Still True: Interview with Reagan Jackson by Y-WE Alum Naomi Kirori

In a candid conversation with Young Women Empowered (Y-WE) alumni Naomi Kirori, Y-WE Co-Executive Director Reagan Jackson delves into her unlikely path as a journalist through the publication of her latest book, “Still True: The Evolution of an Unexpected Journalist.” From challenging journalism stereotypes to amplifying marginalized voices and defying checkboxes, Reagan and Naomi discuss how Y-WE influences Reagan’s creative process and inspires her fierce passion for “making space for us to be able to show up in the fullness of who they are.” Amid a nationwide book tour – which includes the main stage at next month’s ESSENCE Festival – Naomi invites her longtime mentor to reflect on the impact of her work and offer advice for aspiring writers to embrace their authentic voices.

Naomi (left) and Reagan (right) at the Y-WE office

Naomi Kirori (NK): I’m Naomi Kirori. I use they/she pronouns. I’m a rising junior at Clark Atlanta University, studying mass media arts, with a concentration in radio, TV and film and a minor in theater. I’m from Seattle, Washington. I have a passion to serve community. I love films and documentaries. I love giving back. I enjoy nature and traveling.

Reagan Jackson (RJ): Love it. I’m Regan Jackson, she/her pronouns. I’m the Co-Executive Director of Young Women Empowered. I’ve been with Y-WE for almost nine years. Kind of can’t believe it. I’m the author of six books, the most recent one of which is called Still True: The Evolution of an Unexpected Journalist.

NK: I’m really excited to ask you some questions about your book. My first question is, can you explain a little bit about why you chose the title of your book, “An Unexpected Journalist”? 

RJ: Well, in many ways, I was absolutely an unexpected journalist. I didn’t really think about it. Even though I’m a writer, and I’ve been writing all my life, it didn’t occur to me that I would make a good journalist. Because I thought the news was kind of boring. And more than boring, I sometimes thought the news was culturally biased and not true and not accurate. And I didn’t want to be a part of anything that perpetuated stereotypes, particularly about people in my community. And then I had the opportunity to connect with the co-founders of the Seattle Globalist, and through our conversations they invited me to write an article, which I did. And that kind of changed everything, because they made a space for me to do my work and to be a writer in a way where I didn’t have to edit my voice. They were interested in who I was as a person, and my life experiences, and the ways in which my lived experience can frame and contextualize the stories that I tell. And that is what made it possible for me to want to be a journalist.

NK: So you say you found your space where you could voice how you wanted to, and kind of open up a door for others as well. What was the piece that you first wrote, where you were like, “I’m a writer?” Your aha kind of moment of like, “wow, I think I should probably write a book.”  

RJ: I think I’ve always — since even before I was able to read — I always identified as a storyteller and a writer. And so I feel like I’ve had a lot of those moments over the years where people have read my writing and seen something special in it. But one of my favorite moments is probably one of the least favorite moments for one of my teachers, but when I was in college at the UW (University of Washington), I was taking a short story writing class, and we had an opportunity to have our work workshopped. So when it was my turn to be workshopped, people either loved or hated my story, but they were so passionate about it that they almost got into a fistfight. And for me, that was a moment like — again this is a traumatizing moment I think for my teacher — but for me, it was my best moment as a writer because something I wrote, just a little six pages of something that wasn’t even true, caused people to have such a deep emotional response that they were willing to get into a fight about it. And that made me feel really powerful. Like wow, people are really reading deeply and feeling deeply the things that I’ve written.

NK: Wow. Okay, that’s amazing. So while writing this book that you just released, what were your feelings during the writing process? Has it changed since you got on the computer and started typing? Where there are overlaps of emotions, what does that look like for you? 

RJ: Still True was an interesting process in that a lot of the essays and articles have been previously published, or things that I wrote over the course of 10 years. So there’s some pieces where in the moment when I wrote them, they were very contentious and maybe community was having a lot of conversation about it and there was a lot of energy but now there’s been a lot of time from when they first came out to now. So it’s been kind of re-releasing some of the work because there are people who remember when it first came out and want to talk about it from that context. And then there are people who this is their very first time reading some of these pieces and engaging with them and they come to the work with very different energy now that we’re kind of moving into, I guess, year four of a pandemic. So where people’s minds are at and how they respond to things is completely different than before. It’s been fascinating to me to see community response and just see what resonates for people, what is true for them in this moment, even if I wrote it 10 years ago, and then what are the new truths that have emerged that contextualize old writing.

