Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson Believe Political Change Is Possible

The Tennessee state representatives gained national recognition after Republicans expelled them from the legislature for protesting gun violence. They’re not about to back down now.


justin jones

On Jones (left): Chuks Collins suit. Winnie New York shirt. On Pearson: D’iyanu shirt. Chuks Collins pants. Brooks Brothers belt. His own jewelry. PHOTO: MARIO SORRENTI

This past April, Republican lawmakers in the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel Democratic representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson for protesting on the floor of the chamber in support of stricter gun-control regulations. The demonstration came after six people, including three nine-year-old children, were killed in a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. But the attempts by congressional leaders to expel Jones, 27, and Pearson, 28—who were both reappointed to their seats by local officials days later and formally won reelection in early August—also offered an extreme example of the profoundly deep fissures that continue to threaten both the integrity of American governmental institutions and crucial progress around issues like the epidemic of gun violence.

“The Justins,” as they’re now known, are Harper’s Bazaar Icons for 2023. Below, they explain what brought them into politics and where they find hope for the future. To see more from our 2023 Icons issue, including cover stars Kendall Jenner, Doja Cat, and Paul Mescal, click here.


I don’t look like the other elected officials in the building. In fact, I was told that I should cut my hair and assimilate. But I know that we have to represent a new model of what legislators can look like. Someone who does not assimilate or accommodate white supremacy and these “norms” of what we’re supposed to be and who we’re supposed to appeal to and how we’re supposed to curtail our identities in order to be accepted in a space. We represent a new South.

I’m Black, but I’m also Filipino and Indigenous, and I bring all those identities with me into this legislature every day. My family wasn’t overtly political. I grew up raised by my grandmothers, and they didn’t teach me politics necessarily, but they did teach me about justice. What does it look like to build a beloved community? What does it look like to think about our ancestors and the generations that will follow after us?

When I was elected in 2022, I was the youngest Black lawmaker in our state. I ran against a city council member [in the primary] who had all the endorsements and support, but I recognized that our generation didn’t have a voice in the Capitol. I was tired of begging my now colleagues to hear our voices. I was tired of begging to be let in the door. Running for office was a way to make sure our issues were heard.

“We have to represent a new model of what legislators can look like.”

Doing this work here is so critical because the South has really been the front line of so many battles in our nation throughout history. This is where we need bold voices for progressive change, and I think it’s welcome. I believe that’s why we see so many laws to try to suppress any type of revolutionary change. They know that if we step forward and build these coalitions and do the work of the progressive movement, we have the numbers on our side.

I remember people telling me before we got expelled, “Go in there and be apologetic”— basically bow down to the speaker and then maybe they won’t expel you. But I knew that that’s not what I was going to do. We’re the two youngest Black lawmakers; I’m 27, Pearson is 28. If they were not threatened by us and our generation, they would not have expelled us.

Every time you see them react in extreme ways, it is confirmation that we have power and that we need to seize our platform. I think defeatism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I reject it because I believe that the world that I want to live in, the world that I want my children to live in, is worth fighting for.

Justin J. Pearson

I had no intentions about being a part of the environmental-justice movement, honestly. I’ve always cared deeply about justice but had not seen myself in that work or in that space. What happened—and this happens with a lot of moments and movements—is there are times where the movement calls us in to do something that’s different than we might otherwise do in order that justice might come forward.

I became engaged because I was proximate to the problem, and proximity is a necessary precursor to anybody who is engaged in a movement. You have to be proximate to know what the issues are, to understand who the people are, and to resist and to fight back. And that’s what we did.

We’re in a very difficult, harmful status quo that operates in death-dealing. Everything feels urgent because everything is urgent. We can’t afford to not act on all fronts. We’ve got too much poverty. We’ve got too many kids dying from guns. We’ve got too much health-care inequality. We’ve got too much wealth inequality. I believe that if we do nothing about the climate and environments of injustice, then the future that we inhabit will be one that is treacherous and terrible and ungodly.

“I take care of my community as passionately as I did before I ever had a title.”

What we have to be doing is stuff that is subversive to the way that things are. For legislators, that means using your voice and your platform to advocate for and write different laws. For teachers, that is to teach a curriculum that is inclusive and to tell kids that they matter and use their preferred pronouns and say their names. For preachers, that is to preach differently and to teach a gospel of love and liberation.

What will it take? Everything. Everyone will have to go all in with their resources and their talents and pedigrees and privilege and positions and authority and wealth. And if people think it’s robbery that they have to have to give something for us to have justice, that they have to have to put down their titles and pick up the cross of justice-building—if they think that’s robbery, then we are going to continue to move forward without them.

Because here’s the truth: The movement that we must build is open to everybody whose heart is open, whose spirit is open, whose mind is open, but our movements for justice do not have time to try and convince people of others’ humanity. That is not a good investment of time.

I serve in a people-powered, people-first way, because that’s the only way I know how to serve. I never thought of myself separate from being an activist. I’m an activist dash legislator—and it’s a good position to be in. I take care of my community as passionately as I did before I ever had a title.

The interviews and photo shoot for this story were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Hair: Tomo Jidai for Oribe; makeup: Frank B for LoveSeen; manicures: Lisa Jachno for Chanel Le Vernis; production: One Thirty-Eight Productions; set design: Philipp Haemmerle. Special thanks to Buttercup Venues