“From A Cotton Field of Dreams to the White House” with Janis Kearney in the USA

 

Many times, what people really need to change their lives for the better is a sliver of hope, and that hope can come in many forms. As leaders, we can use the power of story to inspire hope in others. This is what Janis Kearney has been doing as an author and philanthropist. Janis is the author of the inspirational memoir, “Cotton Field of Dreams.” we listen and learn about some defining childhood moments and powerful moments in the White House, meeting multiple heads of states, including defining moments with President Bill Clinton and President Nelson Mandela, the little-known story and childhood pain of the late and great Maya Angelou and how she turned pain into purpose and her mute, voiceless period in her life into one of the most powerful voices of our time. Join in!

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“From A Cotton Field of Dreams to the White House” with Janis Kearney in the USA

The Power of Your Pen, the Power of Your Story, the Power of Your Voice!

Greetings to all future bold leaders. Thank you for joining us from around the world. My name is Anne Pratt formerly from South Africa. I relocated abroad to attend a Harvard Leadership Fellowship in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States of America. Our bold leader joins us from Little Rock, the capital city of Arkansas in the United States of America, and also the home of the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

She is a powerful, gracious, and humble woman who has traveled all the way from the Cottonfields of Arkansas to the White House. She is a highly respected author, publisher, and educator who has written or co-written seventeen books, including her first, the critically applauded Cottonfield of Dreams, a memoir and a tribute to her wonderful parents and her close-knit family with eighteen siblings.

In 2014, she cofounded the Celebrate! Maya Project to celebrate and educate the youth of Arkansas on the life and legacy of the great global Icon Maya Angelou, also a daughter of the State of Arkansas. Stay with us as we listen and learn about some defining childhood moments and powerful moments in the White House, meeting multiple heads of states, including defining moments with President Bill Clinton and President Nelson Mandela, the little-known story and childhood pain of the late and great Maya Angelou and how she turned pain into purpose and her mute and voiceless period in her life into one of the most powerful voices of our time. We warmly welcome Janis Kearney and welcome to the show.

 

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Janis Kearney | Power Of Story

 

Janis, what a great honor to meet with you. I’m so delighted to be able to talk to you and have a conversation about leading boldly into the future and the wonderful work that you’re doing in the great State of Arkansas. Thank you so much for joining us.

It is my pleasure and thank you for inviting me.

I was curious about your memoir. I wondered if you could share something about the Cottonfield of Dreams. What inspired you to write the book?

My memoir was something I started very young. I fell in love with writing from listening to my father’s stories. He shared stories all during our childhood, and I was immersed in that. I knew I wanted to be a writer from very early on. I wanted to be a storyteller because that’s what he was. The first book I wanted to write was about my father and my family.

I kept that dream throughout my life. I would write a little bit and work. I always had to have a job because I needed to live, but writing was always my passion. Cottonfield of Dreams was something I knew I wanted to write after I finished doing all the other things that came my way as far as my journey. I ended up in Chicago, and that’s when I started my writing career. Cottonfield of Dreams was the first book that I wanted to put out into the world.

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Janis Kearney | Power Of Story
Cotton Field of Dreams

I considered it a love letter to my parents about their hard lives and how they were able to produce what many people consider a very successful family. There were 19 children. Of those 19 children, 18 went to college. We all dreamed and we ended up doing in life what we dreamed of doing. Thanks completely to T.J. and Ethel Kearney, my parents.

That is such an inspiring story. You make the powerful point that we all need dreams and hope. The children of Mississippi, the area of the Delta region, and some of the poorest regions of the country, are often the children that most need examples, mentors, and role models of people who are still able to hang on to those dreams and find hope and inspiration of what is possible. I wonder if you have a moment in your own life that you could take us back to where perhaps it was difficult and hard to keep that hope and dream alive. What was that moment? How did you feel at the time?

