Who She Is: Jamila Lyiscott, doctoral student at Columbia University, academic activist, poet, educator, sister, and friend.
Why She Shines: From her work as a doctoral student to her work in Uganda she is determined to be the change she wants to see in the world. We can't wait to see what the future holds for her but we're already extremely proud to call her sister and friend.
GSL: Tell us about your PHD program?
JL: I am currently a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. My work looks at the relationship between literacy, racial justice and healing for members of the African Diaspora. Essentially I believe that affirming our identities through language and culture is a form of self-love that will promote healing in our communities and change our view of our own worth and capacity to impact the world as a people.
In my work I have found that we have been systematically dehumanized and disenfranchised for generations, and have internalized some damaging ideas about ourselves and even become some of the things that we have been called.
GS: How can we begin to heal?
JL: Claiming ownership of our scars, acknowledging our history prior to slavery, colonialism and affirming the wealth in the varying cultures of our Diaspora is the first step to healing. Moving away from asking others to see us as valuable and trying to become something by erasing our identities is key to this for me. The idea of literacy and education is about how we read and write the world...how we represent ourselves and how we are represented as a members who experience and transform the world around us.
GS: Why did you choose this path?
JL: I am passionate about the state of my people all over the world. There is a pathology in America around race. As clear as it is, many refuse to acknowledge the centrality of racism here. If too many black people go to a certain school, the other races leave...if too many of us move into your neighborhoods, you leave...
I chose this path because I do not want to continue trying to fit into spaces of pseudo-equality. I want to be a part of a Diasporic movement to assert and mobilize our collective value as a people, while addressing the ugliness, scars, and self-perpetuated damage from within. The key to that is education. Not schooling...education.
GS: What are the biggest challenges you've faced within the program?
JL: Addressing issues of race is an explosive task from all sides. One challenge was my own internalized inferiority. The media and society at large perpetuate and represent what blackness is in ways that are damaging. It took a while for me to accept that I am supposed to and can be successful in a PHD program. Existing in the world of academia often means erasing major parts of your language and culture to fit in, but my goal is to bridge this world with the realities of our communities.
How do we acknowledge the ugly of our communities and heal them without perpetuating the idea that we are deficient and delinquent as a people?
GS: That's such a great question and its something so many of us struggle to answer. How have you overcome that challenge?
JL: It's a journey...an individual and collective one. The understanding that this work is a process and that everything I do is rooted in my relationship with God has helped me to feel more comfortable with my slingshot against this Goliathan task, but I am also standing on the shoulders of so many and working with so many like-minded people who are about dis life! Teaching critical thinking to young people of color, learning from them, working with other activists and having an ongoing discourse about this throughout the Diaspora have all contributed to the process.
I've learned that the healing that I speak of, the self love and assertion of value is happening in me personally as much as it is happening with us as a people...
GS: Tell us what UrbanWord has meant to you and why you stay so connected to the organization.
JL: When I was 15 years old I went to UW to participate in a spoken word competition. This space helped me to understand the distinction between education and schooling.
I was an A student, I knew how to do school, but I didn't know what it meant to participate in the world through voice and agency, I didn't know I could affect change until I was introduced to Urban Word.
Here, youth voice and leadership are central to the mission and this taught me a lot about myself and my world.
GS: Your trip to Uganda...why Uganda? How did the trip change your life?
JL: My trip to Uganda was very random. It was by the grace of God that it turned out to be such a blessing. Honestly I just wanted to see Africa to give and to learn from an authentic experience with the people. I simply asked a professor to go and be of service in some capacity and she hooked it up for me with the understanding that I would raise money to fund the trip. It was transformative because I learned so much from the people what it meant to be concerned about bare necessities of life and to not be lost within a consumer culture. I was inspired by the work of the community to build themselves as opposed to trying to flee to somewhere "better".
Black History Month
GS: It's Black History Month, what do you want black people to know about our past, our present and our future?
I want Black people to know that the key to change is for us to love ourselves...our broken, our whole, our beauty, our ugly, our scars...to hold and kiss each and every part of our history, and our present, and embrace it, sit in it, love what it has made us toward our future. There is enormous healing in that.
GS: Who or what inspires you?
JL: God inspires me. I know that sounds cliche, but the more I learn about His design of the world and His love and humility and power, the more I'm just in awe of Him. Like, I really dont understand how He has so much love when we're all such a mess. My parents inspire me. Their love for each other, their continued sacrifice and discipline inspire me. My mother's love for God and people, and my father's soft heart inspires me...My minister inspires me. His genuine love for God, humility, teaching, and love for me has been central to who I am. My best friend Nicole inspires me with her diligence, soft heart, and compassion...Steven Biko, Toni Morrison, Phylicia Rashad, Barack Obama, Dr. Ernest Morrell, Dr. Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz, Dr. David Kirkland, Dr. Geneva Smitherman all inspire me.
GS: Tell us about the biggest challenge you've had to overcome?
JL: The biggest challenge that I had to overcome was losing weight. By the time I was 15 years old I weighed 259 pounds. There are a slew of challenges that came along with this. When I was 19 I lost 60 pounds, but spent years fluctuating as I tried to keep the weight off. Just recently I lost another 55 pounds and I am healthier that I've been since the age of 6.
For me the journey was not about weight, it was about the process of conquering myself, my insecurities and my self-image. It's been a long long journey, but it has produced so much in my character.
GS: How do you keep your light shining through?
JL: I surround myself with people who hold me up and champion my journey even when I am too weak to do it for myself. I fight to stay rooted in God's Word and to stay connected to the work and practice of everything that I believe is central to my purpose.
We hope she inspires you and much as she inspires us.