Angie Thomas’ love of Hip Hop fueled her passion for storytelling, and just like the rappers she admires have sought to perfect their art form, she has sought – and succeeded – at doing the same.
Her debut novel is her evidence, and when the movie version of the book hits the big screen in October 2018, her desire to give voice and humanity to a sector of Americans who often feel they have neither is expected to reach fever pitch.
Thomas is the bestselling author of the award-winning New York Times bestselling young adult novel The Hate U Give. In addition to reaching the No. 1 spot on the New York Times list, the book is being sold in more than 40 nations, and Thomas has traveled the globe to expound upon its themes, including the narrative that Black Lives Matter and that every child deserves to be heard and valued.
In late July 2018, several hundred residents of metro Richmond, Virginia – including teens, librarians, book club members, readers and writers of all backgrounds and ages, and me – converged on the Chesterfield County Public Library‘s North Courthouse Branch to see Thomas and hear wit, wisdom and words of encouragement pour from her lips.
Time seemed to stand still during her 90-minute talk as she mesmerized the audience with the story – her story – of being a 6-year-old girl reading Jet magazine (which she called that era’s “Facebook for black people”) in her home and stumbling upon the picture of Emmett Till in his casket – an image her mother took time to explain in depth, leaving Thomas with the message to “know your worth, but know that not everyone values you the way I do, simply because of the color of your skin.”
She also shared her memory of being an 8-year-old enjoying the swing set in her not-so-safe neighborhood park when she heard Hip Hop lyrics for the first time, in the verses of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message, which described the very reality of her hard-knock life. Then, there was her pivotal memory of seeing the late Tupac Shakurfor the first time, in news coverage that cast him as a rebellious yet intelligent rapper. Soon after, she heard his music and his commentary, including the explanation for his THUG LIFE tattoo: The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody. “Meaning (that) what society gives us as youth, bites (society) when we wild out,” Thomas explained during her talk.
While acknowledging the downsides of Hip Hop – its often controversial and profanity-laden lyrics and many verses that disparage females – Thomas still gave a nod to the musical genre for waking up generations of people who often feel invisible, forgotten and frustrated, and helping them (including her) find their voice.
Throughout her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, she heard stories of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in his own front yard, not far from where she lived; and in 2015, as the reality of Florida teen Trayvon Martin‘s killer being acquitted of murder stunned her spirit, so did her desire to become a social justice warrior.
Rather than pick up the weapons she so despised for their role in harming people of color, she decided to model the rappers she had long revered and use her words as her sword. The Hate U Give was born as a short story for a college senior project, then grew into the novel we know today.
Thomas’ captive Chesterfield County library audience thanked her for her willingness to write a story that scared her; and one Caucasian middle school student asked for advice on how she could encourage her friends and classmates to read the book and try to understand kids who differ from them in some way.
Thomas told her to keep being herself – a brave “book recommender” – and serving as an ambassador for what it looks like to be accepting of others.
It’s a path that Thomas is determined to continue walking, with each new story she births and each new audience she introduces to her personal experience of being a little girl who had everything going against her until she heard herself reflected in lyrics (musical storytelling) that legitimatized her existence.
Because she believes “books can change the world,” Thomas intends to be that light for a whole new generation of young minds – whether they read her novels, watch her movie, hear her speak or encounter others who have been transformed by the messages in her words.
Her library talk was an invitation to everyone in the audience to individually and collectively become literary citizens who create meaningful paths to knowledge, understanding and connectedness.
Four years ago today (July 11, 2014), I took an entire (brand new) bottle of pills in an attempt to take my life.
Mental illness is real. I thank GOD for keeping me! I’m so grateful and happy to be on the right side of the grass today! I’m grateful to have life and breath!
In that moment, I couldn’t see that joy was on the other side of my current circumstance. Had I been successful, I would have missed my oldest daughter’s graduation, her prom and sending her off to college. I would have missed our funny FaceTime conversations and silly texts. I would have missed being here for her during the moments she needed her mommy.
