Intergenerational Feminist: A Conversation with Jamia Wilson

Jamia Wilson began her career as a nonprofit leader by doing campus outreach and action-fund coordination for Planned Parenthood. She has since served as Vice President of Programs at the Women's Media Center and Executive Director at WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media). Her writing has appeared in Teen Vogue, The Guardian, The New York Times, Glamour, and Rookie, where she has served as a columnist since 2012. Wilson has also written two children's books, Young, Gifted, and Black (Wide-Eyed, 2018) and the forthcoming Step into your Power (Wide-Eyed, 2019), and co-written Road Map for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Activism, and Advocacy for All (Penguin, 2018).

Wilson sees "intergenerational partnership" as integral to the future of Feminist Press, an organization she calls "the perfect intersection of things I'm passionate about." In July of 2017, Wilson succeeded Jennifer Baumgardner as executive director and publisher of Feminist Press. Our conversation took place in the CUNY offices of Feminist Press on July 10, 2018, the first anniversary of Wilson's term as the youngest and first woman of color to lead the organization.  

When I interviewed Jennifer Baumgardner last year, after she stepped down as executive director and publisher, she mentioned that one of her frustrations had to do with the fact that Feminist Press was financed solely by sales, that it didn't have a line of credit. A year later, is the press more or less sales-driven? Have you made any structural changes to address financial concerns?

To quote the headline of a recent Publishers Weekly article, "feminist presses are seizing the moment." Our sales are up 80% from 2015. In-house sales are even up, which means that readers are engaging with us directly. In terms of restructuring, since I've worked in a lot of nonprofitsthis is my third Executive Director role, and I was raised in a family of nonprofit leadersI'm a big believer in the idea that every nonprofit goes through stages that are analogous to those of humans: the start-up stage, the founding stage, adolescence, and then, eventually, full maturity. As an organization navigates these stages, it has different structural needs. Something that could have served us in a previous stage may no longer serve us. So, as we face our fiftieth anniversary, we have the opportunity explore what it means to be a mature organization. There's a lot of focus on strategic energy right now. We took a staff retreat to the Omega Institute and brought along some board members so that we could hash out our vision for the future. We've formed a strategic planning task force that will codify everything and engage our constituency in the process.

How does being director and publisher of Feminist Press fit into the progression of your career?

It's personal. I was raised in a house with Feminist Press books. I've grown up in a world where there has always been a Feminist Press, so I've always understood implicitly that the press's work is a resource for developing as a feminist and as a person. At this time in my life, and at this time in history, and in the life of the Press, it made sense to bring in someone, like me, with a movement-building background. But the press also needed someone who has been part of a generation that is deeply embracing intersectional feminism.

There were other channels I could have gone through that would have been, you know, more financially fruitful for me. But I can be most impactful here, with the press in its full maturity. The investment that people want to make in me as a leader of Feminist Press at this time was not just about me, it was about the direction they believe that publishing should be goingfeminist publishing, specificallyand the connection between the publishing of books and the lives of movements. That investment was compelling for many people who rarely see themselves represented in publishing, and an invitation to do work that is meaningful and purposeful. And when I came on board, the groundswell of love was palpable. People we didn't even think knew about Feminist Press were excited. Everyone from people who are on TV shows to DeRay McKesson. All sorts of people saw this as a win. The outpouring made me realize that feminist literature matters to a lot of people, not just the usual suspects. The outpouring also had to do with what it means, in an industry where you can count on one hand the amount of women of color who have director positions, to have a black woman leading a publishing company.

What is the legacy of the press's founder Florence Howe? Does she still come to editorial meetings?

Yes. I actually just invited her to the next one. Florence has been supportive, amazing, and thoughtful. At our fiftieth-anniversary meeting, she nudged me and said, "I love seeing you in action." And every now and then, I get a really affirming voicemail from her. She understands that I understand the importance of the press's mission and that I'll do whatever I can to protect it.

In what ways, if any, does Feminist Press still reflect Howe's convictions and style?

So much of what Florence did is still relevant. The fact that she named it Feminist Press and not, say, Women's Press, says something. As "The Feminist Press," it was broad enough to include everything that feminism includes now. It was intersectional and global from the start; Florence was always committed to elevating marginalized voices on a global scale.

I think that some of the most innovative and youthful spirits who've mentored me have been older. Gloria Steinem is one such friend and mentor. She has a visionary, strong imagination. Florence is the same. She just called the other day about a book we were all already thinking about for the fiftieth anniversary. So she's right there with us. She gets excited about new and emerging books that we have, she reads them, and even still takes on proofreading work.

The intergenerational part of this job is important to me. I haven't had an opportunity at other places to work with both women in their twenties and women in their late eighties. I think it's steeped out of patriarchy and white supremacy to privilege only perspectives that are new and young. In a patriarchal organization, once people cease to be able to execute in a certain way, they're valued less. That's a misogynistic way to approach progress.