NK: So past and present emotions throughout yourself and within the community. Are there any emotions that you think stood out for you or that have changed? Or opened up space for you?

RJ: Yes and no. For example, I started rereading the book for the purpose of recording an audiobook and so it’s been really interesting for me to be in the booth and reading my own work out loud. And as I’m reading through the struggle and the hood sections, I have a lot of deep emotion. Reading through how things were in Rainier Beach 10 years ago and how they are now, what my experience as a homeowner has been, and what my experiences as a victim of gun violence has been in the context of my home. And then also as I’m reading through a lot of the coverage I did on the Black Lives Matter movement, I find I’m still really angry because so much has happened and so little has changed. I actually would love to look back at some of the pieces that I wrote and be like, “Oh, that’s fixed now. That’s irrelevant. We don’t have those same struggles.” But if anything, I’m more dispirited and disheartened around some things than before, because of the lack of progress.

NK: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. During this process of going through a lot of emotions, and also taking in the emotions of others as well and seeing their response to your book, what helped you stay consistent in writing the book, what was your motivation?

RJ: I think generally, the more consistently I write, the more gifts I receive through my writing. That practice of self discipline of getting up in the morning, making writing the first thing I do every day before I get on with the business of Y-WE or the business of whatever else I’m doing, has helped me to be a more clear writer, and someone who can hear my thoughts very easily and articulate very quickly and efficiently. In times in the past when I haven’t been as consistent there’s just a lot more like mental clarity you have to work through, whereas when you’re in it, it’s really clear.

I think with this book specifically because it was written over such a long period of time and often a lot of the things that are included in the book I didn’t know I was writing for the book. You know, there were things that I wrote separately at a separate time for separate reasons. So the thing that kind of came up during this process of compiling it as an anthology and putting it together with a memoir was really thinking through, what are my strongest pieces? What are the pieces or stories that I really want to be amplified and give people outside of this community an opportunity to read and experience? 

And then there’s the big existential question of is my writing worth it? Is my writing valuable? Are people gonna buy this book or do they want to read it? They need to hear from me. So a lot of this process was about me being willing to take up space in a different way. And stepping into that and saying yes, actually, like this is this is good work. I want you to hear it.

NK: How did that make you feel? For me, journaling is very personal, a form of self care. And you’re saying that’s the first thing you do in the morning to get your day started, and then you’re ready to dive into work. So was it more healing than ever writing this book?  

RJ: Well, there are a couple of things. One healing for me was being invited to have my book be the first book with Hinton Publishing. And that felt amazing both to have Hinton decide to invest in me but then also to be the one who’s setting the bar for what this publishing house will be, or you know, the standard of what it is that they’re trying to put into the world. So that felt amazing. I think also some of the healing comes from really sitting with myself as a journalist and being willing to take on that title. And to see the body of work that earns the title for me.

NK: Beautiful. How has your journey at Y-WE over the last eight years influenced your creative work for this book?

RJ: I was struggling with this question. Because there’s a part of me that feels like…  I need more space. So I can do my work. But then I also get a lot of creative inspiration from Y-WE and from being in this community, whether it’s attending Y-WE Write or attending Y-WE Create or things like that. I think also, being in Y-WE has put me into contact with even more stories of my community, particularly the stories that our youth are telling and that has helped. It’s just helped me to stay grounded and what is the point of these things, like what are we trying to do here as a community?

NK: Yeah, there’s power in the youth. There’s definitely power and the first one you said was Y-WE Write, which is a space for us to just be and let it out. And then you said Y-WE Create also being a space to form your own type of creativity, like there’s no one way, and I think that Y-WE has always been a space for that, for anybody.

You wanted to claim that title as a journalist and now you have. I also believe that you have this ability to see others when they may not see themselves. How did your compassion and empathy for others assist you in writing this piece or showed up in this book?

RJ: I think my compassion for others is most visible in how I choose to frame the stories of the people in my community. I think I’m very transparent about acknowledging the ways in which I feel like the media has been used as a tool of oppression, to vilify and misrepresent people in my community. Any attempt for me at being a journalist had to be centered in the opposite of that and in seeing and affirming the beauty and the humanity of the people in my community. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t tell the truth. That doesn’t mean that I’m always going to paint everybody in the perfect light. I think it means that no matter what story I’m telling, I’m telling it with a view to humanize folks as opposed to just to be sensational or just to be gossipy. I want there to be more depth and nuance and highlight the ways in which we hold one another’s humanity. And I think that’s something I’m proud of about this book.

