Jil Littlejohn

How this philanthropist overcame the odds to lead the Urban League of the Upstate

You were raised in Atlanta, Ga., with your family. What was that experience like?

I am the youngest child. Both my parents were married before, so I’m their only child. I have three older brothers and a sister. I was raised in Atlanta, a bustling city and derived my passion for community activism in the environment. I didn’t have a silver spoon. I went to nine different schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. We moved around a lot.  My parents were married, divorced, and back together now.  Long story. So I literally lived in Atlanta everywhere from Buckhead to Bankhead and everything in-between. The experience allowed me to really understand and meet people at different levels, at different stages of life. I just have a passion for people.

Tell me about your mom and dad. What were their occupations or professions?

My mom was a nurse for 50 years.  She just retired, although she’s actually in the process of opening up a home healthcare agency because nobody ever really retires.  And my dad worked for a chemical company.  He started right out of high school and worked his way up into upper management and worked there pretty much my entire life into high school. He used his retirement savings to help send me to college.  And then the company moved overseas, and he just went through a series of different things. He actually had a stroke several years ago, so he’s been home since then.

And where do you go to get energy? When you’re trying to get to your authentic self?

You know, a number of different things. Fitness is really important to me. I run, or I think I kind of waddle a little bit.  I do hot yoga. I go to a boot camp class. I try to just find a release. Push out energy to get energy, if that makes sense. I go as hard as I can, and that kind of recharges me a good bit.

Who do you go to for advice?

I go to a lot of people for advice. I wear so many hats. I go to one of my really good friends for spiritual advice. I talk to my mom a lot. We’re really close. I feel like she knows me best. Sometimes I don’t like her advice, but she typically always has my best interest. My best friend. I try to go to people that really know me and won’t give me all yes answers.

What gives you the most joy?

I can honestly say my relationship with my mom gives me the most joy. It does. Of all the accomplishments, professionally or personally or doing anything, the time that I spend with her is so valuable for a number of reasons.  One, I know we won’t always be together. Two, we just have fun. I mean, we can be in a room with just me and her and nothing else, and we can just laugh and talk.  And then, three, because I learned later in life that she didn’t have a close relationship with her mom, and for us to be as close as we are, she always has my back. She’s always rooting for me. We joke in my office that I have two assistants; her and my assistant. She goes above and beyond anything and everything to make sure that I’m successful, and it brings her joy. And so, because of that, it’s probably one of the best parts of my life.

What’s your greatest accomplishment to date?

Wow. To date. You know, I honestly think being the president and CEO of the Urban League is a huge accomplishment.  I was the first female to take on that role here in the Upstate. I came in at a tumultuous time and have been able to help reshape the organization.

Did you have a childhood dream that you did not realize?

I always wanted to be an attorney.

Tell me about your decision in 2009 to run for Greenville City Council and serve as the youngest member.

I never had political aspirations whatsoever. I didn’t do student body government in high school or college, and, honestly, I wasn’t even really intertwined with my local government as an adult.  Someone called me and said, “Hey, I need this girl to come stay with you for free for a month.  She’s working on Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign. Will you put her up?”  I said sure, why not. She actually ended up becoming one of my best friends. We’re still in close contact now. And so she was in my house and was working on this campaign. She said, “Why don’t you come out and help me?” I’d been at work all day. I didn’t really want to go help work on a campaign. But it really changed my complete trajectory. I went from answering phone calls, stuffing envelopes, talking with donors, and actually walking door-to-door and talking to people in the community. And for the first time I volunteered at organizations. I would do service projects, but, for me, I was able to talk to people and sit on their couch and hear some of their issues and concerns and realize that a lot of them weren’t national issues. They were local issues. That experience gave me my passion to say maybe I can make a difference in a different way.  And so I decided to run for City Council. I have a great mentor, Rep. Chandra Dillard. She took me under her wing. She’s the quiet storm. I’m this hurricane/tornado all over the place. She says, “Be calm, let’s talk about this.”  And so it was difficult. I was young. I wasn’t from the area; people didn’t necessarily know me. But I had so many people in the community saying no, we need to give her a chance. I think that she can do a great job. And so it was all hands on deck. It was a special election. We were going door-to-door six days a week. Well, really seven days. We just didn’t do Sunday morning. So seven days a week we were going door-to-door. You know, I was handwriting notes, answering phone calls, taking text messages, talking to people, and that very first election. I only won by like 24, 25 votes, and I’m convinced I took all 24, 25 to the poll.  I’m convinced of it. I was able to prove myself, and even then people were a little leery, so I had opposition the second time. I won about 70 percent of the vote, and my last race I didn’t have opposition.

When you look back at your childhood, is there a person, other than your parents, that significantly impacted you?

I had a teacher in high school. Again, I moved around a lot in high school or really just growing up. And so one of the things that I said to myself is that I want to stay at the same high school no matter what. Like I don’t care if I have to catch a bus, a train, and a plane to get there, I’m staying at one high school. And, you know, my parents, you know, they were working really hard. So they didn’t really understand the system in terms of registering for classes or any of that type of stuff. So, my freshman year of high school, I was actually in a remedial class. I was basically on a remedial track. Even though I had made straight A’s growing up, I guess my parents didn’t know what to check or what to happen and so I just kind of got thrown into this pool. I can remember being in a class and everybody was cutting up. So guess what?  I cut up too.  We had this poor little teacher, bless her heart, they just literally ran the woman crazy. I mean she left one day and never came back. And there was a young teacher who I think he had just finished his, either his undergraduate work or maybe his masters. I’m not sure. He took over the class.  So he came in, and he brought some order and structure to the class. I think he started to see that maybe I shouldn’t be in this remedial class. He began to give me different types of work. You know, from remedial to just average, and then from average to above average, and then from above average in ninth-grade to 10th-grade work and 11th-grade work and 12th-grade work. I was acing it. He actually went to the administration and was able to help change my track, and so I went from basically being in remedial classes to being in honors classes. He was there ninth grade and 10 th grade, and I really think that if I — if he hadn’t stepped in and made that change, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.

