Jamia Wilson is a story-teller. That much is clear from watching the first 30 seconds of her TED talk, or from spending less than two minutes in her office. She has one of those voices that make you want to ask if she’ll record an audiobook, just so you can listen to it on repeat (not to be creepy or anything…)
She also happens to be the Executive Editor and Publisher of Feminist Press, a non-profit organization that publishes the work of marginalized voices. Before that, she served as Executive Director of Women, Action, & the Media. And her writing has been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Guardian, and Rookie. Pretty cool, if I do say so myself.
But in all seriousness, I spent a little over an hour with Jamia, listening to her share her career path, her family’s history with activism, her passion for writing and reading books–and I left feeling so inspired, as if I was ready to conquer the world.
That’s what Jamia does best. She is an eternal optimist. By inherently knowing and radiating a sense of her own self-worth, she is able to affirm and support those both in her midst and others far away through the reaches of her media influence.
For each question I asked of her, she had a personal response that was also imbued with invaluable life advice. She has been through many disparate experiences–giving her a singular perspective–and is quick to offer up that experience in the name of narrative change.
My wish is for everyone to be able to spend an hour chatting with and learning from Jamia. But, since she’s quite the busy lady, enjoy these words from her. I dare you to not feel inspired after reading.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up? And do you remember what first got you interested in the type of advocacy work that you’re so passionate about?
I grew up all over. I’m from South Carolina, originally. But, I moved to Saudi Arabia when I was almost six years old. And then I went to boarding school at a feminist, all-girls school in Maryland.
I also went to a feminist, all-girls school!
Oh, I love that! I love all-girls schools. They’re the best. I recently spoke at Smith College and at Emma Willard School. I love those environments – they’re magical, collaborative, and inherently feminist spaces!
From there, I moved to D.C. for college. I’ve been in New York for the most part ever since, except for a quick stint in California, but I missed New York and came right back.
When I was in school, even in Saudi Arabia, I was always interested in social justice. I was always the person who wanted to run for student council, start a recycling club, I was in Amnesty International, all of those things.
My family had roots in the Civil Rights Movement. My mom was very active in non-violent, civil disobedience in South Carolina. Having family members who were heavily involved in that work–my grandfather had done voter registration work for the NAACP, at risk of his own life– really taught me that this is my duty. From an early age, I knew I wanted to use my resources and strengths to help make the world a more fair and just place for everybody, and to advance that for the next generation. People did that work for me.
So, that really led me to apply for internships and jobs that aligned with those ideas. It started with me working at Planned Parenthood in their Action Fund and Federal PAC Dept., and working my way up to become a campus organizer there. I worked with the affiliates on larger organizational strategy, action, and engagement. That really kick-started my career.
At Planned Parenthood, there were people who identified that I had media skills that could be utilized to help with narrative change and narrative power around reproductive freedom. I was doing T.V., newspaper, and Op-ed work, and I was coaching other people on these skills.
That is what led me to go to Women’s Media Center, where I ran their Progressive Women’s Voices program for several years. I helped people learn what it means to be a commentator, to own your voice, to speak truth to power in the media in concise and consistent ways.
Then, that led me to go to TED and to Women, Action, and The Media. And, eventually, it led me here to Feminist Press.
This place means a lot to me. I am the first woman of color to be in the role and the youngest person in our nearly 50 year history. It feels like legacy to me because my mother, who just passed away on Christmas Day, was a reader of Feminist Press books. It really came full circle for me.
And, I’ve always been a writer on the side. I was always engaged in online feminist nightshift, through Twitter and freelance writing. That all brought me here–to the intersection of media making and helping to lift up other people’s voices. I saw this as my path to making change, utilizing the strengths that I had. I used to think of it as a circuitous path, but now, looking back at my career thus far, I see my path as somewhat linear, in it’s own way. It’s all very rooted in narrative power and change.
When you were leaving school, did you have a “five-year-plan” or a “ten-year-plan”? What was your dream?
At my parent’s house over the holidays, I was looking through my old dairies. I think when we lose someone, we want to go through memories. I found that I had written, in one of them, that I wanted to be a writer. When I was five, I wrote my first ever book. It was just papers stapled together. My mom found it and gave it to me when I had my first book published.
Before I knew the term “public intellectual,” I used to say I wanted to be someone who would speak truth to power about the issues I care about. I listed people who I really admired for doing those things–like bell hooks, someone who I’ve looked up to since I was young.
Except, when people would ask me what I wanted to do, I would always say, “I want to be a broadcast journalist” or, “I want to be a civil rights lawyer.” Those things seemed more tangible, they had a set path.
