Building Infrastructure for the Future Through Art and City-building

By Sydney Williams

Mary Jessie Celetin on Stage

Mary Jessie in her natural form, performing onstage. Photo courtesy of Mary Jessie Celestin.

This month we are proud to spotlight the outstanding Mary Jessie Celestin, a featured artist at the inaugural Mosaic Festival Silicon Valley! Mary Jessie is a UC Berkeley Masters Student in Civil Engineering and the founder of San Jose Strong (SJS), a city-building centered digital database. Join us as we learn more about her work to cultivate belonging, healing, and harmony in her community through her art and leadership.

San Jose Strong Logo

San Jose Strong logo. Courtesy of Mary Jessie Celestin.

What is SJS and what was your inspiration for founding it?
I founded SJS in June 2020 after I had posted an info graphic on Instagram titled, San Jose let’s get to work: a guide to activism, centering all the existing conversations around Black Lives Matter in San Jose. I was feeling a sense of being overwhelmed from myself and those around me when it came to the whole scope of national social justice conversations. I am very passionate about world-building at the city-level and said, we should take these big conversations and bring them back to San Jose. We provided a guide on how to learn about the history of and support Black Americans in our own community.

SJS can really be distilled into two things. First, at the end of the day we are a digital database resource meant to get citizens of San Jose plugged into all things San Jose. The idea is that whether you are a new or longtime resident, when you are in search of resources to get connected to the culture, community and advocacy in your city that you have those tools readily available. We believe that these resources should be provided to residents versus being something that they have to seek out. For example, our city is currently under review and the community has the chance to vote on a number of initiatives, but how many residents actually know this is happening or how to get involved in the process? We believe that all of that information should be democratized to our residents. Information like this can be found on our website and our upcoming app.

The second part of SJS is us being an organizing hub for San Jose residents. We create a space for people to take part in meaningful, sustainable, and impactful initiatives that are community and human centered. This has resulted in our mentorship program, fellowship program, and walks for solidarity. The idea is that, similar to the database, if you have a question on where to go or need structural support for a vision, you can pitch a committee to SJS and we will work with you to make it a reality which is intentional, measurable, and sustainable.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jessie Celestin.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jessie Celestin.

How has using social media and a digital platform amplified your message in comparison to some of the more traditional media sources that you could have chosen to create SJS with?
A lot of it has to do with the demographics that we are serving. I am Gen Z, so our biggest and most interactive platform is our instagram, which makes sense since the origin of SJS was with an instagram post. I think that being able to put actions together in a way that is ‘bite sized’ has pros and cons. Infographics and tools of social messaging work well to hook people in and provide a synopsis of what is happening with a 1,2,3 of what they can do to get involved. It really streamlines the process. That said, on the downside, when folks are trying to talk about really complex issues and really delve into content and solution building, that is when social media falls short. These deeper topics are better served on a zoom call or meeting in a park to have a discussion session around the topic, which SJS has hosted before. It’s all about understanding which medium is used best when and how.”

Mary Jessie with her San Jose Strong BLM poster

Mary Jessie with her San Jose Strong BLM poster. Photo courtesy of Mary Jessie Celestin.

Can you tell us more about how city-building and forward thinking can bring healing, harmony, and belonging to our communities?
I really think that San Jose is such an interesting city to brainstorm in because we are the 10th largest city in the country and are home to a lot of tech and innovation, as well as inequality and inequity at the same time. Unlike other major cities, we are sprawled out in a way that is more similar to a bunch of small towns that are inherently disjointed. Some questions I would ask someone would be ‘Do you know your neighbors? Do you know the people who own or work at your grocery store? When was the last time you went to an event with people within a four block radius of you?’ When you start asking these questions, you find that a lot of it tends to be lacking, and that is because of how our physical infrastructure is set up. Now, we need to make sure that there is the social infrastructure to empower community members to vocalize how they want the physical infrastructure to be represented, because the two go hand in hand.

What was it like for you being part of the first annual Mosaic Festival Silicon Valley that was sort of a mash up of two of the most important things in your life; music and performing, and community building and outreach? 
It was very exciting! My best friend and I took BART down to San Jose from Berkely and we had a few friends and family members come out too. It was very unique for me because this was my first time being in a festival setting on a stage since early 2020, late 2019. Beyond my personal feelings of having a great day – as I was talking to my friends and family after the event we realized that each of us had seen an interesting or new type of dance or performance that day. It was amazing getting to see all the different pockets of San Jose, which is so diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-racial that you are left wanting to know more about these different acts of cultural expression and how they map into this social infrastructure. Definitely a very inspiring event to see how everyone comes together both from the perspective of a performer, but also being able to take part in all those performances.

I am at Berkeley right now for my MA in Civil Engineering, so I have an interest in both physical infrastructure as well as the social infrastructure that I work with through SJS. When people point out that I seem to be involved with a lot of different things, I like to point out that there should be an understanding that none of these topics are actually siloed at all and that there are two parts; the part that is for the self of creating something and the part that is how it will be shared or used by others.

Rapid Fire 

Signature move on the dance floor.
The dougie

Something you wish you were better at.
Being able to cry and let my feelings out as things happen rather than holding it in.

Hidden talent.
Figure skating, rollerblading and skateboarding. I used to do it all the time when I was a kid and I guess it just stuck with me!

Top 3 songs on repeat.
It really changes every week. I will say that this week I am listening to Pink Pateress’s new EP ‘To Hell With It’ and listening to ‘Reason’ a lot. 

Next place you want to travel.
Off the grid camping. My family and I have been talking about doing this for years, and we actually went when I graduated in May, it was a very refreshing and regenerative experience.

Something you wish more people knew about your culture.
I am Hiatian American, Cape Verdean and Irish. In regard to being Hiatian American, one thing that I want people to know is that Voodoo is a real religion, it’s monotheistic and less than 5% of practitioners take part in the dark voodoo that is popularized by the media. 

Favorite Food.
Poke! All the textures are what really makes it for me.

Style icon.
I don’t have a favorite of all time, but presently I have been really interested in @wisdm8 on TikTok. He is an incredible 19 year old fashion guru who has really taken off and has recently been featuring outfits inspired by anime and marvel characters. 

Bravest thing you’ve ever done.
On an emotional level – when I was 15 I made a conscious decision to share more with people and be more open as an individual and how I operate. That was definitely a life changing decision for me.

Otherwise – I gave a performance while abroad in New Zealand at a pub where I convinced the staff to turn their open mic into my own show where I did a whole set!

Mary Jessie at her college graduation. She is now a Masters student of Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley.

A Message from Mary Jessie

“Three questions. What are your skills – what are you good at and what do others appreciate that you can do? What do you love — when you wake up, if you could do whatever you wanted what would you be doing? And what are your flames – what issues or injustices in the world enrage you? If you can answer these three questions, you can map your skills, your passions and your flames into a life of sustainable, measurable and meaningful impact.”