Keeping The Dream Alive

I often go back to a moment when I was fifteen years old. My mother and father had been gone for a day. My father came back and said, “Your mother will be back tomorrow.” That’s what he said. My mom came back the next day. My dad called me into the room with the two of them and told me my mother had cancer. She had to have one breast removed and I needed to take care of her.

At the time, I was the oldest girl at home and that became my responsibility. That was horrifying for me because my mother was our family’s capstone. She was everything and I was given the responsibility of helping her live at fifteen years old. It changed me. I was a shy and quiet girl who probably didn’t have very much self-confidence. At that point, I had to step up. I pulled on everything that I’ve been taught all my life, the faith, hard work, self-confidence, dreams, and hopes. All of that, I had to pull on to help my mother and become her caretaker, as well as continue to do well in school. That was a life changer for me for sure.

I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s quite a remarkable responsibility for a girl at such a young age. If you could share with us, what were those other support systems that you tapped into to help you navigate what must have been an incredibly difficult time?

I think my faith was so helpful to me. It helped strengthen me during that time. I became extremely close to my mother and we would talk a lot. She would share her wisdom about life and about how you navigate life. It was her wisdom. It was my faith that I’d gotten from them. They had passed that on to me and my sense that if you have a job, you find a way to do it, which was also a value that had been taught by my parents.

I relied on all of that and that sense of responsibility. There’s no substitute for it. If you are given a job or a responsibility, you take it seriously and you do your very best to do it well. I wanted to save my mother. I wanted my mother to be around, so I took all of that very seriously. The values that my parents taught us so early and all of those things stayed with me now and have gone with me all of these years. Those are the things that helped me transform or be able to get past that point of helping save my mother. Thankfully, she was fine for ten years and continued to enjoy her life.

What a great gift to her and you. Moving forward in your life, you’ve not only written your beautiful memoir, but you’ve gone on to craft many other pieces of great work. What is the piece that you’re most proud of? What is the literary piece that you think has had the most impact?

That’s very hard. It’s like asking, which of your children do you like the best? I have to say Cottonfield of Dreams, my first memoir meant so much to my whole family and all of us because we are a stoic people. We don’t talk a lot about emotions. We don’t express it a lot. The fact that I was able to write a lot of what we felt and what we experienced made them appreciate it so much. It was the scariest experience because I always wondered, “What are my family going to think about this?”

All of them responded to me and said, “Thank you for sharing our story, for making us remember, and for making us appreciate.” It impacted my family in a wonderful way, but it also impacted so many people in a lot of different ways. One of the very important ways is that I talked about a sister who had mental problems and eventually, took her life. I talked about that very openly in the book.

I didn’t expect to get any responses from that. I got so many responses. People would call me, email me, and write me to say, “Thank you for sharing this.” In the African-American community, those are things we don’t talk about. We don’t talk about mental illness. We do more now but back then, we certainly didn’t and we certainly didn’t talk about suicide. They were so grateful that I had brought that out. I had been courageous enough, they said, to bring that out and to share something so personal with the world. I never knew it would impact people the way that it did.

Bold Leadership

You’ve touched on such an important point. I’m so sorry about the loss of your sister. It’s incredibly courageous for you to share with the world. Often, in the world of life and leadership now, we see those things and vulnerable exposures as weaknesses rather than strengths. I’m curious about your perspective in terms of what bold courageous leadership looks like now and how we need to change the paradigm in terms of what is strength and what is weakness.

I’m not sure I can completely answer it, but when you’re talking about leadership, you’re talking about being human first. I can only speak from that because I never think of myself as a leader. I think of myself as a human being who tries to get up and do what is the right thing to do each day. You hope that a leader would do the same thing.

You would hope that having the responsibility that many leaders do, they would take seriously the way that they run their company and the way that they treat the people who work with them and for them. That makes a huge difference in the way that people look at our country, look at the community, and look at leadership. The strength in leadership is being able to be as human as possible, to do the things that impact humanity, to make decisions based on making the world better, making the community better, and making the people who they work with better.

