When I left my mother’s home on my own at age 16, I thought I was grown. I may not have known exactly what I would do, but I knew that I had to leave Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the 1960s, Tulsa was segregated, with Blacks living on the North side of town across the railroad tracks. I was among the first African-Americans to integrate Central High School, in compliance with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Decision Brown vs. Board of Education (which was not enforced in Tulsa until more than a decade after the law was passed).
I remember one time in high school, I had to give a verbal book report in my English class, and decided to give it on Eldridge Cleaver’s, “Soul on Ice.” I stood up in front of the class and shortly after I began reading, my teacher yelled, “Stop that! Stop!” I looked up at her and said, “I’m giving my book report." She replied, “Not on that book you aren’t! You go to the principal’s office,” and pointed towards the closed door. I closed my book, and walked out the door and down the long hallway to the principal’s office.
I was expelled for sharing “improper materials” with my class.
I was really angry and thought that Cleaver’s book was just as appropriate as any other book my White classmates were reading. Why was I being expelled for choosing the controversial book, especially when school is supposed to be about education? I went home and told my mother, who was a single mom raising six children. She was mild-mannered when it came to racial issues. It was ingrained fear that lingered from the historic 1921 Tulsa Race Riot that destroyed Black businesses known nationally as America’s “Black Wall Street”. So of course she was hesitant to stand up for anything that might cause racial friction—she told me to sit down, and let it go; chiding me for selecting the book in the first place.
But I couldn’t let it go. I decided to call the news media and hold a press conference on the steps of the school. I started making phone calls and received a lot of interest. For the press conference, I wore a leopard dashiki and a big Angela Davis afro wig. As I was standing on the front steps of Central High School with microphones in my face, the school administrators came outside and gave their reason for my dismissal. Justice was done! I was re-admitted back into school right away.
My life has been a series of bold decisions that led to loads of mixed experiences – some good, and some not so good. Even at a young age, I’ve always tried to think of positive and diplomatic, yet effective solutions to complex problems. Leaving Tulsa as a teenager with $135 in my pocket and a one-way ticket to Portland, Oregon was my solution to finding a better, safer place for myself. Was I scared? Yes. But facing fears is how you liberate yourself. Every day, I told myself that everything would be okay, that I would survive and make something of myself. That was the beginning of my journey to becoming a world traveling "pioneer." (I am certainly not suggesting that a 16-year-old leave home today, but if you are of age and you know it's time, you should honor the feeling.)
Luckily, I had good typing skills and was able to land a secretarial job at a local bank in Portland. On the weekends, I also worked at Nordstrom. Those jobs afforded me the opportunity to send myself to the John Robert Powers finishing school. Not only did I learn how to eat with the right fork and knife and sit properly, but I also recorded my voice every day to work on each syllable in an attempt to get rid of my southern drawl. Of course, there aren't many schools like this today but, point is, I saw this as a way to prepare myself to “run in prestigious circles” in the world.
Before I knew it, I was running in prestigious circles in the world.
Julia’s Fearless Living Tips:
1. Look around at your environment and see if it’s supportive. Is it working for your good? If not, begin to think about how to prepare yourself to “go where you’re celebrated, not tolerated." *
2. See yourself some place else. If you’re not sure of where that place is, flesh out your options and list what comes to mind for each location. Respect your feelings.
3. Now do your homework; read up on potential new environments to see how they might fit your wants and needs. Start to prepare yourself (mentally, financially) for change.
4. Call people you know, and even those you don’t to search for potential contacts in your new location. Call them!
5. Set a deadline.
6. Step out on faith.
“Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.” -Nelson Mandela
Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications, an international public affairs consulting firm founded in South Africa in 1994 and headquartered in Washington, DC. A U.S. Department of State Fulbright Grant recipient and international lecturer, Wilson has lived, studied and/or worked in Africa, China, France, Israel and Brazil. Follow her @JuliaWilson_DC #Fearless Living. For more information go to www.wilsonglobalcommunications.com.