How to Advance Social Justice Through Storytelling
Jamia Wilson is the Executive Director and Publisher of the Feminist Press, the longest-running women’s publisher in the world.
Before joining the Feminist Press, Jamia was the Executive Director of Women, Action, and the Media; a TED Prize Storyteller; and Vice President of Programs at The Women’s Media Center. On top of all of this, she’s a prolific writer and renowned public speaker. Her most recent book is called Road Map for Revolutionaries, co-authored with Elisa Camahort Page and Carolyn Gerin.
Read on if you want Jamia’s advice on:
1 - Using storytelling as a medium for advancing social justice
2 - Dealing with naysayers in your creative + feminist pursuits
3 - Building up your public speaking credentials
Photo credit: Aubrie Pick
Stephanie: What is Feminist Press, and what’s your role there?
Jamia: I am the Director and Publisher of the Feminist Press, which is the longest-running women’s publisher in the world. We like to say that we’ve been lit since 1970. We're an educational nonprofit publisher, founded by a woman named Florence Howe to advance women's rights and amplify feminist perspectives. We create programs for communities across the country and around the world, and we elevate silenced and marginalized voices in order to support transformation and social justice for all people.
How did you end up at the Feminist Press?
I joined the press after serving as the Executive Director of Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!), a direct action network that's dedicated to creating gender justice in media at all levels. I also have a background working at TED conferences and the TED Prize as a storyteller, which is code for editor. I worked at Women's Media Center where I was the VP of Program and led our media training programs for women and girls and a lot of our direct action campaign programs. I also worked at People for the American Way. I worked for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and was the campus organizer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America and had the honor of working with campus chapters around the U.S. and in Mexico who were looking to advance reproductive justice.
I've also by night done a lot of writing and blogging and publishing of books of my own, as well as public speaking, TV, and commentator work. I really love storytelling for social justice. I think is the common thread throughout my career that led me to Feminist Press.
Did you always know that you wanted to somehow combine storytelling and social justice?
I did. I used to think it was going to be in a more linear way. I didn't think of it the way I do now in terms of creating media. Some aspirations I had included things like becoming a civil rights lawyer. I also wanted to become a broadcast journalist, which was my original goal. I wanted to be the black Christiane Amanpour. There wasn't a lot of diversity in media. I wanted to see someone like myself doing this work with the kind of insights that you have when you live in the world in a marginalized community. I knew that my core values would have to be in alignment with my work, but I wasn't exactly sure how. I also knew early on that I would always want to be a storyteller. So I’ve always known it was going to be there, but I didn't know it was going to be such a throughline.
Were there any moments early on in your career when you felt like you were struggling to get to where you are now and you weren't sure what to do?
I've had so many moments where there was a crossroads, a lot of questions, uncertainties, and confusion. Or just a lot of rocks and hard places that I've had to confront. But I've also been really lucky to have a lot of opportunities that have come my way when I least expected them. So I always tell people to look for the methods you might not be open to receiving, but which can help give you clarity.
One tangible thing a friend mentioned to me is that she has a Post-It note that says what she hopes to get out of each experience she’s in. And a deadline for when she’s going to begin her next thing. So I started doing that, too.
I’m thinking about a really good friend of mine who I worked with at Planned Parenthood. She was waiting tables at a popular establishment in Washington, DC, and was meeting all sorts of operatives in media and politics and talking to people about getting informational interviews. And when a position came up, everybody knew her. She ended up being our colleague, and now she has a PhD and is doing amazing policy work. Her story is a perfect example of how every opportunity can present new pathways for you if you identify what those pathways are.
What have some of those opportunities been for you, and how have they presented themselves throughout your career?
Once, I spoke at an event for a different group I was part of and one of the directors of the organization heard me. Later, when she was leaving her job, she recommended me to speak at her organization’s conference, and I did. A few years later, she had been watching my career and recommended that I be interviewed for her job when she left, and I got it. Even if you're not in a position that has a leadership title, people observe the way that you lead and engage with other people. That's a lesson I really got from that experience. Gloria Feldt, who was the president of Planned Parenthood, mentioned that she remembers when I was the Action Fund Associate and would always greet her with a smile when she came in. That is something I did because I was genuinely happy to see her every day. And now as someone who really looks up to her work and who has gotten to partner with her as I’ve grown professionally and be mentored by her, I’ve learned that those small ways in which I could engage at that time were actually impactful.
How did you develop your career as a speaker, and what advice do you have for other women looking to build a reputation as a public speaker?
When I wrote my children's book Young, Gifted and Black, one of the best parts was researching people in the book. I loved what I would learn about each person. What I saw about Oprah Winfrey was that she was out speaking as early as high school. All the opportunities she could get to speak at church events, winning high school debate competitions — Oprah was out there doing it. She used every opportunity to hone and sharpen those skills. So when you're out here and you want to start doing speaking, recognize, are you coaching your high school field hockey team? You have an opportunity to do speeches to your team to keep morale up before the game. You can start your own podcast. I was involved in some of my friends’ campus radio shows when I was in college at American University, and I took opportunities to speak up at rallies and open mics when there were teach-ins. You have an opportunity if you are in college to join Debate or Model UN. I had to debate Tomi Lahren once on CNN. I was thinking about Model UN. If I had only known then that I would have some of these tense conversations in real life.
