I meet Jenna at a 24 hour café in Liverpool Street on a spring evening. As I wait for my next Twenty Something, having not met Jenna before, I realise I have no idea what she looks like. She isn’t the sort of person to flaunt her own image online, I scroll through her website looking for a pic so I might recognise her but nothing. After texting a brief description of herself she arrives full of energy and smiles. I instantly like her, we both order tea and begin bonding over feminism and our love of foreign countries. We briefly talk about the project and how hard it is to live up to societies expectations. “Yeah people are having quarter life crisis’ all around me, that’s ok. I think we need to give ourselves a break”.
Jenna grew up in a suburb of Cardiff, her childhood was a happy settled one, “all the houses look the same, like they are made of Lego.” With a best friend three doors down her time was spent riding bikes and having fun. The Mason’s were the only Jewish family in their neighbourhood, but not being very religious only visited the synagogue on special occasions. The only time she felt like it stood out was when her and her sister had their Bat Mitzvah’s at 13, she describes it as feeling like a bit of a novelty and her friends from school attended these huge beautiful parties which now looking back seem a bit ridiculous for someone so young. Her sister, Dani, is only a year and a half older and they are very close and even live together now. The pair attended a “bog standard” high school and at a young age Jenna saw herself growing up to be a farmer’s wife, running a cheese shop in a floral dress and wellies.
Jenna and Dani flew the nest to University splitting to either end of the country. Dani attending Edinburgh whilst Jenna escaped to Brighton to begin anew. “At age 16 I decided that I didn’t like what was going on in this mainstream, I wanted to do something a bit different.” She studied Linguistics and Philosophy at Sussex University. Whilst Brighton was an exciting place Jenna didn’t really feel as though she fitted in. She talks of the importance of finding ‘your people’, those who friends that just get you. Although she doesn’t see an awful lot of her Brighton circle now at the time she had a group of girls that were the most important people in her life, studying together, working together, the friendship group stuck together all through Uni. “I was their weird friend”, it was strange to feel like the odd one out in an alternative town like Brighton. She had somehow found herself with girls who wore fake tan and false nails, a scene that just wasn’t for her.
Her course didn’t quite live up her expectations either. Absolutely hating linguistics, (it’s the scientific study of language in case you’re wondering, I’ll admit I didn’t really know what it was before asking Jenna). In philosophy, there was a lot of pretentious hippy types, she was hugely intimidated and was nervous to speak out. “It seemed as though they’d read everything and could spout out information on almost anything”. We bond over both having a ‘guy in a suit’ in our philosophy classes. Why do people do that at university? Luckily she made two really good friends in this class and bonded over hating everyone else there.
Whilst studying Jenna did face to face fund raising for charities, also known as chugging (charity mugging, but as Jenna says they weren’t mugging anyone just standing on the street not getting paid very much in the freezing cold and the pouring rain). There was a turning point in attitudes towards people doing this job, “The public didn’t seem to mind it then all of a sudden a lot of articles were written and everyone started hating us. Every time someone swore at us we were given sweets”.
All of a sudden University was over and Jenna was left in Brighton “I really panicked, most of my friends were applying for grad schemes. For me it was a choice of moving home and doing a shit job or staying in Brighton and doing a shit job”. She carried on with her charity work but this time it was over the phone, much better. The job was flexible and Jenna did an internship for an Arts PR company in London which she describes as, “3 months of hell and a typical mean girl scenario.” This job made her cry every day, she needed to get away and try something new. After doing an exchange at to Prague whilst studying, she decided to hunt out another European adventure. She knew she wanted to learn Italian and Florence was her destination under the Leonardo scheme. This 3 month programme pays you to learn another language and get experience working in a creative field. “I was basically hanging up trousers and cleaning things that didn’t need to be cleaned.” A shop job, sold as a fashion job. She describes going for days without someone coming in. It was a tedious job in a beautiful place. With each story I’m admiring Jenna’s endurance for seeing things through, she knew she didn’t
want to go home so got another internship with an English language newspaper in Florence and did this alongside the shop. The scheme didn’t pay well but enough to live, Jenna says there was something very free about this time in her life.
It was back to reality when this placement finished finding herself back in Cardiff with no idea what was next. “At this point I clearly hated working, I’d hated every job I’d had.” So she went with her gut and made a completely random decision, a masters in Parisian History and Culture – why of course!?! “This masters just looked so ridiculous and it’s probably the most useless master ever but I thought I have to do it”. Swiftly signing up for London University in Paris, having only done French A-level, Jenna was excited to conquer the ‘ultimate city’. “I really like the idea of having Paris as the city I know really well and I figured this would stay with me forever.” I asked if she was worried racking up debt “I don’t really have much concept of money, I had so much student debt but it didn’t bother me as no one I knew really had a job yet.” When asking her how she felt about being in Paris she lets out a happy smile and tells me “I’d found my people!” She lived happily between two friendship circles, her course friends who were a really mixed bunch of English speakers from all over, “This time I made a conscious effort to speak up, I was really enjoying studying again.” And the artists she lived with would visit exhibitions and go out partying until 8 in the morning.
