Spotlight: Social Justice Through Storytelling with Jamia Wilson

Jamia Wilson is many things: an activist, a feminist, a storyteller, and a media maker. She is the Executive Director of Women, Action, & the Media, a contributing writer to several books such as Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, and I Still Believe Anita Hill, and currently working on her own debut book. Learn more about how Jamia has used the power of storytelling to turn her passion for social justice into a career.

You have built an incredible career in social justice, from being the Executive Director of Women, Action, and the Media, to writing your own book, and so much in between. What advice would you give to those who want to pursue a career in social justice but aren’t sure how to get started?

One thing I would say is to really be purposeful and intentional about where you want to go. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your strengths and continue to build them and don’t be afraid to amplify those strengths. I think if I look back on things that I would have wanted to do when I was younger, that would have been it; to really embrace my strengths earlier on, to run with them, and to build upon them. I think for me, doubting myself has been the worst poison, so, I would say for anyone who feels like their strength is speaking up and speaking out, to go for that and to find the resources to do it.

When I talk to creatives in my life as a writer, and I have a husband who is a jazz musician, a lot of times when people find out what they do they’re like, “wait, how do you eat?” One of the things I often say in response to that is that being able to think about our lives more broadly than the framework others have imposed upon us can help us get closer to our purpose. So, I stopped asking myself how I can be included, and now ask myself, how I can pave new ground? That shift has been really helpful for me and something I wish I had discovered years ago – keeping my eye on the prize and prioritizing what I feel called to do with intention.

So, what I wish I had known when I was younger is to be really deliberate, intentional, and unapologetic about focusing on my goals and building my strengths. I think that we’re conditioned as women and people of color to not take up too much space, to not talk too much, to not rock the boat. And the reality is that in order to make change, often, it’s moving past those barriers and boundaries that others create. It’s making a noise in a silent space and being the one to create a ripple in a still stream in order for change to happen. I’ve really been working on doing that boldly and understanding that it is the role that I play and accepting and honoring that. So, I would say to young women that it is extremely important to walk in your shoes and be unapologetic about it, even if in the moment, it might not feel comfortable to do so.

Something that I wish I knew when i was in my 20’s is to really care less about what other people think. I spent a lot of time in my 20’s caring what other people thought of me, and I could have been spending that time doing a lot of amazing things, building a lot of great initiatives, and just treating myself to more self care. Don’t waste your time or give emotional real estate to those who don’t deserve it. You have more important things to do.

If there’s one last thing I could tell young people, it’s to be intentional about your money. Don’t wait as long as I did to learn about financial literacy. It’s really important to start learning now and to not be afraid, for women and especially for women of color, who are disproportionately paid less with wage inequality, to know your worth and ask for your worth. And keep it moving when places don’t value you. I’ve learned that nothing is worth more than my freedom. If you believe that your work is worth what you believe that it is, and you’re not getting that, and you see that other people are, then that may not be in alignment with who you are and that might not be the place where you want to be. And I know that can be a difficult thing to think about, because it’s so competitive and a lot of times when we’re younger, we get so happy just to get something somewhere. But, if that is the stopping point, don’t be afraid to go to the next point sooner. Over time, it’s not just about us getting unfairly compensated, these same issues of economic inequality are going to affect us when we need child care, and when we need access to medicare when we’re older and our social security check is not enough. I really want to drive that home because I think a lot of time people say “just pay your dues, wait your turn, it’s not a big deal,” when this thread of economic inequality actually impacts our lives at every turn.

Storytelling can be one of the most powerful tools in creating social change, something that we are seeing more and more. In your experience, how can sharing stories make an impact in social justice movements?

