Interviews

Jeff Bissoy-Mattis: New Media and Racial Justice

The Faith & Polity team sat down with Jeff Bissoy-Mattis, a journalist, storyteller, and entrepreneur based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to discuss the intersections of race, religion, and immigrant identity, and how those identities inform Jeff as a producer of media and technology. We hope you’ll join us in conversation with him. 

Maddie Ulanow: Thank you so much for joining us today. To start us off, could you talk about the way your immigrant story has impacted the way that you navigate your faith in the US?

Jeff Bissoy-Mattis: I was born in Cameroon and moved to Minnesota when I was five. For me, faith offered community. The Catholic communities that I have been a part of have been particularly close knit. My mom and I would go to a bunch of Catholic churches in North Minneapolis, where we’d oftentimes be the only black people. Church helped to create a bond with the white communities that I was in, which was important because Minnesota is a very lily white state. 

I’m still a Catholic and a Christian. I won’t say that I’m the most practicing Catholic or Christian, but I uphold my faith, I read my Bible. Growing up, I often felt like I wasn’t getting enough from my faith personally. I didn’t have Bible School, for instance, there wasn’t Bible study, or Sunday school. There weren’t as many kids clubs either, for young folks trying to understand more of their faith in a deeper way. I got tired of the rituals of the Catholic Church. With all due respect, I found it was very outdated. I know why we do all the things we do with repetition, but it felt stagnant. It didn’t feed my spirit. I gained more for my soul and my spirit from just reading the Bible and just praying every day.

When I studied abroad in France, I started looking into Islam. I liked the different rhythms and patterns within Islam. I like the multiple prayers every day that you really shouldn’t miss. I found that there was a certain level of rigidness and discipline within Islam that I felt was lacking in my religion. That might be crazy for other Christians to hear, particularly those who think that Catholicism is super strict. I like discipline, I like routines. It’s easier for me when I know that I have to do these things habitually as opposed to the idea that the covenant is between you and the Lord and you should do what feels right within that. I respect that idea, but I sometimes forget to cultivate that relationship on my own. There are so many temptations, and that’s part of the challenge I feel young Catholics and Christians today face.

I’ve tested other denominations. I like Lutherans. I grew up with some Lutherans and I’ve attended Lutheran churches before. One of the things I appreciate is that there are women priests in the Lutheran community and that the priests can get married. I’ve also been intrigued by the black Baptist Church. Not only do you have a lot of amazing music, but there are multiple sermons, not just one. You have these experiences with folks celebrating, and on top of that, there are multiple moments where people say things that feel like they truly apply to the life that I am trying to lead. You can truly feel the spirit all over. And on top of that, I am able to connect with other black people, which is a rarity for me in particular. I graduated from Carleton, where black students made up roughly 2% of the school population, going into the workforce where I was one of three black journalists out of 100. I wasn’t around as many black people that weren’t family. The few times I’ve been able to black Baptist churches, I appreciated that I was around kin. It’s special to celebrate and be around folks that are Christian like you are and then also share the same racial identity. I think there’s something very powerful about that.

MU: You talk a lot about building community and what that means, which I appreciate. I know that that’s something you’re doing professionally now. So if you’ll allow a slight gear switch, tell us about the work you’re doing and how it fits into the kinds of communities that you want to build?

JBM: I am the CEO and founder of Plugged, also known as the Plugged App. We’re currently building a platform that works to achieve two missions. The first is to help promote and provide visibility for black businesses and black creatives, giving them a space where they can promote their content and their businesses. The second is to help connect the US and global pan-African community.

I felt that it was too hard for black people to have an idea, conceptualize it, introduce it to the market and then be able to have some level of success. It takes a long time, especially if you don’t have the right tools or you don’t have the right mentors.

I’ve been able to travel to Europe several times, back home to Africa several times, across the US and  I’ve always been struck by the shared struggle that black folks have. It’s not always in the form of police brutality, although it is true that there police brutality harms a lot of black communities within and outside the US. When we talk about some of the economic issues for black communities, that’s a worldwide problem. So creating a platform where we can all uplift each other, share resources, and learn from each other felt important. There also aren’t enough spaces where you can learn about other black cultures. You have to have the privileges that I have- the ability to travel. The challenge is: how do you provide a platform that provides opportunities for promotion of businesses and black creatives, but then also provide a space where we can learn more about our collective history and divisions of the world that we’re trying to build? The black community is one that I hold very dear  to my heart, and one that I hope to fight for  and uplift as long as I live.

