“How do you build out community if we’re still dealing with our shadows and our brokenness?” This question plagues Pilar DeJesus every day. One of New York City’s leading housing and human rights activists, she’s known as La Problema for her fierce approach to ensuring racial justice. Over the years, as she’s become a force in cannabis advocacy, she has been one of the most vocal proponents of social equity and policy reforms that go toward mitigating the harm done to the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs.
DeJesus is a truth-teller. She is fearless, daring, inventive. But most of all, she is a survivor whose commitment to educating and uplifting others is nothing short of miraculous. She stands today having battled violence, domestic abuse, addiction, and the ever-present obstacles of systemic racism. One might say she’s come out the other side, but DeJesus makes it clear that there is no “end of the tunnel” until genuine reparations are made to her people.
Pilar DeJesus: Advocacy, Equity and Plant Medicine
“A lot of us people of color are dealing with trauma, hurt, pain, we are not even trying to think about,” she explains. “And a lot of us don’t realize that, including myself. [Plant medicine is] a good way to recognize the dark shadows and brokenness that we are living with. Those are harmful when it comes to working together… Communication is fucking challenging, which then creates conflict. [But] you have to have an agreement to create communication so you can work through that, and that’s what organizing does. That’s why it’s always been important to me when I’m in coalitions or in cannabis spaces.”
Much of her own healing she attributes to the plant, because cannabis has been a cornerstone of her journey in myriad ways. One of the biggest benefits of plant medicine, in her opinion, is how it’s allowed her to view her personal trauma and that of others prismatically so that restoration can begin from the inside out.
A native of East Harlem (El Barrio), DeJesus’s personal and professional mission to elevate underserved populations is served through her role as Advocacy Coordinator for TakeRoot Justice. The nonprofit provides legal, participatory research and policy support to strengthen the work of New York City’s grassroots and community-based groups with the goal of dismantling racial, economic and social oppression. Pilar is also the founder of the educational forum All That Jive NYC, through which she coordinates community events and workshops in partnership with local businesses while advocating at the city and state levels. At this stage of her quest, the activist believes it’s not enough to be La Problema, she must also be La Solución.
“I’m out here holding people accountable,” the manifestor declares. “I’m seeing now in this cannabis industry that people like me are just being left out… We’re not being prioritized even though we’re the ones that did the work and dealing with the harm and the violence and trying to heal from it at the same time. Cannabis is new for capitalism. But we know that this is ours and we’ve been the most harmed.”
East Harlem History and Cannabis
Having spent her entire life fighting to protect her home community, DeJesus represents East Harlem’s vibrancy and complexity. The historic co-op building she lives in was one of the first in the neighborhood ever built to be owned by low-income families and people of color; Pilar’s apartment has been in her family for over 60 years. She remembers cannabis being smoked at parties throughout her childhood, and as routines like her father’s habitual little white joints. At 18, DeJesus started smoking herself with her sister and neighborhood friends, learning to get creative with different rolling papers when money was hard to come by, and finding the right bodegas and juice bars that offered locals “something green.”
Weed was simply part of life, but so was the criminalization. Recalling times that her friends had to swallow their blunts to avoid arrest, dealing with unexpected stops and police searches, DeJesus notes that she had to become quick on her feet. She once walked into her favorite supply spot only to be confronted by plainclothes cops who asked her what she was there to buy. When she responded that she was there to get medicine for a disabled aunt, they let her go. Ironically, Pilar says she knew nothing about the health benefits of cannabis at the time.
“I believe now it was my spirit telling me, without telling me, it was medicine,” she states. “I just believe there was so much pain I was dealing with internally with the way my family structure was… I was smoking because I was trying to heal from things that were affecting me, but I didn’t realize they were.”
From Trauma and Tragedy to Advocacy
Growing up at home was rocky. DeJesus endured bullying from the Mexican side of her family due to being darker complexioned than many of her relatives. Her parents, both alcoholics, split up when she was very young, leading to a childhood she describes as abusive on every sensory level. Pilar mostly lived with her grandmother to escape her mother’s excessive drinking and violent outbursts, though at one point she nearly killed her mom’s own abuser, trying to defend her after the disturbed man had broken in and beaten her.
“I would empty out her liquor bottles and put water in them,” DeJesus remembers of the brief time she resided with her mother. “That’s how much I hated her drinking.”
Dedicated and driven to achieve, the passionate young woman finished school and started a career first in real estate, then switching to pharmaceuticals when she was offered a job at Pfizer. She’d continued smoking cannabis as a salve to her daily chaos, and had actually begun drinking to fit in at industry networking events. When Pfizer informed her she needed a drug test to get the position, DeJesus realized she’d have to give up her medicine. The ensuing five years, in which she was forced to take a break from cannabis, only caused her to drink more.