My youngest daughter wouldn’t have been born. My family and the rest of the world would have missed out on this precious little girl and all the joy that she brings. I wouldn’t have experienced waking up to both my girls and watching them rest peacefully beside me or in my bosom. I would have missed their giggles, hugs and their sweet kisses.
All of my new friendships wouldn’t exist. All of the trips I’ve taken and new experiences I’ve had in the last four years would have never occurred. (Aruba, St. Maarten, The Bahamas, Cabo, Dominican Republic and Jamaica) WOW! All of that could have never happened….
BUT GOD (and therapy)! Lots and lots of therapy! Then and now.
July is Black Mental Health Awareness Month. If you are struggling with something, you don’t have to do it alone. I can offer you a hotline number (1-800-273-8255); but I’d rather extend my hand to help you through. Like someone did for me.
I understand and I’m here.
We can pray, talk, cry together, laugh, I can listen; and if you are in the Richmond, Virginia area, I can accompany you to therapy, a hospital, a meeting – whatever!
Listen to me – You are NOT crazy! You are NOT weak! You’re just having a difficult time right now, but you can get through it. With help. I know because I’ve lived it.
Please know that:
Your life has purpose (even if you don’t know what that purpose is right now).
This is NOT the end. Just a season. It will pass. It gets better.
Most importantly, please know that…
You. Are. Not. Alone.
YOU – are not alone.
Just reach out. If not to me, reach out to SOMEONE. I did.
Choose life, because no matter how bad it seems right now, it DOES get better. I PROMISE! But you gotta be here and be willing to do the work.
I’m here and I care. xo
Quelina “Que” Jones is a Richmond-based writer and speaker who focuses on women’s empowerment through transparency. She believes that the first step to living your best life today is exposing and healing the pain of the past. She uses her own experiences to inspire other women to heal from the inside out. Connect with her here: Website: quelinaj.com; Instagram: quelinaj; Facebook: Quelina Jones
As an artist, author, vocalist and Top Chef wannabe, I am quite the Renaissance woman, not to tweet my own tune. My friends will tell you: I do it all. (Thanks, friends!) But ask my family a few years back and they’d claim I was best at being Mean & Ornery & Hard to Get Along With. MOHGAW for short.
I can’t help it; it’s in my blood.
I never wanted to emulate my mother, though she is pretty sweet these days. As a stay-at-home mom of nine children who gave up her dream of becoming a nurse, Mom made MOHGAW her motto. I craved a family, but also to develop and share my own gifts with the world. Anything less seemed like a cop-out.
Once a bright-eyed collegiate turned ambitious young adult, I planned to become the next C.S. Lewis/Beatrix Potter combined. I moved east with great expectations and – blink! – somehow found myself married with four young children, struggling to not disappear under piles of dirty dishes and laundry.
While I love my kids, parenting well is demanding work. I began to understand – and resemble – my mom as I despaired ever achieving my career goals. Oh, the mom-guilt! Why couldn’t being the best possible homemaker satisfy my needs? Why must I want it all?
Still…I did, and it showed.
Deciding I could no longer wait for the perfect circumstances (there is no such thing), with our two oldest in school and portfolio, toddler and swaddled infant in hand, I met with a local author who generously agreed to mentor me. For the next several years, while trying to keep family my priority, I wrote and scrupulously edited the first book of my YA fantasy trilogy. To contribute financially, I went to work part-time teaching music at my children’s school. (How better to share that gift than by passing it on to the next generation?)
I created and donated art for charity, and kept up an illustrated parenting blog to encourage other moms while providing self-therapy. Life was fulfilling, exhausting…and totally unsustainable as we welcomed our bonus baby.
MOHGAW Momster reawakened.
Thankfully, and long before Oprah Winfrey put the sentiment into words, I had an epiphany: It really is possible to have it all, just not all at once. I was cheating everyone by trying. Pace myself and I might actually enjoy the life I already had, while creating the one I dreamed of.
Granting that permission to slow down was the kindest thing I’ve ever done – for myself and everyone around me. Skip ahead: Thirteen years since penning that first novel – the year after my firstborn graduated high school – it was published. Two more children left for college, and I gave birth to two more volumes. More are coming, all in good time.
