INTERVIEW: Jennie Cashman Wilson - The Abram Wilson Foundation / #IWD 2015

Jennie Cashman Wilson. Photo Credit: Benjamin Amure 

Jennie Cashman Wilson lost her husband, the charismatic trumpeter Abram Wilson, to cancer in June 2012, when he was 38 and she was 31. Her response to this tragedy has been mightily impressive, she set up the Abram Wilson Foundation in his memory, and has continued to do important work through it. In the context of International Women's Day she talks about the Foundation, starting from the top with its all-female board:

LondonJazz News: You are a female founder and CEO of an organisation with an all-female board, how did that come about?

Jennie Cashman Wilson: Yes, the Abram Wilson Foundation is a powerhouse of brilliant women! I have three board members and I chose them because I trusted them implicitly, they knew Abram, they loved him, and they understood why it was important to continue his legacy. It just so happens that they are all women, but I also love that about them. They are very strong individuals who offer some very diverse and unique skills. There's an amazing energy and passion to their approach and they are incredibly supportive of what I do, but they also have high expectations, they challenge me and they ask the tough questions, which is really important.

LJN: What do you attribute to becoming a woman in a leadership role?

JCW:  I was really lucky growing up because my mum and dad encouraged me and supported me in pursuing the things in which I was interested. My mum taught me about following my passions and dreams and my dad taught me to be myself and not be afraid of what other people thought. I never felt like my dad treated me differently because I was female and I think that made a huge difference because I don't ever remember thinking I couldn't do something because I was a girl.

LJN: Who are your role models?

JCW: When I went to university I started to surround myself with some amazing young women. They are still some of my closest friends and they have all grown into such incredible people. They're all doing super interesting things with their lives, running their own little empires, kicking ass. They're a group of tenacious, intelligent, soulful women and they are my family, my daily role models and my inspiration. They are the ones who pick me up when things aren't going so well and encourage me to keep going. We've come such a long way since our student days and we've been through so much together. They really are some of the most impressive people I know and I feel very lucky and proud to have so many brilliant women in my life.

LJN: What are you working on at the moment?

JCW: One of our flagship projects, The Philippa Project is a jazz-theatre production inspired by the life of an extraordinary woman called Philippa Schuyler, a prodigal, mixed-race concert-pianist, composer, and journalist. She was born in 1931 into jazz-age Harlem as an experiment in miscegenation. She was the first mixed-race star to grace the cover of TIME magazine, and she travelled the world performing for queens and presidents. She was a real trailblazer for her time, someone who put her career above everything else and as such spent her whole life in tremendous conflict. The story we plan to tell is about a woman who reaches a moment of self-actualisation right before the end of her life. The Philippa Project is about what it take to fully own who we are and resist the external pressures of being told who we should be.

LJN: Does the Abram Wilson Foundation try to empower girls?

JCW: We don't have a specific focus on girls, no. However, we recently completed a pilot education programme called Achieve Your Greatness for 11 -13 year olds. One of the things that struck me was how curious some of the younger girls were about what I did. They wanted to know who I was and why I was there. When I explained they said, ‘so you’re the boss then?’ and one of my colleagues responded, ‘yep, she’s the boss’. Afterwards one of their teachers came up to me and explained that the girls were really interested in how I had ended up running my own organisation. Those girls reminded me about the need for role models and the importance for both girls and boys to see women as people they can look up to, communicate with, trust and ultimately respect. That really inspired me, those girls made me want to work harder and do better. In the end, they empowered me.

LINKS: RIP Abram Wilson (1975-2012)
Abram Wilson Foundation website

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