But, what my diaries really said was that I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to publish books, I wanted to be a lecturer, and speaker about the issues of the day.
It took me a while to confidently say that out loud…because there isn’t a program that you can sign up for to get you there. There is no Hogwarts for that.
What did you study in school?
Public Communication. First, I was a Broadcast Journalism major. Then, I went into Print. And then, I decided to do Public Communications. I’d had a PR internship, but I also had a very formative experience where an older, white, male professor told me he thought I was doing very well in his class, but that if I didn’t change my hair and straighten it, I’d never be able to have a career in Broadcast Journalism. When I pushed back, he said, “give me an example of a woman who looks like you and wears her hair like yours, in that field”. At the time, I couldn’t give him an example. That really discouraged me. Right now, you’d still be hard-pressed to find someone, but the market and the media are definitely starting to shift.
Years later, I was speaking at a Planned Parenthood event and I realized that him saying that to me–pissing me off, questioning my right to be seen and heard–is what led me to see what it is I really want to do, which is to disrupt. And to make media more accessible to all people. I’m thankful that was the lesson I got from a terrible experience.
I know you went back to grad school later on in your career. What was the decision making process for that move like?
I had two parents with PhDs. And I think there is a larger narrative about African-American families and the meaning of education. Education was something that was held away from us–with slavery, we weren’t allowed to read; it became something that was really prized by my grandparents. My grandparents were so proud that they had attended college, and in my grandfather’s instance, grad school at NYU, where I later went.
It was a mix of this pride and my parent’s belief that education was something you could have that could never be taken away from you, that was really imbedded in the way I thought about what it meant to amass power over your own mind. And an ability to shift culture by gaining access to information and learning to think critically.
So, it was partly all of this. But, the other part was just that I really like school. I’m good at school. I had questions and curiosities that I needed to be able to dive deeper into. There were other people, like me, who were interested in the complex nuances and the messy conversations, versus things that were cut and dry. That was the biggest lesson for me. And the reason I went to grad school was to refine how I think and to refine how I write. I’m really grateful to have had that experience… even though I’m still paying for it…
You’ve held different titles at many different organizations, but all with feminism and activism at the foreground of their missions. It seems like you’ve been very thoughtful and intentional in the organizations that you’ve chosen to affiliate with. How important has that selectivity been in creating your network and your reputation?
I believe that credibility and integrity are two things that take a lot of time and a lot of trust to amass–and take very little time to lose. Questioning is this position, is this affiliation, is this network, is this relationship in alignment with my values is something I take very seriously. My word and its value is so important to me. The minute that you challenge your journalistic integrity or betray the confidence of a relationship, it’s really hard to build it back. I’m mindful and intentional about how I decide where my energy is being spent and where my endorsements go.
When it comes to building community, I always lean towards trying to find a “yes,” because I believe in the goodness of collaboration. But, I also really listen when my intuition says “no” or when my intuition isn’t giving me a “hell yes.”
I like to go within, to meditate and pray over these decisions. When I was being considered for the job I’m in now, I was also being considered for several different positions. I prayed on it. I decided that this is where I felt called to be–my internal compass helps guide me in those moments and it has never been wrong.
The moments that have felt wrong are always the times I haven’t listened to the red flags. I believe that what’s meant for you is for you.
I’m thinking about one fancy job that had been sent my way… but, everything about how it had been handled, the structural issues I saw within it, didn’t align with my ethics and values. While I had to release what would’ve temporarily been access to a lot more money than my usual experience, and maybe some of the more superficial enticements that it would’ve come with, I didn’t feel as though I could wake up everyday knowing it was where I was meant to be, in a broader sense of my life.
Wow! That’s a great answer. You’re making me think through so many things as I’m sitting here listening…
I think the lesson is to be gentle with ourselves about the rethinking. All of the times I’ve done what I shouldn’t have done, for whatever superficial ego or icky reason, those have been some of the best lessons.
It’s such a practice in listening and it sounds like you’ve really honed that…
I’m working on it. I’m trying to really tap in. I’m still not 100% there.
As a woman, I think you’re deeply conditioned to question what it is that feels right to you and what it is that feels like indignity, because patriarchy is so embedded into our culture and normalized. We’ve experienced so much gaslighting. It’s important to tap in and say, “what voice am I hearing from right now? Is this the voice of my truth or of my ego? Is it of social resistance that is telling me something that isn’t of me, but of the conditioning?”