 

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Janis Kearney | Power Of Story

 

If we can think like that as leaders, then we create a better world. When we’re thinking of always making money, making a name for ourselves, or beating out someone else, then we’re leaving out the most important part. That’s my thought on leadership. Because I have a lot of models for bad leadership or negative leadership, I don’t ever want to consider myself a leader. I want to consider myself as someone who does the right thing every day, as long as I can and as much as I can.

 

 

That’s such a powerful message. Building on that a little, you alluded to the fact that there are many examples of perhaps not such great leaders. What are the three big leadership challenges that we face not only in America but in the world? What are the three big things that keep you up at night, concerned, or perhaps wanting to write about?

I wish there were just three but politics scares me. The shape of politics and the direction of politics are very scary to me because as I grew up, my father would always talk to us about politicians and politics. He would rail about the negatives of politics. I didn’t like politics growing up, and then I got to a point where I accepted politics. I learned that politics can be good and there are good politicians. We just have to be very careful about who we put into leadership.

Politics can be good, and there are good politicians. We just have to be very careful about who we put into leadership. Click To Tweet

I went that way. That’s how I got into politics. That’s how I ended up working for the president of the United States. I decided that politics could be good. If you have the right person, then it could be helpful for everyone, the whole country. I’ve had to rethink all of that for the past few years. I do know there are good politicians and good politics is good for the country, but we’re going in the wrong direction. Most of us can see it and we feel hopeless as far as changing and redirecting it.

I’m scared and I’m horrified for the politics of our life now. I watch TV. I know what’s going on all over the world. It’s not just here. I grapple with that and I worry about that. The other thing is poverty. I know poverty doesn’t just impact Arkansas in the Delta. Poverty is all over the world. The cans and cannot, the gap is getting wider. That bothers me. That means that there are a few people in this world who make the decisions.

They can make the decisions about the rest of the world. That’s not the way it should be but it seems like that’s the direction that it’s going. I worry about our young people because our young people are seeing all of this that I’m talking about. They’re seeing it, ingesting it, and they’re making their decisions about life. Their future is based on what they see and you can only pray that they’re saying, “I want to change things. I don’t want things to be like this.” Are they hopeless? Are they feeling that they don’t have enough value or power to be able to change things? I worry about the mental stability of our children when they see so many negative things happen in our world.

To your point about young people, is there still space? How do we still create hope in this twin pillar moment of perhaps despair and hope? It takes me to the amazing work you’ve done with the Maya Angelou life and legacy project. I know she’s a daughter of Arkansas. I know she is a proud daughter of Arkansas. Can you share with us a little about what motivated you? What is your big purpose in keeping her life and legacy alive? Perhaps, some examples of how that life and legacy have shaped the youth of Arkansas.

She died in 2014. Shortly after she passed, I was angry because the state of Arkansas didn’t see a need to celebrate her life. I went around asking people, “Are we doing anything to celebrate her life? This woman who is a global Icon was ours. She was part of us.” Nothing was happening, so I went to the Mayor of Stamps where she spent much of her childhood. I talked with him.

At the time, he had nothing planned. I talked him into, “Let’s do something. Let’s celebrate her life. This woman is known all over the world and people adulate her,” so we did. We had a day of celebration for Maya Angelou’s life. It was statewide. People came from all over. After that, we knew we had to do more, so we created this nonprofit, the Celebrate Maya Project.

Our goal was to do what we thought Maya Angelou would want us to do and that was to go into the schools and the communities and find a way to impact young people by bringing in literary programs, poetry programs, art programs, writing programs, and history programs. That’s what we’ve been doing for years. We also do small scholarships for academic scholarships and poetry awards.

