by Kayla Blau
Willard Jimerson described his cousin Emijah Smith as, “Selfless, caring, altruistic, a shining example of what it really means to support community…superwoman!” If you’ve been in organizing spaces in Seattle, you’ve likely witnessed Smith’s strength and wisdom in action, or at least heard her name.
“Emijah is the definition of taking care of others,” he said. “I was in prison from the time I was 13 to 33, and she was my number one supporter during that time.”
Jimerson said Smith helped him “draft a vision of myself beyond the bars.” She sent him her college syllabus from the University of Washington, the first he’d ever seen. After Smith graduated with a degree in Public Administration, Jimerson followed behind her and did the same.
“Energy burst through me because I felt like that could be me, and with her support it was,” he said. “Black women have been saving our lives, and Emijah is just a living example of what it means to show up and show out for your community.”
Smith is a Seattle native and has been organizing with myriad grassroots groups for years alongside her day job as a community engagement manager at a local child advocacy non-profit.
Her daughter, Le’Jayah, describes Smith as “a genius in her own right — that must be how she balances everything.”
Le’Jayah said Smith is a full-time mother, working full time and is also a full-time organizer. Le’Jayah remembers going to school and organizing meetings with her as a kid.
She taught me what it means to never give up and speak out about injustices,” Le’Jayah said. “She modeled there’s always a way to pursue your dreams, and inspired a go-getter attitude in me. She taught me we never leave people behind or disown people, and taught me our ancestors paved a way for us, so it’s our turn to pave the way for those to come.”
Anthony, her partner in life, shares, “A point of fact that I find rings true, she is resounding in strength, as she continuously guides her children’s feet on a path of right living by leading an exemplary and positive life. She is a true hero and champion of cause. … To coin a phrase, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ unblemished in her devotion and honorific in every dynamic. She is incomparable and her mental beauty is awe-so inspiring. Her character is flawless and her spirit shines bright for all to see … Truth be told the revolution is embedded in the seat of her soul and in the depth of her eyes. I am enamored by how proud I am of my queen, as she walks in her integrity, upright, independent, and fearless is how I would describe the revolutionary woman in my life.”
I had the honor of sitting down with Emijah to learn more about her life as a revolutionary woman.
How do you define yourself?
I am a lifelong learner in my own leadership. I have a warrior spirit, especially when it comes to my values. I am intelligent, a critical thinker, and a savvy strategist. I’m open to new people and experiences. I fight against racism and have a genuinely caring heart. I’ve had experiences in the world that have distracted me from my purpose, and as I constantly evolve I deepen my connection to my purpose.
I am a networker and a connector. As I fight for my own liberation, I deeply value helping others fight for theirs. I’m building my own leadership capacity through my development of Colorful Communities.
You’re involved in so many organizations – what work are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the many opportunities I’ve had to do collective work that is rooted in community, where I’ve had the opportunity to bring the expertise and experience of black women and mothers to bring about meaningful change in my community.
One of many examples is when myself and two other women founded BlackOut Washington. It started with me, Senait Brown, and Andaiye Qaasim sitting on a park bench on a sunny day, brainstorming what could be possible as far as bringing more anti-racism principles to policy change work. We wanted to approach policy advocacy differently; first, educating the community about how the legislature works, as well as building unity within our own community.
I’m grateful for my working relationship with Maritess (Tess) Gamez, a great mother and advocate in Seattle. We center our experiences of families and community to fight for justice for our children and eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.
As a result of our commitment to anti-racist principles, Siobhan Ring (former Mobilization Director at the Children’s Alliance) and I were able to engage with community in a respectful and honoring manner. I have so much respect for her.
I also have great respect for Wyking Garrett of Africatown. I had an “aha” moment when he asked me to creatively think about what my neighborhood should look like. I appreciated that push to think creatively, outside of the box, and dream big.
I grew up in the Central District, and seeing the changes in the community has really adversely impacted me and my family. There used to be a really supportive network of neighbors there, but most of us were pushed out due to gentrification. It’s a new level of struggle to have to create community and safe spaces for my family.