And I’m not so MOHGAW anymore. Just ask my family.
C.A. Morgan, author of Emrysia: The Three Sisters Trilogy (Emrysia Awakening, Lament & Endurance) is a lifelong learner and champion dream chaser who loves to encourage others to contribute what only they may to the world. From northern Michigan to remote mountainside in Vermont’s northeast kingdom, she is equally at home on stage or in her garden, and is currently sharing the gift of music in a hospice choir, and completing illustrations for her children’s book on the fears associated with diagnostic testing. She and husband, Roger, are enjoying a quieter house these days, raising their belated blessing with occasional unsolicited advice from her adult siblings. To learn more visit her online at: www.camorganwrites.com, facebook.com/reademrysia, and twitter@camorganwrites.
Iris E. Holliday has contributed to Life Untapped before, to share her journey into a fulfilling season of retirement after a lengthy career in corporate philanthropy. She returns this week to share a heartwarming essay about achieving her lifelong dream of visiting India. Settle in and enjoy this bird’s eye view of her adventurous spirit as a solo traveler….
My fascination with India began in the living room of the Holliday home in Washington, D.C. My father and I began what would become our monthly ritual-filling out the “for more information” cards in magazines, circling numbers for destinations, products and such. This began my lifelong addiction to mail, starting with the first mail addressed to Miss Iris E. Holliday from the Embassy of India, and one from the Embassy of Morocco. There were so many stamps on these large manila envelopes.
Of course, my 8-year old self proclaimed that I would travel to India and ride on an elephant. And quite a few decades later…I recently did.
The India of this child was images of princes and princesses, majestic palaces, statues of mythical gods, home to Gandhi and the sacred river Ganges, and people clothed in silks reposing on their heavily adorned furniture. Such is the fantasy of childhood.
The India I saw as an adult in my travels to the Golden Triangle-Delhi, Agra and Jaipur- screamed of complexity, beauty, contradition, conflict, passion and intensity.
My body of historical knowledge was woefully inadequate to receive the jaw-dropping architectural marvels of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (called UP everywhere I went); some now UNESCO sites.
India is a moving color wheel-people, clothing, food, flowers, transportation, and art. It is also dramatic as joy and sadness come in high octaves. The sheer number of people occupying the public spaces with you brings a dazzling affirmation of humanity in fast forward motion.
Anyone who really knows me acknowledges my obsession with preparedness, so reading a dozen or more books on travel to India would come as no surprise. I also confess to being a fan of Bollywood movies and Punjabi music, all tastes cultivated way before the movie SlumdogMillionaire. I credit award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair and her movie Salaam Bombay for further piquing my interest. After all, I have carried the dream of traveling to India for 57 years.
Each airport has its own Zen, especially after 9 p.m., and Dulles and Frankfort are at opposite ends of the spectrum to me. The snowstorm I encountered in New York on the first leg of my trip posed some interesting flight challenges. However, there was no problem hitting 10,000 steps as I traversed the gates en route to a new carrier and flight time, and in desperation, not wanting to raid my rather large snack stash, I got a tuna melt. Oh God, why? Awful, inedible.
The time was made tolerable and rather entertaining by a brief encounter with a Duke University MBA student on his way to India for the first time. Our chat was so lively about technology and art and Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama that I forgave him for dissing my iPhone SE. He had an iPhone X. Yep, tech matters and in all things shallow and cultural, tech is a distinct marker of status, intelligence or hipness.
On this direct flight to Delhi, I heard voices more audible in different languages, predominantly Hindi, as the time zone changed. I also noticed the sea of orange, lemon yellow, ruby red and fuchsia turbans reflecting the Sikh faith of my fellow passengers. Time to tackle the large print Word Search on Plants and Flowers scored at the Dollar Tree. Not one to miss out on free movies, I viewed The Greatest Showman and really disagreed with the move critics who panned the film. I downloaded the soundtrack as the flight info screen showed “7 hours and 5 minutes to Delhi.”