We have a partner school that we work with for two years at a time, but we always identify Stamps High School. The school in Stamps, Arkansas will always be our partner. We are doing what we can to impact young people to help lift their voices and know that there is a future. If they want one, there’s a future for them. We want them to know that we’re always here if we can help in any way. Also, to know that they can help themselves. We try to bring out people because a lot of times in poor areas, there’s no exposure to people who can do it and who look like you.

We try to do that. We try to take people out into the communities to tell their stories and share them with the young people. We make it a village affair. We work with the village, not just the young people. We make sure that we identify the school leadership, the community leadership, and the parents so that we can work with the village. Those are the people who nurture those children when we’re not there. We need to partner with them. We’re very excited about what we’ve been able to do. We’re still small but we’re growing.

On Maya Angelou And Nelson Mandela

That’s fantastic. I know that the wonderful Maya Angelou also paid tribute to another Icon and beacon of hope in the world, Nelson Mandela. Can you share a little about the connection between Maya Angelou and Mandela and what have you read in her wonderful poem and tribute? I think it was called Testimonial to Nelson Mandela.

Maya Angelou was global before it was even a thing. She spent much of her time in Africa because she believed in knowing her roots and where she came from. She loved having that affiliation and that association with Africa. She loved Nelson Mandela. We all did. What she was saying in that testimonial was that he was considered by African-Americans but all Americans as the model leader for the world because he gave so much of himself.

Mandela is the model leader for the world because he gave so much of himself. Click To Tweet

He came to his presidency when we needed him to be a model for the world. He did such an amazing job in that position. In Arkansas, we all mourned his loss. I know I wrote an essay about it. A lot of my friends who are writers wrote essays about his passing. I think my title was When a Tree Falls. We saw this as a giant leaving the world because he left so much. That’s what Maya said. He left so much for us to follow in his footsteps. His footsteps are large but they’re there for us if we’ll follow in them.

By the way, I would love you to share that essay if you’d be willing to send it to me. I’d be grateful for that. I can also share that with our audience out there. It’s a remarkable tribute and I look forward to reading that. You make such an important point. He shared so much and he passed on a remarkable legacy. Can you take us back to a specific moment, perhaps a Mandela Moment for you that stands out? When was it? How did you feel at the time? What was that moment of inspiration? Perhaps, take us back first to that moment in time. Can you paint a picture for us?

I worked for President Clinton as his personal diarist, which means that I shadowed him quite a bit. Sometimes, I traveled with him. The trip that was most transformational for me was his trip to Africa, where he visited nine different countries in Africa. One of the most memorable, if not the most memorable was the South African trip.

I remember specifically the state dinner that was held in South Africa. The two presidents, President Clinton and President Mandela, were under a huge tent and it started raining but it was magical. It was magical for me for so many reasons. President Clinton had this thing. Anytime any head of state came to the White House or if I met them anywhere, he would make sure he introduced me to them. He would share my story with them because he always thought my story was phenomenal.

That’s what he did. He was sitting there at this state dinner with President Mandela. He said, “Janis, come on over here. I want to introduce you to President Mandela,” and he did. He shared my story with him. Mr. Mandela was so very gracious and he asked me a couple of questions about my life. That was like a dream for me to meet this giant, this man whom everyone had so much love and respect for. I was in Africa and that was the other dream.

 

 

I’ve written about it, of course. That was such a transformational period for me. I was able to meet this giant. I was able to meet him with someone whom I admire so much, President Clinton. The fact that these two giants of me became close friends. It was miraculous for me because Bill Clinton is from my home state, Arkansas. He’s a very good friend of the world’s President, President Mandela. It was very touching.

The next time that I saw President Mandela was in the White House. A lot of people know that he gave a speech in the White House about President Clinton when he was going through his period in the White House. That was such an amazing speech. I was sitting there. There was probably not one dry eye in the audience after President Mandela spoke about his friend, Bill Clinton.

Coming back to South Africa, what year was that? Can you remember the words that President Mandela shared with you?

That was in 1997. I can’t remember the exact words but I may have them written down. I’ll look for them. If I find them and share them with you.