I have a trusted group of people who can help me discern these questions. I think it’s good for everyone to have those people who you trust, to call you in when you’re not being true to yourself. But ultimately, it’s about finding that discernment for yourself. Writing helps me know if it’s flowing out of me in a way that is authentic to who I am, or if I’m thinking for the external world.
It sounds like you’re doing deeply personal and emotional professional work. How do you stay energized and avoid getting bogged down by it?
I’m still working on managing self care and community care. I’m trying to get back to the basics. Especially after such a big loss, you lose a sense of compass and identity, you get knocked off your center.
I’m trying to eat in a way that keeps me energized, and to hydrate. I put reminders in my calendar to drink water. You know, it’s the little things. I keep protein sources around my desk. I listen to podcasts to keep me focused and inspired on the train. That helps to keep me from feeling anxious during the commute–the subway sets off all of my anxieties. So, I’ve been thinking about what are the self care steps I need to work through that–and it’s getting lost in stories. I meditate in the morning, waking up earlier so I have time for it.
I’m also trying to put more time into my writing. For me, that is a necessity like hydration, like sleeping. If I’m not doing it, my energy is not released. I have to schedule in time for writing.
Also, I love the art of a great meal, whether it’s preparing it for someone, for myself, or even going out. I just had the most amazing Valentine’s dinner– I indulged in new things, like this robust glass of wine with strange flavors, just trying something new to spark a new experience in the mind.
Lastly, I would say travelling. Wanderlust has been a part of my life, having been moved around so much since I was young. In school, I studied abroad in Italy, which opened up this need in me to experience life in other places. I try to focus any sort of extra time and income I have into experiences and travel. If I can’t travel somewhere, even going somewhere nearby or creating an experience in New York, that gives me a little piece of a new country.
What is your philosophy on separation vs. integration of work and personal life?
I really believe in this idea that I learned from Parker Palmer–an amazing Quaker writer and thinker. I went to one of his retreats at The Center for Courage and Renewal, he teaches about living an undivided life. It’s about looking at the places in your life where you feel divided, exploring why that is, and making the changes you need in order to feel in alignment.
Right now, I feel like I’m getting even closer, with each role, with each evolution of myself, I get closer to living an undivided life. A large part of that is really getting clear in my values, getting clear on my internal sense of how I want to spend my time, and who I want to spend it with.
My work is so important to me, but I don’t feel like it’s divided from my life. If I spend too much time on the work so that my life feels less of the meaning, then I know something needs to be adjusted. If I’m spending time at work and feeling like it’s not in alignment with my overall goals, then something needs to be adjusted.
Obviously, there is a difference when I leave the office and go home at night. But, I think because of the ways in which I set up my life, I have a joyfulness about when I do book events here or when I’m working during the weekend on a project I care about.
I also know it’s okay here for me to go on a lunch break and actually take it, and go for a walk. It’s okay here to meditate and go back to my work more rejuvenated. Those things are really important and I think working in a feminist environment has also helped with that.
When my mom was really ill, I had support from the team, and encouragement when I had a surgery, to take the time that I needed. I think working in places that have structures in place for us to live more undivided lives are super important. We need to be our whole selves at work and at home.
I love that you’ve written for women’s magazines, especially places like Rookie. I love how these spaces are proponents of the idea that women are multi-faceted with interests ranging from politics and academia to style and beauty. These conversations have not always been taken seriously in the media, but are beginning to be. When you’re writing, is this something you’re thinking about? What is inspiring you to move the conversation forward in these ways?
I think there’s a lot of different intergenerational view-points on this that can be dissonant, but I am definitely someone who would say that I’m full femme presentation and ownership. I want all of us to be able to express ourselves in the ways that feel right and true, in whatever body we have–non-binary, cis, disabled, in whatever skin tone we have or size we are!
What I love about these kinds of platforms is that there is no stigma. One of the things that Tavi Gevinson did a really good job with, along with Petra Collins who was involved with the photography and visual imagery at Rookie, was de-stigmatizing girlhood and the idea that it was frivolous to be engaged in girl culture.
I’ve heard critiques from certain feminists who feel that celebrating makeup or feminine dress as a part of an agenda is harmful. Their belief is that they’ve worked so hard for us to be able to show up as ourselves and not have to adorn ourselves according to the male gaze. But, I like to remind them that it’s much more complex, that we’re actually saying thank you. We don’t want to be forced to present ourselves in any way. We want to be able to show up as we are and to express ourselves in the ways that help us feel free, seen, and heard. And that we’ll fight for that right for all of us. If that means someone feels empowered to adorn themselves in a specific way, they should be able to, and if someone feels disempowered by a dress code, they should be able to disrupt that.