On the movie roll, I discovered a two-part epic Indian movie Baahubali – the sixth largest grossing Indian film worldwide. Watching both parts would absorb nearly five hours. No popcorn, but that was okay.
It wasn’t hard to settle in, wrap up in my pashmina, and position the pillows. This fantastical movie had handsome stars, romance, and political intrigue with powerful, immoral rulers, bromance, martial arts, religion, kingdoms on mountains beneath blue skies with billowy clouds. I loved the descriptions of the hero of the film: “His strides are like the wind…Even death does not scare him…He is like a bright shining star…an immovable mountain.” Oops, forgot to mention the music. Yes, there is singing and tattoos.
The now-quiet flight of the sleep deprived is inching to Delhi over Ankara, Kabul, Doha, Dushanbe and Ahmadabad. In less than two hours, I will be there, after eating a way too spicy “chicken puff” and reflecting on this engrossing movie.
Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport is truly magnificent, more like one gigantic hotel lobby. It is 2:00 a.m. As one of the sleep deprived, it is truly funny when you are looking for the right Immigration and Custom’s counter and realize that you are now the foreign passport holder with a visa.
Candidly, I don’t remember all the details of the early morning hours except the spacious hotel room and the note to meet my driver and tour guide at 9 a.m. Oh, I do remember being greeted with “Namaste” and responding in kind.
The beauty of solo travel is travel without negotiation, compromise or resignation.
Being the museum devotee that I am, I began to embrace Delhi through the National Gallery of Modern Art.
Established around the time of my birth, the collection shows 5,000 years of Indian history through arts and crafts. The sculptures both wood and bronze and stone, textiles, miniature paintings in a range of styles, terracotta pieces captured my interest for hours. I lurked in the “jewellery” gallery lusting after several eye-popping gemstone pieces; didn’t know that diamonds have been mined in India for over 3,000 years.
Museum visitors are intriguing, and it thoroughly surprised me to meet students on field trips. These students (who appeared to be ages 12-16) were not guided through the galleries as is the norm, but were self-guided based on interests. Hip-hop culture is global and their fashions were the latest sneakers and strategically torn/ripped jeans. Some of the students wore hijabs and still dressed in Gen X wear. They enthusiastically agreed to pose for pictures. Smiles are still part of the universal language. Not a huge fan of audio-guides, I am glad that I used it in this museum.
Old Delhi offered the Red Fort and the India Gate, the homage to Indians who fought in World War I, and modeled after the Arch du Triumph in Paris. The much anticipated visit to the Jama Masjid, one of the largest in Asia, welcomed all, however only Muslims were allowed in the actual mosque prayer area. With shoes off, men and women entered separately and the security was highly visible. Those who did not respect the site enough to wear appropriate dress were given long covering robes to wear. The sun was blazing and I am so glad that there were long runners leading from the entrance to the interior. One step on the brick pathway meant scorched feet.
With all the people I crossed paths with, what are the chances to see again, a Muslim woman I had encountered in a different part of the city. With that recognition, we exchanged greetings and mental hugs. Truly a serendipitous moment.
The UNESCO World Heritage sites of Qutub Minar and the tomb of the Emperor Humayun left me in want of more details of Mughal architecture. Named after a Sufi saint, Qutub Minar is a minaret on the Qutub complex that stands 239.5 feet tall with 5 tapering towers. Construction began in 1192, and each of its columns are of a different stone-pale red sandstone, marble, marble and sandstone and are engraved with texts from the Holy Quran and decorative features. It is alleged to have been inspired by the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan and built by Hindu artisans.
The Emperor’s tomb has the distinction of being the first garden tomb in India. Commissioned by his first wife, the Mughal Emperor Humayun’s resting place is a solemn garden now filled with tombs of his descendents. The Persian-influenced architecture and gardens divided by walkways or flowing water intentionally reflects the view of paradise described in the Holy Quran. I found it hard to focus on this site as a tomb because of its astonishing beauty and serenity.