I think it’s extremely important to understand that ever since humans became humans, storytelling is what we’ve been doing to inform each other, to build community – that it’s a natural part of our instinct. Those very beginning campfires is really what we’re really doing now on social media. We’re creating conversations and discourse in connections across the globe. There’s still that same notion of connectedness, of knowing that you’re not alone, of knowing that your personal story is connected to a larger story. I often think about that in relationship to the South African concept of Ubuntu, which is as old as humanity and means “I am because you are.” So, that is one of the reasons that I engage so much with storytelling because I really believe it’s transformative. Not only is it about sharing information and education, on an even more profound level, it’s about acknowledging our humanity and sharing it with other people in powerful ways. That’s why the media stories that stick with people aren’t just the stories that are about statistics, it’s the stories that bring statistics to life through personal stories and connection that can stay with us on a cellular level for years to come.

I think what we do know too is that media is the strongest and broadest public education tool that we have and it really shapes how we see ourselves, how we understand others, how we understand our culture, and also, how we understand our potential in the world. This is why it’s so important for young people to be taught media literacy. I also think that’s why what we’re seeing in the current administration is such a targeting of media and media outlets, because they really understand that press freedom, at it’s very core, is about making sure everyone can tell stories. It’s about having equal access to those stories through neutrality, and that when people can get access to educational content and information on social media, that they will make more informed choices when they vote and as they make decisions about what they support. It’s important for us to continue to surface light in the face of darkness, to absolve truth in the midst of alternative facts, so that we always remember that we have the power to do that and that it is our right.

How can we counter hateful or exclusionary narratives that we see in the media or online?

One of the things that I have been really thinking about is this idea of building bridges that are so powerful, they can break through the most impenetrable wall. And that can be done in so many ways, via going to JFK to stand with other humans in order to protest discriminatory actions that are unconstitutional, like the muslim ban. It can also be done by going to a demonstration like that and writing about it, and bearing witness as a citizen, journalist, or reporter, to make sure that true stories get out there about what’s happening. You can also serve as a translator, so that people who are being detained or those who are protesting have access to people who understand them, can share their stories, and help communicate between lawyers, journalists, and others.

Another example of how we can build these bridges in social media and in person is to use social media and storytelling in order to organize. To use it in a grassroots way so that we can have in person events and get bodies to action, while making sure that we all connect to shared narratives and shared ideas. An example of this is what happened with the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock – there was international solidarity and people sharing stories. Citizens and journalists were using Facebook live to share what wasn’t being reported in mainstream corporate media. There were also solidarity actions being done on social media around the world to connect what was happening at Standing Rock with other Indigenous struggles, and other struggles for civil and human rights, like the Black Lives Matter movement and the beautiful statement of solidarity that they wrote. So, those are just a couple examples of how we can do this.

Another thing that I’m seeing right now that I really love, being the nerd that I am, is how people are using these tools to fact check. This last election cycle, I spent a lot of time during the debates fact checking points that were made about what was true and wasn’t true in real time and sharing with people who follow me on social media and also supporting the media outlets who were spending time and resources on fact checking during that. There are the people who are using online sources to capture information about science and climate change and making sure that these archives are kept and protected and that they don’t disappear. The people that are keeping watch to make sure that our checks and balances are still in place. People who are going on the websites to make sure that there is still access to resources and information that’s important.
Another example is the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic, which I thought was beautiful and when that hashtag emerged, the woman who created it really talked about celebrating black women’s love and resilience and all the things that we bring to the table. I think there are a lot of ways we can use these tools to protest wrong doings and to create community and to affirm each other and one example of that is sometimes, I like to edit Wikipedia, because there’s a disproportionate amount of white men who edit Wikipedia and that actually impacts the way our archival story is told. So, a lot of time I like to go and see how subjects that are deeply impacting women, like reproductive rights, are being written, and how conversations about Black Lives Matter are being written. Is there something I can add, or a perspective I see is missing that I can edit? Or, are there historical figures who are being left out of conversations? I will then make edits to ensure that they are included in our narrative around the resistance as well as the narrative around who our fore parents were who brought us to this point. We can also create our own media through videos, animated gifs, etc. Sometimes the art is able to communicate in ways that our words can’t, and so we must ensure that there are ways for us to be joyfully defiant during times when we’re trying to transform and make change.