I want my kids to be raised in a community that is a reflection of who they are. I’m afraid for my kids and how they are sometimes treated in their current neighborhood; people have pushed my kids away for knocking on our own door, other neighbors questioned why my kids were hanging out in their own neighborhood, and other neighbors threw glass bottles at my sons at ages 7 and 9 for riding their bikes down the street.
I share all this to give a deeper understanding as to why this lifelong work is so important to me. These are experiences that help me connect deeper to my purpose and propel me to keep fighting for my liberation and the liberation of my community.
You are a community resource for so many people – how do you maintain boundaries?
I’ve learned to watch elders organize and listen and learn from them. Most of my values were passed down from my grandparents, Millard (Sr) and Florene Jimerson. My grandfather would talk to me about important values of life; my grandmother modeled those values for me. My warrior spirit was passed down from my mother, Mary Smith (Sister Mary), and my father, Brother Benjamin, raised me not to worship whiteness nor buy into internalized racial inferiority. I in turn raise my children to know who they are by knowing oneself and educating themselves about their ancestors all the way back to the creation of humanity, and also to see greatness in who they are down to their tight curly hair and style of speech. I also learn from and listen to the children in the community, especially my own, whom have brought the gift of joy into my life. They have taught me the importance to be present in joy, the value of courage and plenty of opportunities to practice courage, and the gift of clarity to own my value.
I told Mary Flowers over twenty years ago she’s a mentor for me. I’m so fortunate to have gained from her wisdom. I’ll be at tables with folks whose shoulders I’m standing on and watch how they handle situations. Most people have full-time jobs and do organizing for free. I do this because the community needs it; it’s what I breathe. I understand it takes more than me to heal the harms of our past and fight for our humanity now. So if there’s something I’m working on, I ask “who’s already doing this? What’s my role?” Collective work is really important – you have to know your lane and trust in the leadership of others to lean into theirs.
I understand the illusion of power with titles, so I try to see people as people and not their position. I’m about my community and real change for my community. I’m about the realization of equality that’s grounded in humanity, which ultimately will eliminate the structures of white supremacy. When it comes to working within the system, I try to stay grounded in my life’s purpose. I educate myself about how systems work and harm. I try my best not to get co-opted by it.
One thing I admire about you is the way you gracefully speak hard truths into the room or in meetings without attacking or isolating folks. How do you do it?
I want to believe people want to do good, and I’ve learned not to run from conflict. I try not to take anything too personal, which is challenging when it has to do with my children. People are coming from where they’re coming from, and I’m in my own learning process too so I can’t shame others for being in theirs. I need to remain in the fight for liberation regardless if people understand me or not. I try to distance myself from energy that distracts me from my purpose. I value keeping like minded people in my circle. I’m unapologetically me; I don’t take too kindly to disrespect about myself or my community. I also don’t hide the agenda I’m fighting against, which is structural racism grounded in white supremacy and anti-blackness.
I’m able to stay calm when I’m overwhelmed in meetings because I’ve learned when people are passionate, it’s usually for a deeper reason than their energy or emotion. I try to help resolve conflicts at the root, and I try to dig deeper before responding.
As a woman assigned to the “black” racial box, anything I say can be misrepresented or misinterpreted, so I’ve had to learn how to be diplomatic in order to be seen as rational, intelligent, and safe. Women like me who speak with conviction and passion are often labeled as the “angry black woman,” so for safety reasons the world has taught me to move accordingly. But I know no matter what I do or how I move, I’m not safe from hate, so I do my best to focus on my joy and be present in it.
Because I’m known to fight for my community, a lot of people probably would be surprised to know that a few people I highly value and trust are not from my community nor share my same struggle. I’m drawn to people with a warrior spirit that will fight and advocate for the freedom of others. I sincerely value the mutual support of those relationships.
What drives you?
I want all children to know and experience joy. Knowing that joy exists and trying to find ways to experience joy throughout the challenges of life. I believe it’s what we as adults look back as a reason to keep faith and have hope.
Correcting injustice also drives me because I know we can do it. I know the world can be better than how we found it, and I want to be part of that process so future generations can benefit. My ancestors are the wind at my back, and sometimes they push me when I didn’t even want to be pushed.
I give all praise and glory to God for my life, my family, and any great work I’ve been fortunate to accomplish.
Featured Image: Emijah Smith (Courtesy photo)