk about my mother’s suicide so that people don’t feel shame around it so hopefully they can go out and get some help.

While we have our own health department, the funding has always been grant-funded. The city has historically not paid any money into our health department, aside from their rent. So this is the second year that we’ve actually funded permanent positions in our health department. My hope is by the end of my first term that we’re funding an exponentially larger amount than we ever had before.

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VOICEWAVES: What is the secret to getting policies passed in Long Beach?

PEARCE: Find common ground, work with community members, and work with your council colleagues. Every policy is different, so that’s a tough question [laughs].

You got to know what’s important to your colleagues and try to build trust from there. We’ve got nine city council members and a mayor and so you need five votes to pass policy.

For example, tomorrow I have an item on transitional parking, which is safe parking for people who sleep in their cars. It’s kind of touchy for some people, because some people don’t want to have homeless folks sleeping in their cars in their neighborhoods. But [regardless], right now it’s happening on our streets. So how do I go out and share the story of the 8-year-old boy that sleeps in his car with his grandfather at Bixby Park every night with my council colleague that might not want to have a parking lot full of homeless people and say, ‘Look, this is how we get them resources. This is how we connect them to these resources. This is how we can make a difference so that people in our neighborhoods aren’t facing that challenge of having someone living on the streets right there.’

Every issue is a little different.

VOICEWAVES: How do you feel about the media’s portrayal of you?

PEARCE: Each media is different. I think that I had a really crappy year of media portrayal. You know, sex sells. Conspiracies sell. They saw an opportunity to try to up their viewership by doing a story on me, and doing repeated stories on me that impacted my trauma that I had already experienced. I definitely think it was unfair. I think if a man was in that same situation you would’ve seen a very different story. No doubt about it crosses my mind. Do I think that constituents deserve to have answers to their questions? Absolutely. But what they did was they went through all of my emails, they went through above and beyond. I had stalkers outside my home taking pictures of my house. It was pretty brutal, you know? [holding back tears]

I think it’s interesting now that the recall process is behind us and behind me, now the media calls me for regular stories, so it’s like ‘OK, she’s not going anywhere.’ Hopefully that’ll be in our past and the media can forget what’s happened and we can move on. I know I am.

VOICEWAVES: How did you cope with all that, the stalking and all that?

PEARCE: It was really hard. I saw a crisis therapist. I saw a psychosomatic therapist, which I highly recommend. They’re pretty awesome. You do weird things like put yarn around you in a circle and, like, deal with people coming into your boundaries so you deal with your aggression, but you get that out in a healthy way versus feeling triggered and lashing out to the media.

It was difficult, but I had a great group of women that supported me. I had many times where I would say ‘Guys, I’m really struggling, can we break bread together?’ and all of a sudden I’d have 15 to 20 women at my house. We’d be potlucking, having a great time.

It’s how we planned the women’s march. It’s pretty exciting because that came out of like a impromptu dinner at my house. I had some council colleagues, Lena [district 1 council member] and Rex [district 9] that were really there for me and Roberto [district 7] that really supported me, didn’t waver at all. I had to do a lot of reflection and understand, take responsibility for what I did, but also understand what wasn’t my responsibility, what wasn’t my fault. And to be able to move out of that, you know? To build some kind of resiliency and power out of that because it was ‘quit and go home’ or ‘fight really hard to stay.’

But I’m a fighter.

VOICEWAVES: Do you think that the recall was because of political reasons or of your general integrity?

PEARCE: I think it’s valid for constituents to call into question someone’s integrity when they don’t have all the answers. I definitely would believe that my role in fighting for women to have power in this city is what made the recall a reality. The people that supported and started the recall lived across the street from the Westin Hotel. If you actually go on my Facebook page from this week there’s a picture of me with a bullhorn on a picket line. I very proudly march in picket lines that workers call. That’s their avenue to try to put pressure on their boss to do the right thing. And in this area, it bothered them because it it invaded their ears. They didn’t like the noise.

If I hadn’t fought for Claudia’s law, … maybe you would have five people saying [I] should be recalled. But you wouldn’t have had 180 days of my face being put on posters, my face being put on the side of grocery stores, people knocking on people’s doors, creating lies about the actual situation that happened.

Nowhere — in any of that conversation — did anybody raise the issue that I went to H.R. and said, ‘Hey I’ve found myself in this situation that is abusive and aggressive and I need help to get out of it.’ Nobody mentions that.

With the situation that happened on the side of the freeway, a lot of lies got kicked up in the beginning, but because they got out there, they stick. Even though he didn’t work for me at that time, he was gone. None of those details get talked about in that recall effort and that is because it was funded to the tune of $220,000 by hotels that didn’t want us to govern and protect women in the industry. So that’s why it’s hard to be a woman in the industry because you stand up and fight for women, and they’re going to kick you down and try to fight you. That’s why we can’t let them. That’s why it would’ve been really easy to say, ‘you know what? Nevermind. I quit. I’ll go home. This isn’t worth the pain, the trauma, the anguish.’ But there are a lot of women in the city of Long Beach that count on me and I thought about them every single day of that recall.

VOICEWAVES: Why are you so passionate about hotel workers and care workers and their wages?  

PEARCE: Well I’ve done a lot of ‘day in the life’ of the hotel worker. You guys ever cleaned a hotel room? Yeah, it’s really hard. A lot of people don’t know that the injury rate of hotel workers is higher than a construction worker because the beds are so heavy. In a non-union hotel they’re lifting the beds by themselves. And while people like to think everybody that works in a hotel who might be in the middle of getting sexually assaulted is young, you have a lot of women that are in their 70s that are trying to clean these rooms, women that are trying to provide for their families.

It’s a job that looks like it would have integrity. Beautiful shiny buildings, you drive down Ocean Boulevard, to the Westin, it’s all gold and round and pretty. But what we don’t realize if we don’t actually do a ‘day in the life’ of a hotel workers is know how hard it is.

I believe in all industries, every worker should have dignity and respect. I do believe that unions are what helps create that, because they create a bargaining table in the middle. There’s nothing more fun than going to a union contract negotiation where you’ve got like eight workers and, like, two people from management and they’re hashing it out on the details of a contract. It’s really exciting stuff.

VOICEWAVES: What issues in your district are a priority right now?

PEARCE: Homelessness is a priority across the city and we’re putting a lot of money towards it but it’s one of those issues that you’re not going to see a change overnight. …There’s what we call the continuum of care, to get them a social worker that can help them find out what resources they need to get into homes.

Also, I think our small businesses in the district are pretty awesome. When I moved to Long Beach, it was the unique small businesses that made it feel both like a big city and [at the same time] somewhere that was comfortable. We have a lot of development happening in downtown. Balancing that development with supporting the small businesses that made Long Beach a destination in the first place is important to me, so we hopefully can put forward some policies in the next several months to protect those small businesses from going out of business. We know their rents are rising, so that’s a challenge.

The last one would be renter issues, of course. We have a housing crisis on our hands and, unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of rents skyrocket. I was very happy to see that the county passed their renter protection pieces very recently and hopefully we can get to a place where we can do that here in Long Beach, as well.

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Chantera Walton

I'm 17 years old, and I'm a senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. After graduating, I will be attending college locally to major in journalism. I've loved writing since I was a little girl, writing exaggerated and elaborate stories about the people and things in my life. I'm an introvert so my free time is spent watching my faves on Netflix.

Yesenia Pacheco

Yesenia is a Polytechnic High School student who is also the editor-in-chief in the journalism class. She enjoys listening to Michael Jackson.