That will be wonderful. If you could perhaps take us a little deeper. When you said it was a moment of great transformation, what was the significance of that moment? How did that moment change you?

It had something to do with what I said earlier about politics, government, and leaders, and my wrestling with how you make politics, good leadership, and good leaders mesh it all together. That moment was when I said to myself, “Yes, there are great leaders who are good people.” That doesn’t mean you have perfection in leadership but there are leaders who want to do good by themselves, by the world, and by the people they serve or their constituents. That is foremost in their minds and their minds. Those two men, I truly believe, Neither one I believe is perfect for sure, but I believe in their hearts. There is that desire to do good by the world and by themselves.

 

 

You raise such an important point. I remember that speech when President Mandela came to the White House. It was a very difficult time. I was wondering, Janis. Perhaps you could describe that moment. What do you think created that transformational shift out of a very difficult time for President Clinton and Madam Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? What was it about that moment? What do you think helped the people present, President Clinton, and his family pivot out of that? What did Mandela share that changed and transformed that moment?

I can’t remember all the words that he used, but he painted a picture of a human being and someone that he hugely admired. He named the reasons why he admired him. This is Mandela. This is Nelson Mandela saying, “This is a friend of mine. I admire him. He’s done so many amazing things, good things. He’s not perfect but he has done enough for you to look at this part of it as you’re looking at the legal questions that they had.”

It was the fact that it was Nelson Mandela saying this and saying, “He’s my friend. I’m keeping my arm around him no matter what you say about him because I know it’s hard.” He said that he knew it was hard. That helped a lot of people recalibrate the way that they were looking at this whole event, the whole issue. A lot of people came out of that saying, “This makes a difference.”

On Perfection, Mistakes, And Being Human

In this world where we often have this demand for perfection and we often stigmatize mistakes, in Mandela’s own words, he said, “I’m not a saint. I’m a sinner who keeps on trying.” What do you think our audience needs for leadership in a world where we still tend to stigmatize mistakes and demand perfection, and are often incredibly harsh when people make mistakes and err which we all do?

I think humanity. I came from the Bible’s perspective. All of the people who were considered not saints but followers of Jesus were Jesus’ comrades. None of them were perfect. All of them had their own problems. All of them had things about them that individually you would say, “He’s a sinner one way or another. He’s killed people, or he’s a womanizer.” All of them had their problems but they were able to overcome those problems because their hearts were in the right place.

They put whatever weaknesses they had behind them and decided they were going to do the right thing. We can look at leadership as when we have the right leadership and we know that they are after the right thing, they want to do the right thing, and their goals are to make the world better. As the old people said, “We cut off our nose despite the face when we try to make people perfect. If they’re not perfect, we don’t want their leadership.”

That’s a huge mistake because there are no perfect people, period. Some of the best leaders are imperfect people. We should not be hypocritical enough to think that one leader is better than the other one because he didn’t do a certain thing. There’s no perfection in leadership or human beings, either one.

Some of the best leaders are imperfect people. We should not be hypocritical enough to think that one leader is better than the other one because he didn’t do a certain thing. There’s no perfection in leadership or in human beings. Click To Tweet

You’ve had an amazing life and traveling from the Cottonfield to the White House is a remarkable journey and working with President Clinton and going through some of those very difficult challenging times. What for you has been a highlight of that experience?

A highlight is realizing that leaders and people who have so much power that they get up and put their pants on one leg at a time. They make mistakes, but they can do something great after that mistake. Realizing the humanity of leadership is what is important to me. Knowing that no one is perfect, but everyone has the opportunity to be larger than they are and become better than they are.

No one is perfect, but everyone has the opportunity to be larger than they are. Click To Tweet

I had a lot of a-ha moments. During those eight years that I worked for President Clinton, I loved the fact that I was able to witness history firsthand. I sat in the room and listened to all kinds of leaders meet with the President and talk to the President. I saw government and leadership in action every day. That was huge for someone who worked in the Cottonfields and came from dire poverty. I woke up every day pitching myself. When I walked into the White House, I knew that this was an honor and I took it seriously.

