Women of Impact: expression and acceptance with Jess Oberlin
A long-time ambassador for women and the LGBTQIA+ community, Jess speaks on creative entrepreneurism, self-expression and surviving cancer.
This month, we’re shining a spotlight on exceptional women making a difference. Our #WomenOfImpact series, created in honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, showcases intimate interviews with progressive women from our community committed to equality, representation and change.
Based in Eindhoven and known for her personal view of fashion, infectious enthusiasm and vibrant stage presence, today’s chat is with Jess Oberlin, an anti-disciplinary experience designer. Over the course of a colourful career, Jess has made a real impact. As an empowering ambassador for marginalized, female-identifying, non-binary & LGBTQIA+BIPOC communities, Jess is dedicated to facilitating space for people to share empowering moments through collaboration.
Meet Jess Oberlin
A self-taught clothing designer, event producer and DJ, Jess is best known as the founder of PLASMA, an inclusive event platform celebrating diversity through shared experiences in music and art. Founded to give queer and international women’s communities a safe space to connect in person, PLASMA fights for equal treatment in terms of gender, age and origin.
Jess is also a beloved ambassador at The Social Hub Eindhoven and has recently been exploring her political potential. As an international non-dutchie, she was able to join the local branch of the Groen Links (Green Left) party as a representative. Sitting down with Jess in the early morning, we catch her just after her family breakfast as she prepares for another action-packed day.
Where did your passion for championing marginalized groups come from?
“I always tell the story about being eight or nine and wanting to join the school chess team. I was bullied by all the boys and told I was just a ‘dumb girl.’ I was good at chess but left the team because I hated the bullying, this was probably one of my earliest fire-in-the-belly moments. I got bullied badly at school because we didn’t have a lot of money, I wore second-hand clothes and had big, puffy 90s hair.”
“I had a rough few years and had to switch schools. I even changed my whole identity to try to be one of the ‘cool’ kids, then discovered they were bullies too. I didn’t want to be part of that and eventually found these three ‘weird’ girls that became my best friends. I think being bullied is a big motivator for the work I do now because, in my own way, I know how it feels to not fit in and to not be accepted or respected as you are.”
Is that why it’s important for you to create a safe space for people to express themselves?
“Definitely. I couldn’t be my crazy self for a long time, and I tried to keep it all on the inside. Once I got a bit older, into my 30s, I remember throwing my first karaoke party. It was a real moment of just totally being myself – and I wanted to offer that space to other people, too.”
This off-the-cuff party would mark the inception of one of Jess’ most unexpectedly and empowering passion projects, Karajoke. With a pop-up concept, Karajøke invites people to express themselves and put their quirky characteristics on full display during supportive, non-judgemental karaoke nights. With lots of crowd interaction, encouragement and fun, these evenings are all about empowerment and success.
“This is also the reason I started the PLASMA,” continues Jess. “Originally I launched JØ, a fashion brand, making body positive bodysuits, then I wondered how I could give it a political voice. I saw other brands around me celebrating Queer Week or Queer Month, but nobody was doing it year-round. I wanted to be an everyday advocate, to take all that protest energy and turn it into something beautiful and enjoyable. That’s how PLASMA events began.”
PLASMA events are known to be incredibly unique in their content and delivery, how did the concept evolve?
“I’ve always loved the idea of open discussion, crowd interaction and vulnerability when debating societal issues, but as someone with ADHD it’s hard for me to focus on a symposium where someone just talks at you for an hour. So, I designed these events to be much more fluid and exciting.”
Jess breaks down a typical PLASMA event, telling us that speakers talk for a maximum of five minutes, before opening the discussion to the group for a short stint. Then there’s a five- or ten-minute pop-up performance, often led by femme/LGBTQIA+BIPOC artists. It’s designed to be fast-paced and thought-provoking.
“At the end, everybody is always like, ‘what did we just experience?’ It’s such a colourful, stimulating way to introduce people to different cultures and subcultures, showcasing original art, music and ideas. We always feature upcoming talent as well as worldwide stars, everybody gets to fly their own freak flag.”