NK: Yes, yes, yes. And I honestly think you do a great job with humanizing everyone and the levels of depths that come with it. Like there’s not just good and bad in a person. You know, there’s more than that. There’s layers, and I definitely appreciate you being able to articulate that in your words and with others as well. So I think that’s something that is amazing, and I’m really glad you were able to show that in your writing and in this book as well.

Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences after the release, and where your heart is now?

RJ: Yeah, so my book came out March 27 [2024]. And we had a book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company, which felt really important because Elliott Bay is the first bookstore that I kind of fell in love with in Seattle when I came here years ago when I was 18. And ironically, like the one day I went to Elliott Bay there happened to be a reporter in the bookstore, who interviewed me. What I didn’t know was that he was a reporter for the New York Times and so that next week, my mom was like, “Are you in the New York Times? You’re being quoted as talking about this bookstore, Elliott Bay.” And so the kind of funny joke is, that’s the only time I’ve ever been in the New York Times. It’s about this bookstore. And it’s, you know, to me, it’s Seattle iconic. It’s a gorgeous space. It is a really nice, like, grounded place where you can be.

I was there early [for the launch] and there were people there before me. That’s how excited people were about the book. They were there 45 minutes early just to sit and wait for me to come and talk about my book. And as the evening unfolded, the room was packed. It was full from the back to the front, standing room only. And as I looked out into who was present, there were just so many people that I love and people that I’ve known from different jobs, from different lifetimes, from different experiences. I’ve never felt so seen and affirmed by the City of Seattle, I just felt really, really loved. And most people when they have book readings, they go for like 40 minutes, maybe an hour max, and we did an hour and a half and everybody stayed. One person was like, “you did an hour and a half but I could have sat here another two hours.” 

There was so much juiciness, and honestly I feel like it was one of the best days of my life. I just am so grateful to have had that experience. And for that also to be the launch of the book, just the beginning of my journey. Like what a joy, what a privilege and a pleasure.

NK: So beautiful that the community really showed out for you. And for it to be at the place where you first felt connected to Seattle, and then to reconnect with the city all over again, through the love that people have for you. And you know, they’re excited about your story and what you have to say, so that is a beautiful full circle moment. It’s amazing.

So, going back to Still True. What are the biggest lessons or messages in the book?

RJ: I think one is for anyone who’s thinking about being a journalist or who’s going to be participating in contributing media about our communities, I want you to disrupt the idea that it’s possible to be unbiased. I think we all have biases and that it’s actually more ethical and more honest to be clear about your positionality and what it is that you’re bringing to the story, so that everybody can know where you’re at and not have to guess or assume. 

And I think it’s important for people to think about what their own ethics are around what you’re willing to cover and what you’re not and how you want to tell the story. I think far too often, as we’re learning how to become journalists, there’s this power differential where we’re just kind of receiving these messages or this information about “this is how it has to be.” Reality is, it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be how we make it. 

So to quote the Dalai Lama, which I often do, when asked, “what is the meditation that the world needs now?” He said, “critical thinking followed by action.” Away from my book, I want you to think critically, and then I want you to act. What are the things that are coming up in your mind as you’re reading my book in your community that you need to take action about?

NK: Yes, and you make me do that on the daily and every time we talk. There’s something I need to do after this conversation. Got me thinking critically, I love it. It’s contradictory when it’s like, “be a creative,” but here is the box you need to be in as a creative. So it’s really important to break those barriers and to form the spaces that we’ve never seen before. And ask ourselves, what do we want to do? And how can we get there? And also understanding that we may not see it, but we believe it and we can start somewhere. So I think it’s really important that you’re pushing this message throughout your entire book.

On to our next topic — not only did you publish a book, you’re going on tour. What’s been the highlight of your book tour? 

RJ: Yeah, so it’s not over yet. I’ve got a whole bunch of left to go. So far I’ve done New York, DC, and Baltimore. Tacoma this week. I’m headed to Portland next week. Then I’m back in Seattle at Town Hall. And then in July, I’m gonna go to New Orleans. I’m going to be at ESSENCE Festival, on the mainstage chopping it up with Ijeoma Oluo and Bakari Sellers. So super excited about that. I think it’s a huge opportunity. 

I’m also just really grateful for the positionality of that, like Ijeoma is a New York Times bestselling author. I’m kind of new compared to them, but not in terms of how I think or you know, all of that. So I’m really excited to be in conversation with folks in that way. And then in September, I’m going to New York for the Harlem Book Fair and then we’re looking at a Midwest tour. So I am hoping to see folks in Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Des Moines.