The streets of Delhi require bravery to navigate, with the mode of transportation being either foot or rickshaw, tuk tuk or car, bicycle or motorcycle – doesn’t matter. Not one to be skittish about close encounters, I exercised deliberate calm in the car as a passenger, and certainly in the rickshaw. The proximity of one rickshaw rider to another in a separate rickshaw was hands distance, and the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk redefined the word narrow. There was constant conversation with other drivers and vendors. The horns of vehicles never stopped and continued all through the day and night.
The rickshaw ride is also an opportune time to talk about Old and New Delhi, education, the gossip on Salman Khan (film idol), and preservation. I was struck by children, very young children, who were selling loose peacock feathers and a fan made of peacock feathers. Of course, they should be in school; however school is mandatory from ages 6-14 but not heavily enforceable. And to the issue of peacock feathers, it is illegal to sell these; they are banned like ivory for commercial or retail sale.
It’s time for my dinner and the night lights illuminate Delhi’s sky, and even on the fifth floor, I can hear the incessant sound of honking. I am craving a bowl of dal, with yellow lentils and garlic naan. Soon, my appetite was satiated by the best dal on the planet and the most attentive food manager and wait staff at the Radisson Blu. The open kitchen afforded the view of chef creating elaborate dishes and it was a wonder to see my soup being blended, spiced and adorned based on my preferences. It was as if there were no glass wall between the chef and I. The night was capped by my first cup of masala chai.
This would be my beverage for the start of the day and the ending. With cows being sacred, did I even ask what type of milk was used in making the chai?
Nope, I just savored it. The question would be asked and answered at another time.
Iris E. Holliday is a third generation Washingtonian (Washington D.C.), a Cruzan (St. Croix) and Hoosier (Indiana), and both a Howard University University Bison and VCU Ram. During a career spanning more than 35 years, she advanced the reputations of government entities, corporations and nonprofits, including serving as Director of Corporate Philanthropy and Community Partnerships with Dominion before retiring in 2016. A recent graduate in museum studies, she looks forward to traveling to other dream destinations and sharing her excursions with Life Untapped readers.
Research shows that most people dislike change so much that they’d rather stay in unfulfilling, stagnant or unstable circumstances rather than risk the unknown or stretch past what feels safe. It’s human nature, it seems, to “go with what you know.”
Over the course of my personal and professional journey, however, I’ve become convinced that the different or the uncomfortable (or even the heartbreaking) can sometimes be a sacred path to purpose.
For it is on this fresh course and in unfamiliar territory that we learn more about ourselves, discover strengths we might not have otherwise realized, and connect with ideas, skills and relationships that are meant to play pivotal roles in our destiny.
Yet, if we’re not open to change, or avoid accepting its unexpected arrival, how will we ever know our other (possibly wiser, stronger, happier) selves?
This is my sentiment as I bid farewell to readers of Life Notes, the parenting column I’ve had the pleasure of writing since July 2007 for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Yes- more than 10 years! (Read my farewell column, in today’s newspaper, here.)
Life Notes was actually my second venture as a columnist for this daily newspaper in Richmond, Virginia: From 2000 to 2006, I wrote a weekly column for the Saturday metro section called Inspirations, which acquainted readers far and wide with the uplifting and resilient journeys of metro Richmond residents and with their explorations of faith and personal growth. It had a tremendous following, and according to Times-Dispatch reader surveys, was a primary driver for Saturday newspaper sales during that time.
Both columns were meaningful to me, as was my connection to their readers.
I retired Inspirations, however, when I “retired” from my daily journalism career to focus on penning books and freelance writing. Not an easy decision since I loved my work, but an exciting and necessary one, in order to fulfill the other dreams on my To Do list. I never regretted the choice.
This time around, with changes abreast in newspaper column inches and editorial direction comes the opportunity to take another leap that has long been on my To Do list: expanding the genre of books I write to include more nonfiction (in addition to my women’s fiction) and perhaps some young adult reads. And while I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to blog for the Huffington Post, I look forward to penning more essays and profiles about the power of story and the relevance of our individual journeys for additional national publications. (Stay tuned!)
So yes, this is a goodbye of sorts to one platform for my writing, but a hello to all of the opportunities and open doors on my uncharted path. Will you celebrate with me?