Then a spate of tragedies happened back to back: Pfizer merged departments, laying off DeJesus’s unit; her grandfather passed away, and her brother was murdered. Finding herself unemployed, angry and grieving, Pilar returned to the healing that cannabis provided, but at the same time she fell into other patterns she now recognizes as eerily similar to her mother’s struggles.
“I know now why I was always drinking and smoking then,” she affirms. “I’m trying to heal and I didn’t know alcohol was harming me. Fast forward, I left the corporate world and [got heavily involved] in activism and social justice, working with people with physical disabilities. You wouldn’t understand how shitty the state is, discriminating against people with disabilities. I worked with people who needed congregate housing and had HIV/AIDS. I had clients where the state wouldn’t give them a wheelchair and these people didn’t even have legs.”
Her natural sense of advocacy led her to work on the presidential campaign of former Congressman Ron Paul, who was then running on a Libertarian platform that emphasized cannabis legalization. The campaign work inspired DeJesus toward more political activism, learning about various environmental and health issues, and into her eventual position at TakeRoot Justice and her interest in cannabis policy reform. Throughout this evolution, the activist was coming to understand her therapeutic journey and deep relationship with the plant. She took on leadership roles in lobbying groups like the Start SMART Coalition focused on legalizing New York State, established All That Jive NYC, and co-founded ¡High Mi Madre!, a collective for women of color in the cannabis space.
March 2019: Raid, Rikers Island and an Inequitable Criminal Justice System
But at 5AM on March 7, 2019, another traumatic event struck. DeJesus’s home was raided by a team of 25 police officers, who discovered illegal cannabis and cocaine in her apartment, and she was arrested. The confiscated items belonged to a friend who had been renting storage space in DeJesus’s closet, which she’d given to him in exchange for free cannabis, but she hadn’t known there was anything more than her favorite plant in his inventory.
Because DeJesus owned the apartment and was present during the raid, she had to be taken to the narcotics unit at the 25th precinct on 119th Street. Arriving there at 8AM, Pilar was forced to wait, being told that the wee-hours timing of the arrest meant she couldn’t be processed right away. Even with her friend showing up to vouch for her innocence, she had to stay at the unit until 1PM, then was finally taken to jail at Central Booking. It was then several more aching hours before anyone even knew where she was being held. Business associates, attorneys and advocacy professionals eventually hopped on the mission to free her, but that road was long.
“All the advocacy probably worked against me a little bit because we fought,” La Problema admits. “They don’t process women in Central Booking the way they process men; it’s slower, so women don’t get called for hours… So I called 311 [NYC’s non-emergency service line] because we also had no heat. I filed these complaints and they found out I was calling 311 from inside the jail.”
Her experience progressively worsened, as she wasn’t arraigned until 1AM the next morning and bail was set at a $10,000 bond. She had a strong support system; her co-workers, who happened to be attorneys, showed up with the money to post bail and appeared in the courtroom with her mother. New York Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, who DeJesus had worked with as he crafted and passed the 2019 Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, wrote a letter on her behalf. Yet once again, bad timing hit and the District Attorney couldn’t approve the bail funds until the following day. That left our heroine forced to go to Rikers Island, the city’s largest and most notorious prison.
What happened next would be a comedy of errors if it wasn’t so egregious. On the bus to Rikers, DeJesus used her bilingual skills to act as another woman’s translator, speaking up to alert the guards that the woman was pregnant and shouldn’t be handcuffed, and moreover had no idea why she was going to jail. Upon finally disembarking at the facility, Pilar underwent the intake process which involved comprehensive medical examination with the testing of roughly six pints of blood. To top it all off, the staff at Rikers mixed up her test with another woman’s, and the results showed pregnancy – when DeJesus had been celibate for a substantial period at the time.
Ramifications of the incident didn’t stop there. DeJesus was determined to fight her criminal case, because she had been charged with an A-1 felony, but the mandatory minimum sentencing would have meant eight years in prison. Instead, there needed to be careful, precise negotiation to get her down to a lesser offense of facilitating a crime and given community service instead of a prison sentence. Concurrently, the advocate received an email in February 2020 informing her that the criminal charges violated co-op rules and she was in danger of being removed from her housing. It took every bit of knowledge, every connection and resource DeJesus had to emerge from that situation and be able to move forward.
“It’s a sick, sick, sick thing,” she says of the criminal justice system. “I still had to prove and admit guilt to something I didn’t do.” Noting that most people aren’t aware of their rights and end up entangled in the system without money, connections, or even attorneys who know what they’re doing, DeJesus laments that this kind of situation happens over and over again, especially to those from disenfranchised communities.
Pilar DeJesus Fights For an Equitable New York Cannabis Industry
This is why she stands up for people who need greater education and access to what’s rightfully theirs. In this frame of mind, DeJesus sees cannabis as the both the last and strongest potential bastion of freedom.