We can’t let other people define who we are. If we don’t define ourselves, someone else will. I would rather be shaping the narrative about me, my life, and how these systems and issues that are happening in the world impact my community, than have somebody else who might not be interested in our liberation or connected to the issues frame my experience. Sometimes there are people who aren't ready for our message, and that's totally fine, too. But we should keep speaking up. There are so many great visionaries throughout history whose message the world wasn’t ready for, but looking back at them now, they're heroes.
Have you ever encountered people who aren’t ready for your message?
I often do have those conversations with people, and I just try to reflect back to them what they're saying in a loving way. I’ll say, ‘Oh, I love the fact that I get to work in my values every day and be in work that meets the standards of my moral compass, connects people, inspires people, and makes people feel less alone. And that to me is valuable. If you don't find it valuable that’s okay. I write it not to be affirmed, but because I think it's important to have expression like this out in the world.’
When it’s triggering, I remind myself that these people are not a credible source. I heard this recently from Kimberly Wilson, who is an awesome writer, feminist, and yoga leader, on this retreat that I went on recently. Brené Brown has a quote [that she popularized from Theodore Roosevelt], which is that you really should only take critique from people who are in the arena with you. Here it is:
‘It's not the critics who count, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who's actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strides valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again. But there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.’
I think about that a lot when people who just really don't know what's going on try to give me unsolicited advice or diminish my delight. There's enough abundance in the world for all of us to be free and to be who we are.
What opportunities does Feminist Press provide young women writers that they won't find with other publishing houses?
The Feminist Press has a democratic submission process. If you go on the Feminist Press website to submissions, you can read how to submit to us. And every manuscript that gets sent is reviewed by our team, because it's part of our feminist values. We have editorial meetings where our team reviews those submissions and determines the books we're going to do.
How has your work in speaking, social justice, and activism informed the books that you've recently published and are continuing to publish?
The Feminist Press always has a diverse global list. We’re looking at intersectional texts, next generation narratives, experimental fiction, nonfiction, activist nonfiction. Books that complicate narratives about issues like race and gender and bodies and body politics. We have a book right now that I love, You Have the Right to Remain Fat, by Virgie Tovar. It’s one that really does complicate narratives around body politics and feminism in this world. We’re also working with Michelle Tea on Amethyst Editions, which is an amazing imprint that complicates narratives about queerness, and LGBTQ stories as well. We're having more conversations about disability and ability. Our Louise Meriwether Prize, which is a great way for people to submit to us as well, is an annual prize that was named after our author Louise Meriwether. It’s a $5,000 advance for a writer of color who is non-binary or a woman, for a debut work.
What other books from the Press would you recommend to young creative feminists who have an entrepreneurial spirit and are trying to build a career on their own terms?
The Crunk Feminist Collection is one that I really love. It’s about a group of people who are academics by day and bloggers by night, who want to complicate issues around pop culture and the intersection of race, class and gender, conversations that weren't necessarily happening in academia. It's really inspiring to me as a creative to think that we can create what we want to see.
I Love Myself, one of Zora Neale Hurston’s formerly lost works, is one that always inspired me. It's a really beautiful book about self-possession. I would recommend that as well for anyone who’s thinking about self-actualization.
We have I Still Believe Anita Hill, a book I actually contributed to. I love that book because it tells a lot of stories around sexual harassment, and different stories around people's experiences.
Next I would recommend The Feminist Utopia Project, because it reminds us to envision a world that would be a feminist utopia. I think having vision is one of the most important parts of having a successful career. Gloria Steinem says that dreams are a form of planning.
And you have a book yourself coming out as well, Road Map for Revolutionaries.
It's co-authored with Elisa Camahort Page and Carolyn Gerin, who are amazing women I feel really honored to work with. This book is a snappy guidebook. We covered day-to-day activism, advocacy, case studies, and a few checklists. It's a “hit the ground running” type of book that no matter when you open it, you will find something that can give you the next step to take. One of the reasons I was so excited to do this after the 2016 election was that when I came home from the Javits Center that night, I ended up just going to my bookshelf and reading about all these powerful women who defied great odds during difficult times. I want this book to give people a feeling that there's always an action they can take. I think that anyone, no matter what their kind of political ideology or background, will find something in it for them and their community.
How can Writing on Glass readers and community members support your work and the Feminist Press?
The easiest thing they can do is buy our books. Support your independent local bookstores and buy our books there, or buy directly from the Feminist Press. We have a lot of beautiful books, and you get packages that we send with love when you buy from us. If people have money to donate, we're a nonprofit press, so those donations go directly back into the production of feminist books and programs. If you're in New York City, you can intern for us, or if you're in an area where we have a book tour event, which you can see on the website, come and hear our amazing authors. If you’re a writer, you can submit your manuscript. Those would be wonderful ways that your readers could support the press — and we would love to engage with them!