I hope you’ll follow this blog to see where the written word takes me. Feel free to comment below and share ideas about what you’d like to learn about personal growth, matters of faith, living your best life, walking in purpose or writing your way to joy. I look forward to exploring these themes and more with you, and to growing with you.
I haven’t turned on my creative fiction juices in a while, because although I absolutely love manufacturing interesting characters and breathing life into them, I also have a deep love for nonfiction writing. Over the past year or so, I’ve focused my attention there.
I recently entered my 10th year of penning a parenting column for a daily newspaper in Richmond, Virginia; I launched this inspirational blog a few moths ago, and I occasionally write commentary for the Huffington Post.
Beyond those outlets, my “day job” of serving as Director of Communications for a private school in my community affords me an opportunity to do all kinds of writing – from marketing and advertising copy to social media posts to letters and other messaging that share the “how” and “why” of this school and its mission to produce service-minded leaders who make a difference locally and around the globe. All of this excites me.
And yet….the ideas for a new novel still rise to the surface every now and then, teasing me to consider what my 11th book could and should be. I’m not sure yet when that one will be birthed, but I already have a list of character names, a few potential plot ideas and even a tentative title.
I’m not ready to start writing the first draft because the ideas are still “baking.” I’ll know when the plot is just firm enough to put pen to paper, and then move those handwritten notes to my computer.
In the meantime, I’m doing my writer’s “homework”: Leaning into the gifts and opportunities that come with daily life, enjoying special moments with family and friends, overhearing compelling conversations or intriguing names that might make their way into my story, and taking in the scenery, sights and sounds around me, so that when I need these things most, they are a finger tap away in the notes section of my iPhone, or stored in my mental image bank.
I recently had the pleasure of joining an award-winning children’s author for dinner, and during our conversation, Newberry Medal winner Rita Williams-Garciaannounced that she no longer writes under deadline. When the manuscript is ready – however long that may take – she intuitively knows, and she only writes The End at that point.
While many of us scribes may not have that luxury – or be disciplined enough to know the difference between being stuck and accepting that the project is substantive enough to move forward – learning about her method left me thinking that more of us should find the courage (or be extended opportunities) to give our words, ideas and stories the space to grow and mushroom into something fantastically wonderful.
If and when you can, I encourage my fellow writers to let your story marinate; let the words come on their own; let the characters show you who they are in their own time.
Because I’m not on deadline or under contract with a publisher at the moment, this is exactly what I’m doing. I’m also reading some great fiction, and books about the art of writing, along the way.
It’s an unsettling experience in some ways – especially when my readers say they’re ready for another book- and I hate to keep readers waiting. Yet, in another way, it’s freeing, because I’m allowing the writer journey to unfold before me.
I’m confident that when my new characters are ready to meet the world, they’ll let me know. When they start nudging, I won’t be able to get them out of my head unless I tell their stories! Lol
Until then, I hope you’ll continue reading mycurrent novels, the few fictional short stories I’ll be penning soon, and also my body of nonfiction writing. The mission of all of my work is to enlighten, uplift and inspire. I hope my fictional characters and my intriguing true-to-life subjects do just that for you.
Note: This essay was originally published on the Black Christian Reads blog, in July 2017.
“Aha! It’s not about the other side of work…just a continuum of life’s journey.”
By Guest Blogger Iris E. Holliday
In May 2016 I retired from a 27-year fulfilling career of corporate philanthropy and community engagement, and from a work life that had spanned nearly 45 years.
I had been practicing for this significant change for a few years, like a doodler, as the birthdays went by. It became an obsession to see how many words began with “re-” as in the word “retirement.” All said, I amassed over 100! These included re-invent, refresh, reverb, regain and recalibrate. I was struck by their positivity in contrast with the word retirement…as in final, the finale, end, terminus.
The work ethic is strong within me, forged by loving parents – a conscientious father and a precise, efficient and maybe perfectionist mother. So to retire has been alternately exhilarating and excruciating.