NK: I know each region you named, you know, gives a different energy, a different culture, they’re probably going to have a different perception of your book and perspective. So can you share a little bit about how that has been, and what your favorite event has been?

RJ: Yeah, I would say it’s a learning curve. Because I’m at this place where I don’t always know what to expect. And that feels really uncomfortable to me, you know, I’ve been in a steady job for a long time. Even the things that are a learning curve in the context of my job, are still things that I’m very practiced at. So, I rolled up to New York. Kind of still flush with the excitement of having done Elliott Bay, and it was a much smaller audience. And so I was like, “Oh my gosh,” like, it feels weird. I feel weird. Like, is this okay? Is this still a good event? If it’s a small audience? And what I’ve realized is like, whether there’s three people or 3,000, I have to show up and I’m going to show up and do what I do. And I’m going to be just as hype about my book, no matter who’s present for it, because I do believe in it. I believe in the work.

My favorite event so far has been my time in Baltimore. [With Marsha Reeves-Jew] — she’s iconic. She’s just a wonderful human being and I enjoyed our conversation together. But also she put me at ease in a way where I feel like I spoke very vulnerably and I was definitely a lot more off the cuff. I’m a person who prepares a lot but there’s something beautiful I think, too, about kind of going off script because you’re feeling the energetic pull to speak in different ways than you had before. So that was a really important moment for me. And of course, the thing I’m most excited about, though at this moment, is Essence Fest. 

NK: Yes. I mean, come on.

RJ: Yes. So my New Orleans experience, but also like there’s such a beautiful validation there for me, just throwing back to the framing of me as an “unexpected journalist” like I’m an unexpected everything, I don’t fit the box. I’ve never fit neatly into any of the checkboxes people have wanted me to. And as a result, I think, for example, this book is not even one genre. It’s part memoir, it’s part essays. Where do you put it on a shelf? And you know, booksellers are asking me and I’m like, “you put it in the front.” 

But for me, having an invitation to do something that’s culturally iconic. For Black women specifically. I grew up reading Essence in the beauty salon and there’s a kind of validation that I don’t ever look for, but receiving it feels really amazing. There’s a space on a frickin’ stage for my kind of Black womanhood in a way that there never has been in the history of my life.

NK: But now it will be.

RJ: And now it will be so, you’re next. I’m making space for us to be able to show up in the fullness of who we are.

NK: Exploding the boxes. I also like that you talked about your ability to, you said you’re always a plan person, but you went to Baltimore, and you just let it flow. Someone allowed you to just let it flow. And sometimes the most authentic conversations and feelings come when we just let go, and have this ability to be really comfortable and vulnerable. So that’s really amazing that you got that experience in Baltimore. And it’s really amazing that you’re about to go to Essence. I can’t stress that enough. And Harlem, you know, the history that is there of Black people and Black liberation in New York period. It’s just really amazing. So I am just really excited for you to continue this and the rest of your tour. I cannot wait. 

Moving forward — you’re saying you’re creating a space, you’re going to be able to have a platform, what advice do you have for aspiring writers and people who don’t fit the box that want to take up space?

RJ: Be authentic to who you are. I don’t think we’re born to be copies of everybody else. I think it’s useful to read and to learn and to appreciate other people in their work and their written words and what they’re doing, but the purpose of who we are is not to become replicas of someone else. Be your most authentic self, be more of who you are. And while that can feel incredibly vulnerable, particularly if we are kind of on the margins, I think the more that we practice doing it, the easier it becomes. And whether we know it or not, in shining our lights we’re giving permission to other people to do the same.

NK: Yeah. I love how you put that, we’re not a replica of anybody else. I love that. I’m gonna have to write that one down. That’s a quote from Reagan Jackson, everybody say thanks. No, but it is so hard though. It’s so hard to be yourself and show up. Be different from everybody else when the world is like no, no, no, no. That’s not okay. But you’re doing it and you have been doing it for so long. How?

How do you plan to continue to show up authentically?

RJ: For me, it has taken a toll on me. And I think I’m in a process or in an experience where I’m learning how to prioritize tending to myself as a way to be able to make showing up as myself more sustainable. So I’m looking at what other countries would feel good to live in. I’m looking at what others might feel more inviting for the person I’m becoming. Where can I go to rest? Where can I go to take a breath before I do more hard things? I think we’re really conditioned particularly as Black women to always just push forward and make a way out of no way. And while that’s a wonderful and brilliant, you know, life affirming skill set in some ways, it also is exhausting. And I’m not going to pretend that I’m not exhausted anymore. I’m going to rest. Yes. And give myself space to feel and think and breathe and evolve.