Something Howe said in her memoir that has stuck with me is that she imagined Feminist Press would be temporary. Is that something you think about? Is there a horizon beyond which Feminist Press doesn't need to exist?

I'm in the Coretta Scott King way of thinking that "the struggle has to be fought in every generation." I would love to live in a reality where everything was a feminist utopia, but I think that the Feminist Press, in my lifetime and my children's lifetime and probably my grandchildren's lifetime, will continue to be relevant. Given the ongoing need to foreground the worldviews and perspectives that our books convey and uplift and support, I am approaching this work as if we're going to need to be here for a long time.

Howe was an academic and built Feminist Press from course adoptions and library purchases. What is the press's connection to higher education now?

We still have a connection to academia, but Feminist Press is at CUNY, not of CUNY. We're a press that publishes myriad books from people who have all sorts of ways of knowing. We don't have a peer-reviewed, double blind publishing process, and I'm happy about that. But we do publish academic books, and the work we do with Women's Studies Quarterly (WSQ) is part of our connection to academia. We're a part of the WSQ board. We also always have a table at the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) Conferencewe recently had a Crunk Feminist Collective signing booth at NWSA. So we still interface with academics, doing hand selling, etc. We also have reader guides for many of our books, which helps with course adoptions. Something we're talking about right now is how to feature people who are teaching our books. We'll do this using digital technology: #TeachFP?

As an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, I can see how students engage with our books. So when I'm at NWSA, I can tell professors, this can answer students' questions about the history of feminism and intersectionality or this is how a particular demographic of student responded to this book, these are the kinds of projects they did.

What is the relationship like between Feminist Press and current feminist activism?

I'm an activist, and you'll see me at marches, and you'll see Feminist Press there, like recently at a Me Too rally, where I spoke about survivorship and about why we still believe Anita Hill and why we need that book, I Still Believe Anita Hill (2012).

I had that book with me on stage, and people tweeted images of me waving that book, which shows me that these books are powerful to have at rallies. Feminist Press will be at CLPP Conference at Hampshire College, about reproductive justice, and in creative spaces like the BUST Craftacular and book fairs like Well-Read Black Girl. We're also working with the Asian-American Writers Workshop. We make deep connections with the communities from which these spaces emerge, and the communities that these spaces create. We're in it, which is extremely important to the future of the press.

Lately, big trade presses have been starting boutique imprints, sometimes with a focus on experimental fiction and new voices. Is it possible that the big presses will intrude on Feminist Press's business model?

Maybe. Last night, I was on a panel about independent publishing in the age of resistance, and a lot of people in the audience were from mainstream publishing, some of whom work for the Big Five. I wondered if there would have been as many of them in the audience for that panel prior to November 9th, 2016. I think there's a lot of good that will come of mainstream publishing trying to learn from the independents.

When Merriam-Webster named "feminism" the word of the year in 2017, we at FP said, "it's been our word for fifty years." If, because they've decided there's a market reason for it, mainstream publishing starts doing risky, radical, controversial work, that's great. But they're going to be doing so without the trusted community of readers that we've built up over the years, people who are invested in the press and who want to buy directly from us.

As one of our board members says, FP is now and has always been a "press of discovery." Our books have shaped the waves of feminism. They have made waves before "waves" were defined. That's what small, independent, community-minded presses can do: they can find conversations and unearth that which the mainstream marketplace can't see. Florence started the press by unearthing lost works. We're still doing that: uplifting conversations, communities, and voices that wouldn't be seen by those other presses. People really seek the integrity of the small press; we're seeing that in our sales.

We're also a pipeline for publishing, as a lot of our interns go on to Big Fives, and they bring to that space the perspectives they gained from Feminist Press. I think that kind of infiltration of mainstream culture with feminist organizational and conceptual paradigms needs to happen on a larger scale. We support the debut work of authors who sometimes go on to other presses. But they remain deeply connected to FP, because we're collaborative and mission-driven, which may be something you'll not see at a for-profit.

How you see the relationship between the shaping of political culture and the shaping of literature?

I was featured in an article with Kima Jones and Lisa Lucas about black women in publishing (in the "Revenge" issue of Bitch), in which we address the issue of literary activism. I consider myself a literary activist. I know there are some editors who don't consider themselves activists, especially people in literary publishing. But the very fact that I'm in this seat is an activist move. I think that my getting to be in rooms that I otherwise wouldn't get to enter is a coup. It's ultimately an intersectional argument. If you're advancing literature, that work is intersectional insofar as you are weighing in on the question of how diverse and inclusive the landscape will be. That is activist work, because these books are shaping hearts and minds in the public conversation.

Books themselves are weapons against ignorance and injustice. If books didn't have the ability to ignite movements and mobilize masses, then my ancestors wouldn't have been barred from learning how to read.