That is remarkable. Are there any other particular moments that stand out apart from those Mandela Moments?

I’ve met lots of leaders. I sat in the room when President Clinton made some pretty amazing decisions. Lots of hardships during that time. The president went to a lot of funerals and did a lot of eulogies. Each one he personalized and made personal to that family. I saw that. Those things that I saw made me know that his heart was always in the right place.

The people that I met coming in to visit the president. Some of them came with some very sad stories. They would go into the Oval Office and meet with the president and they’d come back out with such hope. He had this special thing about touching people’s hearts. He was able to do that. I worked with a lot of people who went on from the White House to do great things. It was a very special moment. There were people who came there to make a difference in the world. That’s what I felt good about during that time.

There were people who wanted to do good and make a difference in the world. I always think now that if half of the people who go into government, the White House, and Congress could go there with the will and the desire to make a positive difference in the world, we would be in pretty good shape.

Mandela lived in a certain context, age, and time. As you mentioned, he was celebrated as being the right person and the right president at the right time. Do you think Mandela’s leadership is still relevant now? If so, how and why?

Absolutely. For one thing, his ability to forgive after everything that had happened to him was unbelievable. During our trip to Africa, we visited Robin Island. I went into his cell with President Clinton. It was a hard thing to see how small the cell was and to know that he had lived there for all those years. He came out and forgave the people who put him there.

How much further along could we be if people had that feeling or that heart to forgive and raise up people who have done wrong? As human beings, you did wrong. You’re a human being. I’m forgiving you. Let’s move on. Let’s all move on together. That’s what he asked for. If we could do that in the United States, in South Africa, or every country, this world would be so much better.

What do you think Nelson Mandela would say to the leaders, not only of America but of the world?

We’re wasting so much time hating each other, fighting each other, and trying to gain power, whether we deserve it or not. “We need to be about fixing the world.” That’s what he would say. We need to put all of this energy that we’re using to tear each other down and hate to fix the world because there’s a whole generation watching us and needing our leadership.

We need to put all of this energy that we’re using to tear each other down to fixing the world, because there’s a whole generation watching us and needing our leadership. Click To Tweet

Inspiring Hope

Coming back to your amazing work around hope, creating, and inspiring that hope, not only in the Delta area and in Arkansas, but in the United States of America and the world. What do you think is the greatest wisdom you could pass on to the younger generation? How do they hang on to hope? What is it they should be putting in place to find that hope in their lives?

I’m a huge proponent of education. I know for the last 50 years or so, people are saying, “Education isn’t the most important thing anymore.” Education is a foundation that our young people need. They need that. I’m so afraid of technology and how it’s impacting young people. I know technology is important, but it has a lot of negativity.

I would say to parents, “If possible, restrict how much technology your children are coming in contact with every day.” The less they come in contact with some of the technology and some of the social media, the better off our young people would be. Hope is something that, first of all, parents have to work toward. They have to try to give that to children. They have to show them every day that you wake up with hope.

I was telling someone that was complaining about life and they’re saying, “I’m giving up. I’m tired.” I said, “Go to bed. Go to sleep.” When is it that waking up in the morning doesn’t give you hope? It doesn’t tell you, “Whatever you were thinking the day before, things can be better.” I want parents to tell children that, “Things may look horrible today, go to bed and wake up. Let’s look at it again tomorrow and things will look different.” They need that from their parents.

They need leaders to talk to them, to show them what leadership is, and to show them how they could contribute to a better world as well. It’s a village. It’s that whole village thing for a whole country, the parents, and the leaders in the community. It’s the national leaders as well. Right now, the national leaders aren’t doing a good job.