While I had a loose plan for my time in this part of my life, I did not have a Gant Chart or dot-by-dot picture.
I have tossed the business cards and replaced them with a Twitter account. I’ve turned once-infrequent business lunches with colleagues who became friends into opportunities for leisurely discourse. The talks are no longer dictated by work etiquette and can be both politics and prose. It’s all on the table. The language can be colorful and candid. After all, I am only representing me!
So what does this new, no phase- or chapter-labeled retirement look like? I still have a stack of curated retirement planning books, articles and listing of websites to review, and I am still pursuing personal goals. Some days it’s like a staycation or sabbatical. Other days, it is an endless quest to cram in as much living and learning into 24 hours as I humanly can.
Many years ago I realized that it is not age that terrorizes me, but the state of irrelevancy. The cure for this is not in a jar of designer wrinkle-reduction cream, but in the endless embrace of knowledge, connecting with people where there is dynamic chemistry, in daily gratitude for family and those whose spirits abide in our hearts, and in our power to empathize and commit to serve others with what God has given us in resources.
This new world is vastly uncharted. It is kind of a “choose your own adventure” era. At this point, I can redefine myself on any terms that I’d like.
Each day is an affirmation of worth and grace, both of which include a rich work life – then and now. There is no “other” side of work, unless I say so. Aging is part of this plane. The relevancy is in my court. And I have hit hard the re-set button as part of my continuum on life’s journey.
Iris Holliday is a third generation Washingtonian (Washington D.C.), a Cruzan (St. Croix) and Hoosier (Indiana), and both a Howard University University Bison and VCU Ram. Her career in public relations spans 35-plus years. Now, retired from Dominion Energy (formerly Dominion Resources), Iris counts philanthropy and government-, media- and community relations in her portfolio. During her career, she advanced the reputations of government entities, corporations and nonprofits, including for the 10th Pan American Games in Indianapolis and as director of corporate philanthropy and community partnerships with Dominion prior to retiring in 2016. Because she lives by the Sufi saying: “Some people go to a beautiful place, others go to make a place beautiful,” community engagement through volunteerism is a key part of her life. In this vein, she was chairperson of the Children’s Museum of Richmond Board of Directors and served on the Community Foundation of Greater Richmond and the Jenkins Foundation Board of Trustees. Currently pursuing a certification in Museum Studies, she is interested in opportunities to knit public relations with the museum field. She recently accepted an internship with the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia and is assisting with collections management.
Lights…Camera…Tiara! Now on to photo shoots, couture gown fittings and public appearances. Ah, such is the life of a teenage pageant queen. Right?
Well, yes and no. Most people, when they hear the word pageant just assume that all I need to do to be successful in this type of event is to be able to dress up and look pretty. With further inspection, however, many people would be surprised to discover that the majority of pageants (at least the ones I choose to participate in) are dedicated to promoting leadership skills, developing and cultivating public speaking skills and promoting volunteer service among young girls and women.
Over the past five years, through my participation in the National American Miss pageant system, I have been able to overcome my fear of standing in front of an audience and sharing my thoughts. In addition to refining my public speaking skills, I have gained life skills that will help me be successful when applying to college, as well as when seeking employment.
When I began participating in National American Miss at age 12, standing on stage introducing myself to a room full of strangers was the last place I wanted to be. Although I sincerely wanted to give the pageant world a try, I was terrified of speaking in front of people. I also was not looking forward to being interviewed by a panel of judges – another group of strangers that I had to actually sit down with and carry on a conversation with. Five minutes never seemed so long!
Fast forward five years, and I am now confident and excited to be able to formally and professionally introduce myself onstage to a diverse group of strangers.
You see, about two years into this pageant process, my family and I realized that I needed to have a plan if I truly wanted to be successful. I could not just show up onstage or in the interview room and hope that everything would work out positively for me. I decided how I wanted to represent myself and mapped out a strategy to achieve those goals. That, in and of itself, became another benefit of pageant participation.
