Jean Melesaine Photo: Travis Jensen
Jean Melesaine (Photo: Travis Jensen)

Women to Watch: Jean Melesaine

Women to Watch: Jean Melesaine

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Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2016. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.

Jean Melesaine grew up all over the Bay Area, but most days you'll find her in the offices of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a media, community organizing and entrepreneurial collective based out of San Jose, where she's worked for ten years. As a queer Samoan American community activist and documentary photographer, her cameras shed light on the unheard and the unseen. She covers everything everything from gatherings of families affected by police shootings to the story of Langilangi, a traditional seamstress for the Bay Area's Tongan community. Most recently, she co-edited Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley, a book filled with stories from the tech boom's working class.

Where do you live?

I live in West Oakland in the Ralph Bunche neighborhood.

How would you describe yourself in one word?



What did you do last night?

My neighbor's daughter entertained us for two hours. She’s one of the most brilliant 5-year-olds I ever met.

What can’t you live without?

I can’t live without the people I love. I can’t live without my family, my friends who are like family to me or my community. I just wouldn’t survive.

Jean Melesaine
Jean Melesaine (Photo: Travis Jensen)

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I would go the Himalayas. I was watching this documentary and there’s a Buddhist meditation school run by this guy who used to study under the Dalai Lama. I need to go to that school for a year.

Who is your personal hero? Why?

I really don’t have a single hero. I have many heroes. Basically all the people that I couldn’t survive without, those are my personal heroes.

How did you find your creative voice?

I’m not sure. I’m still trying to figure out my creative voice. Maybe when I started going to Silicon Valley De-Bug. They ask you, "What do you want to do? Do you want to do photography, let's figure out how to get you this, how to do this." There aren't a lot of place where your bosses ask you what your dreams are.

What is something most people don't know about you?

I’m such a social person, maybe everybody knows everything about me!

I do have a secret wish, a secret dream. I really love furniture design and I really love old school jazz. If I ever get old, I totally want to move back to the islands and eat papaya and listen to jazz all day, play clarinet and make furniture for old people to sit on.

Jean Melesaine
Jean Melesaine (Photo Credit: Travis Jensen)

What do you do when you feel uninspired?

I don’t think I’m ever uninspired. I think people inspire me all the time.

What was your biggest 'learning moment,' and what did you you take from that experience?

When I was young, I got locked up. I spent my 21st birthday in jail. I was pretty popular in jail. All these women, they were from the South Bay and they were all moms. They would tell me all their problems and issues. When women commit crimes, it’s very shameful, you know. There isn’t family coming to visit them. When men get locked up, moms come to the rescue.

When I was in there I was drawing. The women would give me their kids' pictures and tell me their stories while they were sitting next to me drawing. Those women who I was locked up with, I have so much love for them. I hope everything’s cool and they made it. They had so much they were going through, trying to make it on their own and hold it all together.

What’s your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?

My sister and my niece were eating at some Chinese restaurant and they had a fortune cookie that said, "Read a book and learn about life." My niece is like, "This is what Auntie Jean always tells us!" That’s an achievement, that my nieces and my nephews look at me that way and they remember what I say.

With my nephew, I was like, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And he's like, "I want to work at De-Bug!" "Do you know what do you do there?" "No."

He didn’t realize that people work for like eight hours.

Coffee or tea? What kind?

This was like my most difficult question. I used to be such a coffee snob. I totally transitioned from coffee to yerba mate. I don’t even drink coffee that much anymore. Now I’m telling everybody you need to drink mate, it makes your mind on point.

Photo by Jean Melesaine.
Photo by Jean Melesaine. (Jean Melesaine)

What does a perfect day look like for you?

No traffic in the Bay Area. That would be the dreamiest day for me.

I could say other things about a perfect day, like peace in the world, Donald Trump drops out of the presidential election, but no, it's really no traffic.

Who are your local inspirations?

In Oakland there’s all these women who are doing so many amazing things. They’re just creating sh-t from nothing. I’m going to bring my boo into this one: Vanessa Camarena runs this space Studio Grand on her own. And Anyka Barber runs this spot, Betti Ono. There’s all these local folks who inspire me, who made stuff happen and create a beautiful Bay Area.

Favorite meal?

There's a Samoan dish made out of taro leaves and coconut milk I used to make with my dad. It’s called luau or palusami. You put it into foil and you bake it and it all steams together. If you make it straight from fresh coconut, it’s like the best thing you could ever have.

United Voices Against State Sponsored Violence
United Voices Against State Sponsored Violence (Jean Melesaine)

What upcoming show are you excited about?

There’s a possible show that I’m working on -- we applied for a grant. I’m going to find young Samoans who were raised in San Francisco. They would interview their closest elder in their lives and ask them about their migration stories to San Francisco. I would photograph those folks and put it together in a mini book.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

In Oakland, hopefully. I had plans to try to move to New Zealand, where my family’s at. It’s hard because I’m such a Bay Area person. I can never leave the Bay, I almost get homesick like five days later. So: Stay in the Bay, try to put in work for folks to make life better.

If you could live in a book, TV show, movie, play, song or painting what would it be?

Maybe I’ll be one of those little kids in Art Kane's photo A Great Day in Harlem. I’d be like the kid picking my nose or something.


Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews, videos and information about our upcoming Women to Watch event at the SFJAZZ Center featuring artists from the series.


Do you know a Bay Area artist who is doing amazing things? We want to hear from you! Highlight her efforts using #BayBrilliant.