Jamia Wilson on feminist activism and taking the publishing world by storm

Jamia is a feminist activist, writer, and speaker. She joined Random House as vice president and executive editor in 2021. As the former director of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York and the former VP of programs at the Women’s Media Center, Jamia has been a leading voice on women’s rights issues for over a decade. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets, including the New York Times, the Today Show, CNN, Elle, BBC, Rookie, Refinery 29, Glamour, Teen Vogue, and The Washington Post. She is the author of This Book Is Feminist, Young, Gifted, and Black, the introduction and oral history in Together We Rise: Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World, Step Into Your Power: 23 Lessons on How to Live Your Best Life, Big Ideas for Young Thinkers, ABC's of AOC, and the co-author of Roadmap for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Advocacy, and Activism for All.

What led you to become an activist?

I always enjoyed writing and grew up in a house full of books. My mother was a professor and always had books around the house. When I was younger, I attended writing camp and put out a newspaper at the camp. Mum had books that I had made myself that were stapled on the side. It was something that gave me ownership over my own power and voice.

And being an only child, I had a lot of time on my own without other children present. I also went to the Anne Frank house when I was a child. As a young person, I saw a young woman who had terrible things happen to her. She had a lot of confidence in her voice and it really taught me that no matter what age you are, you can be a writer. It’s a craft that you continue to refine. I didn’t see it as necessarily my passion – I thought it was something that I would do on the side.

A series of events happened around the time when I was working at TED Talks. I was looking at the blog posts and the books that they were putting out. I thought that I could not only write books, but also help others shape their own stories.

Back when I worked at the Women’s Media Center and was leaving, I was speaking with Gloria Steinem. I was telling Gloria that I devastated that I was offered job at TED and was leaving the Women’s Media Center. I had done so much feminist work that I was proud of at the Women’s Media Center. I remember going to Gloria saying I felt conflicted because I loved this work and having a Feminist job with a capital ‘F.’

She said although she was sad to see me go, but that I should be proud to have this new role as I would go into this space asking questions that some people might not ask. She said when we enter these places that aren’t inherently feminist, it’s profound when we are in those spaces. She was proud that I was doing that. Now I go into new places and ask the questions that are most served by me asking questions.

Do you consider Gloria to be a mentor?

Yes, but she wouldn’t want it to be described that way. She always “I’m not a mentor, I’m a friend, a co-conspirator” and always says that she learns from us too. She says that’s what sisters should be – all about solidarity. I also try and take that and do it in my own approach when working with younger generations.

You were the Executive Director of the Feminist Press - can you talk a bit about the organisation and its mission?

Feminist Press is the longest running feminist publisher in the world. It started with the Founder with Florence Howe who we sadly lost in 2020. She was an incredible visionary and sought out to recover lost texts and diversify curriculum and to service and amplify women’s voices.

She was a white woman involved in the civil rights movement, and was a progressive and visionary woman. She had adopted a black child who she had met in the South. All these values showed up in her work.

I’m proud to say that the Press started before I was born. One of the earliest books in the history of the publisher was The Black Feminist Reader. It was also a book my mother gave to me as a gift.

 Another great one is I Love Myself When I am Laughing And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive – that’s the entire title. It is Zora Neale Hurston’s work that Alice Walker found and edited. It exemplifies how when people talk about second wave feminism there’s a story out there about feminism not including that intersectional conversation even when it should be or is about intersectional voices.

I was at Feminist Press between 2017-2020 and was there for the 50th anniversary. I absolutely loved amplifying marginalised voices in the books. I was also there at that critical juncture in US history – with the President and the cultural issues we were facing at the time.

I was first woman of colour and first young woman to run Feminist Press. When the Press started, we were at the time of a cultural zeitgeist - such as movements around women’s liberation, the Black Panthers, reproductive rights and Roe v Wade, school shootings.

My mum had survived a school shooting before at a black campus – but it didn’t get as much press as it was a black campus. Because I had that history and always pay attention to history to inform the present, I saw that the same issues were happening when I was Executive Director at Feminist Press.

In America, we had violence against people of colour and police brutality. We had Black Lives Matter – also during a time of COVID-19. So many things were happening during this time. We were also in the aftermath of the Women’s March and the Kavanaugh hearings. Although we have made some gains, we really need systematic gains. Even 50 years later, Feminist Press still needs to exist. We were in a time that we needed Feminist Press, which is interesting because Florence had always thought that an institution like Feminist Press would no longer be needed.

It’s pretty amazing that you were able to partner with Florence while she was still alive.

Yes, I am beyond grateful to have been able to talk to Florence Howe and partner together. I got to know her when she was in her 90s. We received some huge book reviews that she would call me up about to discuss. Even books that didn’t appeal to her – she trusted us because she knew that we knew the new generation. It makes me realise the type of elder I want to be in my life and the kind of ancestor with the next generation.

Is there one book that you think has shaped you?

Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl really taught me I could be a writer. Another one I would say is The Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison. She worked at Penguin Random House, so I really feel full circle with her as she worked where I have.

Lastly, I would say Maya Angelo’s Letter to My Daughter. My mother - who has passed away - wrote inscriptions in copies of the book, so it’s really sentimental and means a lot. Maya was also a Random House author.

What are your key priorities and goals in your current role?

What I love about Random House is its imprint - to publish books that were published at random – and I love that. We are publishing so many things, and so many women I grew up reading are on their list, like Maya Angelou. It’s such a diverse list of authors.

So when I thought about what my contribution will be and how do I want to shape the list I am building as an editor and the voices I am championing – I really thought about amplifying diverse voices who capture imaginations and inspire empathy and inspire critical thought.

When I look at a proposal, I think about if a book contains those things, as those are the books I can best support. I think about whether it will inspire empathy and critical thought action and public imagination. Is it a book that will make someone show up at an event because they have been changed by it? As I’ve has the books that have done it to myself. I also love narrative non-fiction and issue-based non-fiction.

I always say that my ‘Netflix algorithm’ shows strong female leaders and that’s what I’m attracted to. I’m drawn to global feminist voices. When I was at Feminist Press – they have a long history too – they had so many immigrant narratives.

What advice do you have for young writers and storytellers?

My advice to young writers and stories – be in preservation of your voice and don’t explain. I have made myself a bracelet that literally says ‘Don’t Explain.’ Patriarchy says we – especially young women - have to explain ourselves. If someone pushes us back and undermines our experience and diminish power and devalue. We have been conditioned to explain ourselves. Don’t fit in, pave new ground and don’t explain. You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. It came to me when reading Maya Angelou who said you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.

When you write, are you seeking to explain. Are you seeking to justify your truth and experience? Take a pause and ask your soul what you want to write if you weren’t afraid what your worst critic in your life. Write that name down and cross it out and write out what that person would think. It’s the best approach.