A friend found a leaflet in a bar asking for people to get involved with a feminists arts festival called ‘Ladyfest’, this would be the first of its kind in Paris. Intrigued and not knowing what to expect Jenna got involved. Taking 5 months, 6 of them put together an event that would change Jenna’s life. Brought about by the Riot Girl movement, Ladyfest’s are popping up all over the world. Jenna feels satisfaction from creating something that didn’t exist before, contributing to the feminist landscape of Paris.
After handing her dissertation in it was time again to decide where her life was going to go next, “It’s so easy to do nothing when you’re living aboard because living abroad is your thing and that’s your challenge. I didn’t want to do nothing”. Still high from the success of the festival Jenna was eager to produce something and once again returned to Cardiff to regroup. After a while the nostalgia of her home town had once again run out and it was time for a new challenge, this time she dabbled with the idea of going to New York. But the visa situation and saving made it too difficult, she was ready for her life to begin. Bagging herself an international development job in London, she moved in with her friend she’d met with Paris. Staying at this company for 18 months – something of a record for Jenna, she remembers celebrating her first full-time pay check at the age of 23. This was a good job, it gave her an opportunity to travel for work but it came to a point where she realised she didn’t want to progress in this field and handed in her notice.
At this point all Jenna knew was she wanted to work for herself. The only person she knew that ran their own business was her uncle and over a coffee he told her not to do it. By now she was living in a very feminist house with her friend from Paris. They still talked about the festival they’d organised together and this gave her the confidence to start investigating a bit more and enrolled on courses about starting your own business. “It’s all or nothing if you’re going to do it”. Working in a bar by night and researching her business by day. It felt like she was sending out a thousand emails and not getting anything in back then suddenly, the right people started replying.
The social enterprise Carousel was born. Promoting equality in the arts, whether it be music, film or the fine arts. Bored of ingrained sexism within these sphere’s Jenna is setting out to make a change“I can see all of these festivals and events happening for women but it all seems to be a bit tokenistic.” Collaborating with organisations like “Girls get busy”, promoting female writers and musician’s to put together events. All of these one off events and ‘pop up’ events are just to build up a portfolio before applying funding for a venue. “Initially I got activists fatigue, you feel like you’re so tired of fighting for something some people don’t even think matters”. She is under no illusions that people might want to criticise her plight, but she explains “None of these things exist in a vacuum, it is systematic of a wider inequality more generally.” She talks with an intelligence and empathy on this topic that makes me really see how passionate she is about Carousel. We’ve spoken about so many interesting parts of her life but this I can tell is what really matters to her. I don’t need much convincing on this topic and I find myself wishing I could carry her around in my pocket for when I get into those common discussions about why I’m still banging on about feminism.
Jenna was pitching for funding a while ago and a man on the panel said to her, “this has never crossed my mind” and that it’s all about for her. To run a social enterprise turns entrepreneurship on its head, I think everyone assumes that to be an entrepreneur you need to be a capitalist. Jenna isn’t. To be successful doesn’t always mean making money, I couldn’t imagine bumping into her in 10 years’ time and for her to be rich. It’s just not her style but this isn’t to say she doesn’t take the business side of it seriously. “There is a danger with campaign groups that people aren’t going to go to them unless they are engaged with the issues, if you make it that militant and that frightening people aren’t going to go”. She wants to give a platform to bands and artists that people want to see for their entertainment rather than because it’s a ‘feminist band’.
Whilst Jenna was working on Ladyfest in Paris a film was aired about a women who posed as a nude model, she describes her as,“the most inspirational women ever”. She later met her in in London and when another friend asked if she would consider life modelling, Jenna thought why not? She joined RAM (Registers of Artists Models), as after quitting her Development job she knew she needed to get money so embarked on her first life modelling job. But I have to ask, does she not feel conflicted? The Carousel website even has statistics about nudity in art galleries. But she rationalises it; we don’t see naked women that aren’t either a porn stars or super slim Hollywood actresses and models. Jenna describes the lack of larger women in our media “frightening”. “The way I resolve it in my head is that some of the young women in the room would have never seen a real life women naked before. By contributing body like mine I think maybe I’m doing something useful”. I get it, I actually think it’s quite exciting. I think as a feminist there is often the assumption that you don’t like or that you are somehow afraid of your own body and sexuality. “What’s weird is that sometimes the young people in the class get embarrassed about drawing you as you are and try to slim you down”.
Before we know it it’s getting late, looking at our watches we realise we’ve been chatting for 3 hours. We say our goodbyes and on my walk home I get to thinking, here is a girl who seems to have achieved so much in her young life without a hint of ego. Often in the work place many women at the top have had to sacrifice their softness. Her decisions to experience time aboard and further her education blows typical conventions out of the water. Some of her friends might be keen to set her up with male suitors but I get the feeling she’ll only do this when she is good and ready. Her farmer’s wife cheese shop dream may have changed into an equality promoting arts space but I’m pretty sure she could still rock that floral dress and wellies.
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Click here if you’d like to learn more about Ladyfest and here for its influence the Riot Girl Movement. You can stay up to date with everything Carousel at @thisiscarousel