If our national leaders aren’t stepping up, we need to draw on other people in the village. Apart from parents, are there other people in the village that you thought could help you and could help our youth?

 

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Janis Kearney | Power Of Story

 

There are teachers. I know they’re getting pulled and pushed in everything else but teachers play such an important role in children. That brings up the whole COVID pandemic that’s had children at home and a lot of them not learning and suffering because they don’t have that security of going to school every day and having their family, friends, and teachers. Teachers play a very integral part. When I think about people who impacted my life, I’m always thinking back to a teacher who made a difference. Teachers and even religious leaders or spiritual leaders. I do believe faith is a big part of what we need.

Shifting slightly, I know with your wonderful husband, you cofounded a publishing company. The power of the pen is something that you have not only lived but supported others in doing. Mandela once said, “A good head and a good heart are a formidable combination but when you add the power of the pen and the written word, you have something truly special.” In your world, Janis, what is the gift of the power of the pen, the written word, or what we call being word smart? What is the importance and gift of that? How would you encourage the leaders of today to become more skilled and adept in that area briefly? I know that’s a lot of your life work.

It is so important. Writing is important because it opens up your brain. It allows you to think more clearly when you write things down and that starts at a young age. Leaders should encourage young people to write. Writing and literacy are so important. Reading is important. I’m not going to go into the whole thing that we’re going through now, where a lot of the books and the curriculums are being banned from our schools. That’s a whole other problem.

Writing is important because that’s how we record our history. That’s how we share stories about our lives, other people’s lives, and our cultures. Our children won’t get that unless we write that down. I did something not too long ago about the power of art in diversity and how we create equity through the arts by writing and by books.

Writing is important because that’s how we record our history. That’s how we share stories about our lives, other people’s lives and our cultures. Our children won’t get that unless we write that down. Click To Tweet

That’s how you make people know that we’re all here. We’re all important and our stories are important. Our leadership has to get that because more than ever, you’re dealing with people from all different cultures. You need people who believe their stories are important. As leaders, you should make sure that you encourage that.

A couple of fun facts. I know you mentioned, you come from a family of nineteen. That’s a remarkable village here and there. What was it that you most enjoyed about your childhood village with your siblings?

I think because we were so close. We were a very close family. We still are. We do family reunions every year. Our best friends are usually our siblings. We didn’t have to depend on other people always for that friendship. We loved Christmas because my parents made it very special. We didn’t get a lot but it was still a magical time for us. Holidays and the closeness of our family.

Could you share one thing that perhaps happened in the White House in your time there that isn’t known that is a fun memorable event?

There were so many. The president made a radio address. I’m not sure everybody knows that. Every Saturday, he would do a radio address and he would invite people to come to the radio address. There were usually maybe 100 people that came in every Saturday. I was part of his Oval Office staff. One year, this lady came in. He’d invited her in and for some reason, I didn’t know it then. He walked to the door to the White House and he escorted her back to the Oval Office, where he gave his Oval Office addresses.

He sat there and talked to her then he announced in the radio address that the lady was 103 years old. She had worked for Mamie Eisenhower. She had been a seamstress for Mamie Eisenhower, but she had written and said that she had never gone through the front door of the White House. The President said, “We are going to invite you here and you are coming through the front door of the White House.” He personally escorted her in. That is one of the things that I remember very vividly, the big smile on her face. I have that picture of him stooping down and talking to her. She was in a wheelchair. He was saying, “We are so proud to have you inside this White House and in the Oval Office.” She’d never been to an Oval Office either.

That is such a wonderful story. Perhaps, one last fun fact. Anything in particular about Maya Angelou that you don’t think has known that is something pretty memorable about her life and legacy?

She had such a full life. A lot of people don’t know that she spent a lot of time in Ghana. She was married to an African man.

An African man from Ghana?

