This week Aspire introduces an occasional series exploring interesting women doing interesting work across the world.
Who: Jennifer Mendelsohn: “The Accidental Activist”
What: A Resistance Genealogist – This Baltimore journalist & genealogy enthusiast researches the family trees of anti-immigration politicians and pundits.
Where: “I work in a little nook off my kitchen, which was supposed to be just a place to have a computer to coordinate the family calendar but has become my de facto office. It’s crammed with photos of my kids and my ancestors.”
When: “During the work day, when my kids are at school, when the news demands it and I have time. Some days I might spend most of a day on someone’s tree. Some days I might spend half an hour pulling out one interesting factoid. I usually post what I find to Twitter. For more detailed write-ups, I sometimes go to Medium.com. We now have a website, http://resistancegenealogy.com/, where all the research is collected.”
Why: “When immigration began to be a front-and-center news issue, I was dumbstruck at how easily lies about immigrants were being spread. It was as if people were forgetting that immigration has always been a bedrock of American culture. I’ve done countless family trees, and unless you’re solely Native American or solely descended from slaves brought here against their will, every American tree eventually goes back to immigrants arriving in the U.S in the pursuit of The American Dream. So whenever someone was in the media ranting about immigrants, I would hop on sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch and start working up their tree to find out exactly how their family became American. And more often than not, I could discover that they themselves benefited from the very same policies they were denouncing. I also like to find examples of historical anti-immigrant sentiment, to show people that nothing that’s being said today – that immigrants bring crime, won’t assimilate, etc. — wasn’t said about their immigrant ancestors in past generations. It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now.”
How: “I fell down the genealogy rabbit hole six years ago, when a Google search led me to the 1940 census. I quickly realised that it was a perfect fit for so many things I loved: research, history, storytelling, puzzle-solving and myth-busting. I also realized that 20 plus years of reporting experience made me kind of a natural. The skill set came very easily to me, because I know exactly how to follow an information trail to its source. I was extraordinarily lucky that my first two research outings both culminated in very poignant and powerful family reunions — one for a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor meeting first cousins she never knew about and another for an octogenarian adoptee finding a half-sister. After that I was hooked. I began to spend a lot of time working on my own tree and volunteering helping others. I now serve on the board of my local Jewish Genealogy Society. When all these people started trash-talking immigrants, I used the same skills and websites like Ancestry.com I use to find anyone’s family and applied it to them. It’s not really that difficult; you just need to know what you’re looking for.”
Best part about it: “Feeling like I’m doing my grandparents proud. Also feeling, as a woman over 40, that I’m not invisible and I can make my voice heard.”
Worst part: “I had no idea how much negative attention getting into the immigration debate would attract. People can be vicious online.”
Advice for others for taking on a cause: “I like to call myself an ‘accidental activist.’ I had exactly zero intention of starting a movement that would end up being written about in newspapers in Israel or land a Norwegian TV crew filming in my living room. I did it just by following my passion and speaking out about something I knew well. I don’t think if you actually set out to engineer something like this, it would work. What I did was authentic and organic and I think that must be what resonates with people.”
Photo of Jennifer Mendelsohn | Courtesy of Jennifer Mendelsohn