That’s a neat story. What’s your least favorite childhood memory?

I think, it might have been my parents, who are very open, and struggled with substance abuse and alcohol abuse throughout my childhood. I always tell people, especially with the kids that I work with or even when I’m just talking to donors and talk about the work that I do, I know firsthand what it’s like to live in a place with no running water or to not have lights or to eat a potato 25 different ways because that’s all that you have to eat. I can remember once living in a really bad neighborhood, and there was this young girl that was my friend, and I believe she was Indian. I remember her confiding in me that she was being raped by her brother and her father. And being a child and being helpless, the only thing I could do was listen to her cry and just being thankful that that wasn’t happening to me. But yet I was helpless to stop a situation, and that wasn’t the first time. I can remember living in another neighborhood, and there was this beautiful girl. I never forget. She was so – she had this long pretty blonde hair and she was – I mean she looked like she could have been in a magazine. I can remember her staying at my house, and then her brothers tapping on a window, getting her to come out because they had a physical relationship with her. And so, you know, I was in some tough situations where there was nothing I could do. I was helpless to change it.

Does that drive you?

Absolutely. I always tell people that’s one of the reasons why I never give up on people until they have to give up on themselves. Even when they give up on themselves, sometimes it takes a lot for me to stop working with somebody and try to help them because I think, so often, people just don’t know what outlet to use, how to connect with somebody, or that there’s any chance of hope. They just never have been told that they can make it, or they can do it. It sounds so cliché. But I don’t care if 55 people tell somebody they can make it, they might need all 55. It may be only one that may actually gets to them.

Jil also serves on Greenville City Council.

What is hope?

You know, hope is just, you know, that things will be better than however they are. Even if life is great, you know, hope is that it could be better, that  — hope is that, when things go all downhill, and the world is in a chaotic state, and it seems like it can’t get better, hope is that it will.

What has made the biggest impact on you, causing change or redirection?

You know, it still goes back to education. I was fortunate to receive pretty much a full ride to Wofford. I think getting out of Atlanta, getting out of a big city, going to a smaller school really changed my life. It opened up the door for me to meet new people and have different experiences. My first time going out of the country was when I was at Wofford. Being able to live abroad was because of Wofford.  So I definitely think choosing Wofford and Wofford choosing me was probably one of the most pivotal moments.

What is your authentic self?

It means being who you are and not changing it for the people that are around you. Whether I am in the hood or the boardroom, what you get is what you see. I’m the same person both places, both ways. I never want people to think that, “Oh, well, she acts like this in front of that person or she acts like that in front of that person.” There are different things that you might do differently in terms of the crowd that you’re with, but you always get the same Jil.

If you could ask God one question, what would it be?

Why do people have to suffer so much?

You see a lot of suffering?

I do. I do. I see a lot of suffering. I see a lot of things that, even though I try to be a change maker and try to impact the world, there’s so much that I can’t. It’s really hard to see people suffer and know that there’s nothing you can do about it. There is this conflict, which is another reason why I always read my Bible; it’s all in God’s timing. It’s all the way it’s supposed to be and sometimes it’s really hard to see that.  And so I want to know why?

What lesson have you learned that you would want others to learn without having to learn it the hard way?

Don’t try to please people. People-pleasing gets you nowhere. You struggle with yourself. You fight with yourself. You are on this up-and-down roller coaster. It’s all because you’re trying to please other people. You can never please everybody all of the time. So don’t try.

If you had one wish, what would it be?

I swear I hate to sound like this rainbows and unicorn and lollipop-type person because it’s totally not me. But if I had one wish, it would be to probably eliminate racism.

Is that a big part of your psyche right now?

Right now, given everything that’s happening in the nation, really across the world, absolutely.  You know, a lot of times people just look at racism from a black/white issue and especially given what’s happening right now with police brutality.  But I traveled to Turkey a couple of years ago, and it was right when the Syrian wars are happening. I can remember the Syrian refugees being on the street and begging for money. People said, “Stay away from them. They don’t mean you any good.” It was a different form of racism that I hadn’t really experienced. Everybody is just trying to make it. At the end of the day, I think people genuinely want to be happy. They want to be able to provide for their families, and when you feel like it is being taken away from you, everybody tends to clam up and grab onto themselves and their family and that kind of perpetuates this racism factor. And so if there was a way to just kind of eliminate that.

How does that get eliminated?

If I had the answer to that question, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be somewhere on that island.  More dialogue is needed. I feel like I’ve been talking about it my entire life, and I’ll probably talk about it until the day I die. The more that we open up and talk about not only those things that make us different, but those things that we have in common. Again, it goes back to relationships. People tend to be around people that they know and that they like. Even when they disagree, they’re still fine with it because they know that that person’s coming from a genuine place. And we often tend to stay in our circle or those areas that are comfortable for us. And so one of the ways to help eliminate racism is that we all have to step out of these comfort zones and be a little uncomfortable so that we can get to the common ground.

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