Yes. She was about 15 or 16 years old when she left Stamps. She moved to San Francisco with her mother. She became the first female engineer, they called it ales or trams. It was a train. She became the first woman or female to work on a train in San Francisco. There are so many things about her that were first and she was very confident. She had a lot of confidence and would try things because she wanted to see if she could do them. That’s how she became such an amazing woman.

Her poetry started when she was in Stamps, Arkansas. She became world-renowned for her poetry. I don’t know whether people know that she went through a very hard childhood. At a very young age, she was sexually abused and that ended up with her being mute. She did not talk for five years, which is hard to believe someone who had such a voice and a presence eventually. Her words became who she was, the way she spoke, and the words that she wrote, but it all came out of some real harsh pain when she was a child.

What remarkable words she shared and how she transitioned into speaking her voice with such power. It raises the question of to what extent is the adversity and the obstacle of the way.

Writers pull on that a lot. We pull on our joy, the things that make us happy and proud. There’s something about pain and adversity that gives us permission to write and makes it easier for us to write and if we are courageous enough to share it. Sometimes that is the more evocative stories that we write.

Janis, in our final closing moments, are there any final thoughts you have about the current state of leadership and being able to lead boldly into the future? Are there any final thoughts that you have that you think President Mandela would say to not only our generation and leaders in the world but to the future leaders of the world?

My thoughts about our current leaders are to get out of your own way and make the future your goal. Start thinking about what the world is going to look like twenty years from now and work toward that. For future leaders, I know children were so important to President Mandela. If he looked at it now, it would be for the children to think about the fact that life looks hopeless in a lot of ways. He would say, “Keep hope alive. Keep believing that tomorrow is going to be better and you can be a part of making certain that it’s going to be better. Do your part. Whatever it is or whatever gift it is that you have, use that gift to make this world a better place.” I think that’s what he would say to our future leaders.

Make the future your goal. Start thinking about what the world is going to look like twenty years from now and work toward that. Click To Tweet

Janis, what a great gift to be having this conversation with you. I look forward to sharing and doing more with you. Thank you for being part of this amazing village that truly inspires hope. Not only in Arkansas but around America and for the greater gift of the world. I can’t wait to break bread with you in person. Thank you for being the inspiration that you are and for sharing your words of great wisdom.

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

 

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About Janis Kearney

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Janis Kearney | Power Of StoryJanis F. Kearney is an author, book publisher, and writing instructor. She was born to southeast
Arkansas cotton sharecroppers, attended Gould Public Schools, and graduated from the
University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a B.A. in Journalism. She served nine years as a
project manager and public affairs director in Arkansas state government. She served briefly as
managing editor for civil rights legend Daisy L. Bates’ historic Arkansas State Press
Newspaper, before purchasing and becoming publisher of the newspaper in 1988, upon Bates’
retirement.

From 1993-2001, Janis served in the Clinton Administration, working briefly in the white house
media affairs office before being appointed by President Clinton, as Director of Communications
for the US Small Business Administration. In 1995, she was selected by President Clinton as the
first-ever Personal Diarist to a President. She served in that role through June 2001.

In July 2001, Janis was selected as a fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute of African and African
American Studies at Harvard University and continued the fellowship for two years. In 2003,
Janis and her husband founded Writing our World Publishing, a small, independent publishing
company. She has written or co-written 17 books, including her first, the critically acclaimed

Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir. Other WOW Publishing books include Something to Write
Home About: Memories of a Presidential Diarist; Conversations: William J. Clinton…from Hope
to Harlem; Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place; Sundays with TJ: 100 Years of Memories
on Varner Road and Writing our Lives: An Anthology of Southern Storytellers; Volumes I-III, a
compilation of short memoirs.

In 2014, Janis founded the Celebrate! Maya Project. Its mission is to promote the life and legacy
of Dr. Angelou throughout Arkansas’ communities and schools. She also founded the
Read.Write.Share Writers Project, which includes memoir-writing seminars, lectures and
workshops around the state, including the WOW! Spring Writers Weekend held in Arkansas each
year.

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