NK: Sometimes our authenticity just comes with being grounded. You know, centering ourselves and making sure we check on us first because we can’t be good for anybody else in the process. With everything else going on. So amazing.

So you’re writing a novel. Can you talk a little bit about that and give us a sneak peek? 

RJ: Yeah, it’s funny because I feel like I’ve been writing a novel since I was like eight. Always writing a novel. My mom’s like, “you are never gonna finish any of these novels.” And I was like, “I actually have, so I’m sitting on unpublished novels.” 

They are young adult fiction. One is a romance — the romance you’re never going to read, never publishing that. But it was great to write, super fun. What I’ve been working on is a novel called The Garden and it’s the story of two best friends, Jane and Frannie. So Jane, Jane is like an overachiever. The epitome of Black excellence, who makes a really big mistake that lands her in juvie, which was not anywhere she was ever planning to be. So she’s trying to figure out how to rebuild her life and to learn the lesson of you’re not your worst mistake. How do you move beyond that? And then with Frannie. She’s a mixed race trans girl who grew up with her white grandmother and doesn’t actually know much about the other side of her heritage and is also in the same group home as Jane and they’re just kind of learning how to dream again, supporting one another and in finding their chosen family. 

And I specifically wanted to write a book — particularly after working with Young Women Empowered for so long and just seeing the media available to my young people — I wanted to write a book where the Black and brown characters were the main characters, where the queer and trans characters are the main characters, where, yes, there’s humor, and there’s levity, but there’s also realness. And there might be sadness and tragedy, but that’s not the whole story either, because I’ve seen a lot of stories, particularly about queer kids, that are very violent and don’t have any happy ending.

So I fInished a draft. I sent it out to be reviewed. I just got some feedback yesterday. There’s a literary agency that at first I thought I was getting a rejection letter, but when I read it, it’s actually a revision. So they loved it and they had some notes. And now I’m like sitting with their notes. And I think everything that they’re saying is totally valid. With the exception of one thing I’m not gonna do, I’m going to do the revision and I’m going to resubmit and see if this is my next publisher.

NK: I hope it is because like you said, Black and brown queer folks, I need someone that looks like me, and I still haven’t seen the love that I’m looking for. On screen, or in a book, or quite literally anywhere.

RJ: And that’s your job then right? That’s what you have to do if it’s not there, you have to write it.

NK: Yeah, yeah, create it. Make it. So I’m really glad that you’re making this book. And especially because of your work at Y-WE, like this is amazing. This is like, you know, this is for y’all. This is the way I express my love to y’all and it’s beautiful, that you’re kind of like leaving this for us. So I really hope everything goes well. And this is like your next publisher for the book. And I can’t wait to read it. Cannot wait to read it.

RJ: Yeah, I’ll put you down like maybe you can be one of my sensitivity readers, make sure I’m getting the voices right.

NK: I would love to be. I would love to, thank you for thinking about me for that. That was amazing.

Are there any closing remarks?

RJ: I’m just super grateful. I’m grateful to the folks who are picking up my book and engaging thoughtfully with it and reading it and hitting me up in the DMs or going through my website to tell me what they’re thinking. I really would love for folks across the Midwest especially to do book clubs. So my book will be read in community. I feel like that’s another piece of it is like a lot of books, you just read it on your own, I actually want this to be read as a collective and I want people to talk about it. Thank you for interviewing me.

NK: You’re welcome. And my last thing would be to say we can make that happen. It may not be happening but we can make that happen. We can make a book club.

Thank you so much. I’m so excited. I’m glad I got to interview you and ask you some questions about your book. And good luck on the rest of your book tour. Good luck with your next novel. I cannot wait to read this. Thank you for being an amazing mentor and pouring into me, pouring into the youth. Continue being amazing!

Naomi Kirori (they/she) is a rising junior mass media scholar at Clark Atlanta University from Seattle, Washington. They are a creative, a leader, and an advocate whose podcast, Through Our Eyez, is dedicated to amplifying voices and creating conversations that affect BIPOC communities. Naomi enjoys spending time with loved ones and in nature. They have a passion for traveling and exploring more cultures and places. They aspire to have their own business and travel the world.

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