Jamia Wilson on welcoming the wisdom of our elders

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the full conversation below:

To begin to understand Jamia Wilson, I realized quickly, was going to take a much wider perspective than I was accustomed to.  As we sat together high up in her New York City office, I’d need every bit of that empire state of mind to travel across time to her cacophonous front porch filled with ancestors.

Mixed up with her story is theirs. She’ll be the first to say that her success can’t be separated from the shoulders she stands on.   Author, mediamaker, activist, Wilson is the youngest leader and first woman of color at the world’s oldest activist publisher, Feminist Press. Sought after speaker on leadership, spirituality, and gender and racial equality, Jamia’s been both a TED Prize Storyteller Fellow and the youngest recipient of the NYU Graduate School Alumni Achievement Award.

“I feel lucky to come from a tradition where there was a value on elder wisdom. I grew up with strong grandmothers, and [was taught] there’s a lot you need to learn from those that came before you. They’ve sacrificed things that’ve made it possible for you to have freedoms that you take for granted,” she shares in this clip, “Having it imbedded in my cultural and religious teaching made it so that I would seek out mentorship [as an adult].” Wilson took the advice to heart, and now Representative Maxine Waters and Gloria Steinem are just some of her “aunties” on speed dial.

Jamia’s deep ties to the past animate her sense of future. Raised with intimate reverence for the stories and struggles of her people keeps Wilson focused on her own legacy. “When I wake up in the morning, I want to do what I was sent here to do to make the world better, even if I’m not here to reap the benefits,” she says, revealing her source of seemingly inexhaustible energy.  Jamia wrote Step into Your Power and Young, Gifted and Black to inspire and equip the next generation to realize their dreams.

I confessed to Jamia her potent intergenerational ties brought into dim relief weakening community and family connections so rampant today. I know little of the hopes and struggles that propelled my ancestors to Ellis Island just a couple of generations ago, and even less of their homelands. Was there a comforting dish served to brighten bad days? How did the countryside smell at the first sign of spring? What songs did they sing to their children at bedtime?

Listening to Jamia, I feel in my gut how these lost stories have impoverished me. This disconnection takes many shapes. Longing to live close enough to our grandchildren to drop by for an after-school snack.  The weird isolation of modern-day parenthood.  Lack of community rituals for birth and death and adolescence and menopause.

Might our grief be propelling us towards grasping onto authentic wisdom wherever we can find it? Smudge kits from Sephora and Navajo feather earrings from Urban Outfitters doesn’t get us any closer to metabolizing this grief and harms native people.

In Jamia’s story is a guide for how we, too, can reclaim our legacy, and become the ancestors we’ve lost.   Motherhood, Wilson reminds us, transcends giving birth. It’s found whenever we affirm and nurture life.  Attention to legacy acknowledges our ancestor’s sacrifices and asks how we’ll leave things better from our children. It’s a practice in humility and a celebration of oneness and doesn’t require we know the past or future names on our family tree. And who says intergenerational relationships require shared DNA? “Foster” grandkids and elders alike can be cultivated with a bit of creativity, intention, and the courage to put yourself out there.

A few weeks after we spoke, Jamia’s beloved mom passed away. As she shares in this clip, her mother was her biggest role model, her greatest advocate, and her most loving supporter. Jamia now must face life without her favorite elder in it. But her momma will live on through Jamia. Because the only way to pay tribute to receiving a love that pure is to become that love for the world.

In honor of Willa Alfreda Campbell-Wilson, 1948 – 2018

Follow: @Jamiaw

Find Jamia’s books, articles, interviews, and upcoming speaking events at www.jamiawilson.com

(Go ahead and get Young Gifted and Black and Step Into Your Power for every young visionary in your life)

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