“We wrote the law, so we’ve got to make sure those provisions are upheld,” she comments, regarding the social equity clauses in New York’s Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act (MRTA). “As we can see in other states, there’s no model for us. I already see the fuckery that’s happening… What I’m seeing is there’s a lot of self-proclaimed advocates who have no relationship with grassroots organizations or the people who have been doing the work. If I showed them a picture of [the people claiming to be community advocates] to those in the hood, to the people that actually have been harmed, no one’s going to know who they are. Those people do not bring real, meaningful partnerships; they’re looking to extort. I see people going, ‘I’m going to start a nonprofit, I’m going to do this for the community.’ But [the nonprofit] Mothers on the Move is already doing stuff like that, so have you even had that conversation and talked with them? Everyone knows [Executive Director] Wanda Salaman in the Bronx, but if you don’t know her and she doesn’t know you, you ain’t in the community.”
Above all, Pilar wants to ensure that social equity can work for these populations the way it was intended to. None of the Conditional Licenses approved by New York’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) have, to her mind, gone to genuine applicants from the most harmed communities or provided any real sense of reinvestment. As one of the leaders of the Bronx Cannabis Hub, she recently convened a social action meeting to discuss the OCM’s regulations and how to organize for the changes needed to protect people of color from experiencing the same old story under a different guise.
“We’ve got so many evictions happening,” she warns. “A lot of those evictions are the social equity applicants. How are they going to apply for social equity applications in the business if they need to stay in their house? Then let’s say they do get evicted. If it’s in East Harlem, now you’ve got a gentrifier coming in and that kind of takes the social equity applicants’ status away because that person’s been removed.”
What's Pilar DeJesus's Advice for Healing With Plant Medicine?
Going back to the plant medicine part of it, DeJesus reflects that her own experiences with cannabis and even psilocybin have allowed her to create healing spaces. She urges everyone trying to work past trauma to heal with plants, though she acknowledges the very act of reaching out can be difficult.
“If you’re going to go into business with other people, do the healing together,” DeJesus encourages. “That could be part of the camaraderie you build, because we are broken. This is us every day of our life for every second. We’re literally depleting. Look at what’s happening in the news. Every day, our brain is being beaten the fuck up. And then depending on the choice of medicine we're using, whether it's pharmaceutical, alcohol, you're probably making your brain worse, you know, depleting the frequencies more. You’re making those frequencies stay in the dark instead of enlightening them. I keep saying we’ve got to unite, but I realize that a lot of us can’t unite because we’re still broken and we don’t even want to take accountability… What’s holding us back? How are we going to have successful longevity in business and relationships if we can’t even talk?”
Fortunately, one thing La Problema was born to do was talk. She’s doing it in such a way as to raise the consciousness of those who really, truly need someone to advocate for them. She’s continuing to investigate how to establish avenues for healing, individually and collectively. (Ask her about plant medicine any time – she’ll probably know exactly what kind of microdose you need.) She’s even using that expertise to repair her relationship with her mother, slowly, over private elevated experiences.
Beyond Healing: A Personal Note
In the interest of healing, I must confess that I inadvertently did to DeJesus what so many people have done in the past. I broke my promise to record and amplify her tale with the same care that she showed in sharing it with me in the first place. Like Roger in Rent, it took me nearly a year to write the story of a woman I deeply admire, and in that time I lost her hard-earned trust.
Because I was and am greatly touched, and awed, by Pilar’s strength. Her ability not only to survive such injustice again and again, but to be able to see beyond herself to what the larger world needs and want to provide that, comes from a place of power that most of us will never understand. Seeing a glimpse of it up close was humbling, like witnessing some once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomenon. For months I struggled with how to capture the essence of that power in an article, how to protect the rare pearl of someone else’s core yet help others understand where it can guide them to their own.
This may be what they call a case of “liberal guilt,” because it’s true that as a white person I will never know completely what it is to live as somebody of color. But I think, in fact, the guilt comes from my actions of being so scared to translate Pilar’s vulnerability into reportage, wondering if I would do them justice, that I did them a severe disservice until now. It was not privilege that stayed my hand, but the fear of betraying her message.
I do believe that everything happens for a reason. To release this story now, during both Women’s History Month and at a time when New York’s cannabis industry is turning into a hodgepodge of warring legacy groups, overly funded corporate players, and small entrepreneurs just making their way, it is more important than ever that we’re reminded of those who suffer when cannabis is kept from them. We need to be directly servicing the people of the communities, interacting with them, learning where services fail them, as Pilar does, so that can be addressed. We’ll never repair the harm if businesses eat each other while their customers waste away. So perhaps it’s for the best that Pilar’s story was kept until the exact moment when its impact would be most dazzling.
Still, I regret that for this article to have that impact, a friendship I valued was damaged in the process. Pilar, I apologize for the hurt that I caused you. I hope that the publication of this story will be a catalyst toward further unity and social action, and that in your mission other manifestors will heed the examples you’re setting. Thank you for sharing your light.
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Featured image: Pilar DeJesus leads a pro-cannabis legalization protest in New York (C) Pilar DeJesus / All That Jive NYC