By Sabrina Bates
In 2014, a “big, black country girl from Northwest Tennessee” took a leap of faith and put herself in the spotlight for a chance to sit in the Tennessee General Assembly. Joyce Washington of Martin knew it would be a hard-fought battle to unseat an incumbent farmer from his post as 76th District Tennessee State Representative.
That didn’t stop her from traveling three counties in West Tennessee and opening up conversations with people of all classes about the state of affairs and potentially changing the status quo. Washington’s campaign movement triggered grassroots efforts by young college students and ignited volunteerism on an unheard of level.
Throwing herself into the political spotlight made her a target as leaders from the opposing political party attempted to dig into her past. What they found was an educated woman who had successfully raised her children while maintaining a career for Allstate traveling the country, especially during natural disasters, assisting businesses and policyholders with claims while they coped with tragic events.
Although she didn’t claim the state representative seat that year, Washington was quickly launched into the role of a community leader with her ability to work across the lines of political parties, classes and matters of race.
“The time is always right to do the right thing. I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change; I am changing the things I cannot accept,” Washington noted. This retiree can now be found in the classrooms on the campus of UT Martin working toward her second master’s degree in strategic communication. Her goal — to initiate conversations about who we are, how we became who we are, and breaking through comfort zones to facilitate discussions centered around growth and healing as a nation and a community.
“We need to stop running from the difficult conversations. Our pasts make up who we are and we need to embrace it to work toward progression and growth,” Washington shared.
With a new project geared toward matters of race in Weakley County, Washington has become an active member of the Weakley County Reconciliation Project. WCRP is designed to bring attention to the county’s painful history of slavery and lynchings, while creating an atmosphere to openly talk about these issues on the path to healing and reconciling.
“Nobody seems to want to talk about it in this country. If you can’t talk about it, you’re just poking the bear. If this country doesn’t want to work through it, there can be no healing for all of us,” Washington said.
While she often described herself as a “big, black country girl from Northwest Tennessee” on the campaign trail, those who engage in discussion with Washington quickly find she is educated, passionate and compassionate and it is easy to figure out what it is she wants.
Washington wants growth — spiritually, personally and in her community and country.
Washington wants dialogue — conversation that tackles the not-so-pretty issues.
Washington wants healing — for all of us to realize we are made up of the same bones and blood underneath our layers of skin.
“We as a community are capable of doing better. I’m a bubble buster and I’m not going to let you stay in your comfort zone,” Washington said.
Washington engages in conversation on social media through the UT Martin Du Bois Black Reconstruction in America Book Group and Weakley County Reconciliation Project on Facebook.