I worked on my interview skills and I worked to get more comfortable being onstage, introducing myself and speaking in public. Also, I began to think about the purpose of having an interview, and I realized that it is a time for the judges to get to know you as an individual – a time to discover what is important to you and to see if you have the characteristics they are looking for as a queen. I started to view competing for a queen title like applying for a job or college admission. Preparing my resume was also a part of the competition that helped me to become more comfortable with presenting myself in a public forum.
Within two years of changing my strategy, my hard work paid off. In 2016 I was named National American Miss Virginia Junior Teen – a title I currently hold.
Being a queen with National American Miss has also helped me to promote my volunteer service platform, Miracles in Motion Dance Group, on a wider scale. Miracles in Motion is a dance company for special needs children and young adults, and working with them gives me joy.
Due to the experience I gained with public speaking and public presentation with National American Miss, I was able to speak at the Miracles in Motion Annual Spaghetti Dinner Fundraiser in 2016 to a crowd of close to 600 people! I also received an opportunity to share my community service platform at the national pageant competition last November, and I placed 2nd Runner Up for Volunteer Service in the Junior Teen age division for the nation. Talk about an opportunity to overcome my fear of public speaking!
I am so grateful for all I have gained through my participation in National American Miss. These are skills that will last me a lifetime. I now can truly “go confidently in the direction of my dreams” and live the life I have imagined.
Olivia Shaw, a 17-year-old resident of metro Richmond, Virginia, is the reigning National American Miss Virginia Jr Teen. She will pass her crown on to her successor in July 2017. She loves volunteering with Miracles in Motion Dance Group and looks forward to many years of sharing her love of dance and music with her fellow dancers. You can stay connected with Olivia’s journey through the following social media sites: Facebook:@NamVAJrTeen2016 Snapchat: @livve_kitty22 Instagram:@livve_s23
If someone had told me 35 years ago that I would be living in Richmond, Virginia as a divorced mother of two wonderful adult children, I would have responded, ‘You must have me mixed up with someone else.’ I was not a woman who desired to get married and have children. I wanted to be about getting ahead in business.
At that time, I was living in New York City, working in corporate America and completing my undergrad degree. Nothing could happen fast enough for me. I walked at a quickening pace to keep up with the normal hurried stride of New Yorkers; clung to the chrome, floor-to-ceiling bar of fast-moving subway trains; sought promotions within corporate structures or left when bored or stagnant; partied with beautiful people from SoHo to the Upper West Side. I lived in seven different apartments in all the years I lived there. (Still grieving over the Central Park West apartment!)
When New York was not enough, I moved to the ‘left’ coast – California – to be a field marketing representative.
While living in Sacramento, something happened to me. The best explanation I have is God wanted me to slow down and pay more attention to Him. I became born again in the Lord, started going back to church and became actively involved.
Being far away from family and friends on the East Coast, however, after 18 months in California, I returned to New York City. The lifestyle I left in New York was harder to embrace upon return. Not only that, the cost of living and apartments had begun to escalate. So after a short stint of living in New Jersey, I followed a path to Alexandria, Virginia, where I met my future (now former) husband.
In the brevity that I have left for this column, here is my deep confession: I miss the excitement of the fast pace of my former lifestyle. Being over 60, dealing with normal aging health issues, some boredom and limited funds present daily challenges to be content. Sometimes I ponder (not for too long, however) if I had made different choices somewhere during my early adult life, how would my life be drastically different. Would it be something bigger, better or just different?
Not to despair about what could have been, I relish what could be. I am here because this is where I am supposed to be. Otherwise, I would be somewhere else.
Knowing that I have fewer years ahead of me, I believe there is more purpose for living. Therefore, I will strive each day to find contentment in the Lord.
Vanessa Womack Easter has a diverse background in training and professional development, entrepreneurship, higher education instruction, human resources, nonprofit and leadership development. She is also a writer, having penned the novel Paint the Sky Purple in 2010, and having served as a co-author with other international women’s voices in The Female CEO: Pearls, Passion and Power (August 2014) and Entrepreneurship 101: The NEW Reality of Business Ownership (June 2016). Learn more about Vanessa on her business website, Facebook Group Page and LinkedIn profile.