I can’t say that I’ve thought a lot about my faith and the work that I’m doing with Plugged, but when I do reflect on it, it all comes back to this St. Francis De Sales quote, “Be who you are and be that well.” I think after observing and documenting as a journalist, I’m finally becoming an actor and starting to emerge as my most authentic self. In doing so, I think I’m showing up more for my Black communities and will continue to do so. I often remember being preached to about being a humble servant to the Lord and to serve your community and with Plugged, I believe I’m doing both things, which means the world to me. 

MU: Thanks. I was struck by something you wrote along those lines of watching what was going on in Minneapolis from abroad, and how difficult that must have been for you. You wrote that you were inspired by James Baldwin, who often saw himself as “a witness rather than an actor” during the Civil Rights Movement. I was curious if you could elaborate on that, and how you see yourself as a witness and an actor?

JBM: One of the hardest things about being a journalist is that you’re essentially removing yourself from your community. That’s an unspoken rule.

When I was on Carleton’s campus I led a lot of rallies. I was down in Ferguson after Michael Brown died protesting for about a week. I volunteered after graduating to help some grassroots organizations in the Twin Cities. To go from that, being part of the community and being part of change to having an employee rulebook saying that I can’t attend rallies was hard. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. All I could do was watch. All I could do was observe.

Protesting is healing. It’s very powerful to get out of your home and actually go out there with thousands of other individuals who, like you, believe that a great injustice has occurred. To not have the opportunity to do that over these years has been the hardest thing for me. It makes me feel like my blackness is erased.

BF: I appreciate you sharing it with us. There’s a way in which Plugged pushes back against white supremacy just by virtue of being a black space that helps black entrepreneurs and creatives. I’m curious if you considered making it a more explicitly political space in an electoral politics sense? 

JBM: After George Floyd was killed, we had a major meeting about what Plugged would be. Our city was on fire and on international news. I was in Mexico City and my team was in the Twin Cities and all our heads were all over the place. We had to figure out how we could be present in that moment. 

We didn’t have a lot of people who could volunteer their time and we didn’t have the means to fund something easily. But we knew that during protests there is always a ton of misinformation and confusion. There are a lot of dots to connect and critical analyses to do and folks that go viral and then dissipate. Protests don’t get properly archived as a result. So I decided to start a blog called Views from the Revolution. Views from the Revolution came from this old song- I think it just might be called “The Revolution will not be Televised”. It won’t be documented from beginning to the end.

Views from the Revolution was our attempt to try to document the feelings and the sentiments of black people in this moment. Our goals right now are not just to end police brutality but to end structural racism as a whole, which impacts every aspect of society. We’ve been blessed to have folks from all over the world join us. We had someone talk about his personal experience with racism in Venezuela and how that racism differs everywhere that he goes. He wrote a very raw piece about his experience being black worldwide in both Spanish and English. We’ve had pieces from my partner, Elina, talking about how George Floyd’s passing awoke for her an ancestral trauma, a feeling of pain and hurt that tied back to her black heritage. She wrote about that experience and what that meant for her, especially as someone from the Dominican Republic where talking about African ancestry at times can be taboo.

That was the purpose of the Views from the Revolution, having a space where folks can talk and be a little more critical of the world around them. We are hoping to continue to tell compelling stories not only about the current moment but about different visions for the future. We are also hoping to have folks write about their hopes or their blessings or their joys. Because yes: it’s sad, it’s terrifying, it’s a lot. But there’s joy here too. We need to create a space that can balance those facts and continue to uplift both the movement and the moment that we’re currently in. 

We need to create these spaces so that our children and their children are truly able to realize Martin Luther King’s dreams of being able to live with kids of all colors and races and backgrounds. We need to make sure people are not prevented from living their innate greatness just because they’re black. That is the fight.

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