While I was with Rookie, we did a sponsored partnership with Dr. Martens that I loved. They had young women talking about standing for something…and they were standing for something in Dr. Martens shoes. There was some controversy. People were frustrated that we were partnering with a capitalist company. But, what I loved so much is that it was a company that really supports the lifting up of young people’s voices. Our photoshoot was mostly young women of color from East New York, speaking about issues of social justice. That, to me, is really radical work to be happening in a magazine! That was the vision that Tavi and her team had.
Representation is so important.
In response to the story I told you about the comment regarding my hair and broadcast journalism, I had a white mentor in media who said to me, “what you’re talking about isn’t about race. I experienced a similar thing when people made me feel like I had to become a blonde in order to be seen in this work. That’s just what I had to do.” And I said, “well no, it is about race. You also had a sexist experience, but it is a bit different.”
I learned that it was very political for me to be pushing back by going on T.V., speaking on The Today Show, looking the way that I do…going on CNN and debating Tomi Lahren looking the way that I do. The comments showed that. But, I also received letters from people saying they were so proud seeing someone who looked like them.
Your public speaking…has that always been a skill of yours? I know you mentioned that it took time for you to develop your voice, but you appear so comfortable on stage. Would you consider yourself an extrovert in that way?
Thank you for sharing that. I think I’ve always felt like I had something to say.
My father says that when I was a kid, my parents were having a dinner party and one of his friends said, “when she has something to say, people listen.” My dad would tell me that when I was in high school, going into debate club and model UN. And at church, people would always ask me to speak.
There was always a sense that I knew I could deliver a message, but I don’t think I really knew I could deliver a message in front of a lot of people until I got to Planned Parenthood. That’s when I’d be in a room of hundreds of people or speaking at a rally and knew that it was my job to lift people’s energy up, to motivate and inspire.
I define myself as an undercover introvert. My mother used to say I was born 35, which must mean that I’m like 70 now–my idea of an amazing evening is being by myself, reading a book, drinking tea, with a puppy by my side, deeply nesting. I wouldn’t feel like it’s fully true to say I’m an extrovert.
I feel like I can be a bridge because of the unique upbringing I’ve had with my international viewpoints–I like to share that.
But, I have massive stage fright. I don’t want to pretend that I’ve mastered the kind of confidence that some people have that I do not have. I consider myself a person of faith, I know I can’t do it alone.
When I eulogized my mother, that morning I thought there is no way I can do this–but, I watched the video the other day and I thought to myself, how did I do that? I remember none of it. I prayed right before and then it just came out.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
My mom would always say, “stop focusing on how you fell down, it’s about how you get up. Get up.” I think about that everyday. It’s about how you take the next step and persist. You were not defined by the breakdown that happens to everyone. Especially in an Instagram culture, it’s so important to remind ourselves that. We’re not seeing everyone fall down, but we all are.
Talk to me about your new book!
I’m so excited! Step Into Your Power is coming out March 5th! It’s for little sisters in the world, ages 9 through 12. It’s about how to unlock their power, trust their strengths, and know they have the power to transform their communities and the world. It’s being illustrated by Andrea Pippins, who I worked with on my other book (Young, Gifted, and Black).
In it, we explore lessons about living an undivided life, learning from the tough moments, recognizing when you have relationships that don’t feel good, cultivating healthy relationships, and how to speak truth to power to adults as a young person, in respectful ways, but also with their own strength. We ask: how do you take action and engage in advocacy as a young person? How do you deal with an illness when you’re young, your own or that of someone you care about? How do you stand up for yourself? How do you lift yourself up when you’re down in the dumps?
And each piece of the book has an actual activity that people can do. I’m now revisiting the book and finding new ways to step into my power through the activities. I just want young people around the world to recognize their strengths and know they are enough.
Anything else you want to share?
I just want people to remember that reading is so revolutionary. And the reading of actual books.
Now, after losing my mother, the idea of the book as object is even more important to me because Step Into Your Power is dedicated to her. It will forever be a memorial to our love. I don’t have kids yet, so I think of books as legacy.
And I want people to think about the books that they’re reading, what it means to support feminist authors, and what it means to support indie presses, like ours (Feminist Press!) and others. Buying from them directly. That is an activist act that people can take relatively easily, to make sure that stories, that otherwise wouldn’t be told (too risky for other publishers to take on), are lifted up into the public discourse. To know there are scrappy, inspiring teams behind this work who are wrapping your packages with love. The support you give helps continue to have the most marginalized voices be heard.