How Are You, Really? is an interview series highlighting individuals—CEOs, activists, creators and essential workers—from the BIPOC community. They reflect on the past year (because 2020 was…a year) in regards to COVID-19, racial injustice, mental health and everything in between.
How Are You, Really?: Activist Jamia Wilson Reflects on Smashing Stigmas and Changing Jobs During a Pandemic
In December, Jamia Wilson took a huge leap, stepping down as Executive Director and Publisher of the Feminist Press at CUNY (a title that made her the youngest and first woman of color director) in order to become a Vice President and Executive Editor at Random House. I spoke to Wilson about 2020 and how it shaped her job, her mental health and her goals for the year ahead.
So Jamia, "How are you, really?”
My First Question Is, How Are You?
I'm hanging in there during a time of grief. I'm deeply sad and outraged about both personal and collective losses but also feeling a sense of renewed hope. The concept of renewal inspires me. I learn so much from nature and its beautiful resilience. The brightness of the sun and the lushness of my favorite park remind me that growth is always a good thing, even if the conditions that led to it have been challenging.
How are you, Really? As individuals (specifically BIPOC) we tend to say, we’re Fineeven when we’re not.
I'm horrified by the rampant apathy, individualism and lack of empathy I see displayed in ways big and small in many of our institutions and frameworks. Although I have been conditioned to expect the worst, I continue to push and fight for the best because we deserve better. Our dignity is paramount. Our humanity depends on people of conscience to act, speak, and push for liberation for all people.
How has the past year taken a toll on your mental health?
I have suffered some major losses in the past few years. I have also gained in beautiful and unexpected ways. Although the pandemic added an uncomfortable layer of stress and hypervigilance, the ability to go inward, protect my energy by staying home and not commuting (I admittedly do not miss the subway!) has ushered in welcome clarity, intention, healing and joy. The pandemic has been a reckoning and also a space of clearing for rebuilding, restoring and realigning in new ways.
Do you find it difficult talking about how you feel to others?
I speak my truth because life is a gift and my feelings and experiences matter. I have encountered people who have pushed to silence me in covert and overt ways. Despite having to grapple with the pain and sometimes gaslighting effects of detractors I remember that backlash is usually ignited by folks who feel threatened by the progress we're advancing. When I witness another person (especially someone in a place of privilege) reacting to truth-telling in an undermining, sidelining or diminishing way, I ask myself if I consider them a credible source on the truth of my soul--and that often leads me to a place of understanding about the levels of their fear, ignorance, or discomfort with courage--and I release myself from the burden of their projections and keep it moving.
Why Do You Think It’s Tough For Bipoc To Talk About Their Mental Health?
Oh, I could give a TED talk on this subject. Just kidding, but I have a lot to say about this and wrote a whole piece about this for Rookie Magazine because I NEEDED to heal myself by sharing with others about why it is up to us to smash the stigma and care for ourselves. When I hear or see the stigma creeping up or when I witness someone else's internalized oppression or ignorant judgments condemning me or others for having the strength to get the support we need, I remember that white supremacy and patriarchy thrive when we numb ourselves to their deleterious impact. I think of this quote every day by Zora Neale Hurston: "If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it."
What are the ways you focus on your mental health? Are there self-care rituals, tools, books, etc. you lean on?
I actively meditate, pray, hula hoop, sing, dance, brew and sip healing teas and walk. I take long meandering baths with lots of salts and CBD oil. I use essential oils and tuning forks to help manage stress and stay centered throughout the day. I am committed to my French classes and my intuitive healing study with Dr. Deganit Nuur. I often attend online workshops with the Omega Institute where I'm a proud board member. Finally, Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab is currently on my nightstand, and I love it.
With so much that has happened in the past year, what has made you smile/laugh lately?
My husband Travis Sullivan is a jazz musician and enjoying live music in my home is a blessing every day. I'm listening to him play piano right now while our dinner is slow cooking.
How Has The Pandemic Played A Role In Your Career?
I decided to make a job change and although I was initially a bit nervous about how it would be to start at a new company in the midst of a pandemic, I'm adjusting well so far. The pandemic quickly showed us that we would all be going through transitions and be forced to adapt, reimagine, and rebuild. I decided to embrace the tide of change in many facets of my life. I loved my past role, but I felt drawn to the prospect of starting a new adventure at a pivotal time.
Why did you make the job change and how did that impact your mental health?
I was intentional about taking several weeks off between jobs for the first time in my life, and it helped ensure a smooth transition into my next chapter. I loved my past role, but I felt drawn to the prospect of starting a new adventure at a pivotal time. I love both jobs because I'm passionate about books. I feel fortunate to be working on what I feel aligns with my purpose. Even though each imprint is different, the heart of what inspires me at work is the love of words, books and working with visionary authors.
You also host your own podcast The Ordinary Equality.How have you used your platform to speak on current events?
I loved joining The Ordinary Equality as a frequent guest with my friend and pro ERA-collaborator Kate Kelly. I was honored to join her and the awesome team at Wonder Media Network to discuss one of my favorite topics, reproductive justice. Our reproductive rights are human rights for people of all genders. Bodily integrity is critical to maintaining our dignity and agency as humans. I hope listeners come away with new nuanced and intersectional ideas and thoughts about how they think and talk about all aspects of reproductive justice.
Do you think changes have been made when it comes to racial injustice over the past year?
I believe that we have a long way to go and that we won't move forward until the root systemic problems we're facing are thoroughly addressed. In addition to reparations and the transformation of our criminal justice system, we need a truth and reconciliation process in this country.
Although I am feeling hopeful about the next generation and the increasing momentum around movements to combat white supremacy, we have a long history of deep injustice baked into our society, culture and systems. I often think about “Ella's Song” by Sweet Honey and the Rock when pondering this question: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons..."