An Unlikely Journey: How a Man From the Conservative Bible Belt Is Fighting Violence Against the World's Women and Girls
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The following is an excerpt from Hearts on Fire: Twelve Stories of Today's Visionaries Igniting Idealism Into Action by Jill Iscol with Peter Cookson, which goes on sale November 8.
Violence against women is a complex set of destructive, primarily male behaviors that include psychological and emotional abuse, forced marriage, son preference, honor killings, sexual harassment, trafficking, and violence against women in armed conflict.
Jimmie Briggs is the founder of the Man Up Campaign, a global initiative to stop violence against girls and women. He didn’t start life expecting he would dedicate himself to mobilizing the world’s youth in the cause of basic justice for girls and women.
But that’s what he did. And this is his story.
An Unlikely Journey
“I have to say my journey’s been a very unlikely one. It is not the path I thought I would take with my life. I grew up in a rural Bible Belt community just outside of Saint Louis. My mother was a teacher and high school guidance counselor. My father was an electrician. I have a younger brother; we were very much a middle-class family.
I grew up in a community that was predominately white, very conservative. I talk about this because growing up I carried a lot of anger. In elementary school and high school I was one of the few African-American students. I endured a lot of taunting—a lot of racial epithets—playing sports, in assemblies, and in the hallways of my schools.
It wasn’t an easy time to be growing up. The seventies and eighties were not times of innovation and change. My parents were very devout Baptists. A lot of my upbringing was tied to the church—fish fries, the Sunday socials, the clothing drives, the Christmas sales in the wintertime.
I was influenced by the elders of the church. It was not a wealthy church. Most church members were working-class people from the Deep South who had achieved a certain degree of security. They were very proud people.
It was an environment of affirmation. When I would do well in school or win certain contests or get on the Dean’s list, I vividly remember members of the church—many of them have passed away—discreetly handing me a crumpled-up five-dollar bill, slipping it to me as a token of their support. People would come to me after church saying, “Jimmie, we’re proud of you.” . . .
. . . The goal was to get me to college and to excel. My belief system was influenced by the Southern Baptist tradition, the African-American community, and my family. But I was also influenced by reacting to the sometimes hostile environment in which I grew up. I realized it was better not to judge people based on their skin color, ethnicity, religion, economic background, or physical or mental challenges.
I always had to go for the underdog. I guess I felt disenfranchised; I felt a kinship with other people who were disenfranchised. The kids who were poor, whether they were black or white, the kids who were in the special education program who had physical or mental disabilities or challenges— I always felt a kinship with them and would stand up for them when an opportunity presented itself. I always wanted to stand up for those who didn’t have a voice.
My heroes growing up were writers like James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and John Steinbeck. Today, my heroes are somewhat different. One of my heroes has been my father. He was a constant hero through- out my life.