Artist-in-Residence and Associate Professor of Fine & Performing Arts at Judson College, Marion, Ala.
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Billie Jean Young's life is about moving forward, the way up and out to better lives for the people she touches with her art, ideas and activism. She is a rare spirit powered by a brilliant mind and an eternal sense of resiliency.
Young not only is a bridge builder. She'll circle back and bring along new groups of people over that path with her – black, white, red, brown and yellow – everyone.
A native of the rural central Alabama "Black Belt" region, she is the daughter of sharecroppers. But when Billie Jean talks about her life and family, you might think it was an experience of riches, humor and vast learning – because it often was, to her. But the tough times, and there were many, do inform her theatrical and written works, which give them rare strength and legitimacy.
Young has spent her highly productive lifetime focusing her talents on the Civil Rights Movement and life's challenges for the poor and disenfranchised, particularly in America's rural South. She has led major efforts and organizations for change in Alabama and, in earlier decades, the Jackson, Miss., and Mississippi Delta region. She also has been quite involved for socio-economic growth for people in the Central American nation of Belize.
Her work, stories and focus translate globally. An internationally renowned artist, she has performed her one-woman, self-penned theatrical show – "Fannie Lou Hamer: This Little Light" – to audiences on four continents over the last three decades. She also is widely known for her motivational speeches, books and poetry readings, and as a director of dramatic productions.
Young's countless awards and honors include the most highly esteemed MacArthur Fellows "Genius" Award for her community development leadership. Their website cites the organizations that Young founded and her theatrical work and education, among other achievements. The annual MacArthur awards go to the best of the best, who often are unsung heroes in their field of public-minded work. The MacArthur Foundation has described its Fellows as "creative, talented, innovative and intelligent," which happens to be an excellent definition for Billie Jean Young.
Born in Choctaw County, Ala., into a family of seven children, Young went on to earn a college diploma in the first class to graduate African Americans at Judson College in Marion, Ala., where she now is on faculty. Young also earned a law degree from Samford University.
When Young sees great needs, she builds community, regional or national alliances for answers and change. She is active in community affairs, women's rights, children's issues and the arts.
She was founding chairperson of the Rural Development Leadership Network, which sponsors rural community development and training opportunities across the United States; she remains involved as a lecturer. She is president of the Southwest Alabama Association of Rural & Minority Women. She was a community organizer for the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association. She was a land specialist for the Rural America of Washington D.C., serving as its Southeastern director. Young was instrumental in organizing rural black women across the Deep South in the tri-state Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative. In the 1980s, she was co-founder (with Julia Winn) and executive director of the seven-state Southern Rural Women’s Network in Jackson, Miss., an organization dedicated to political and social development in the South.
Young is a firm believer that exposure to the arts transforms the lives of children and lifts up entire communities. She is director of The Drama Project in Alabama and founded The Drama Project/Child Abuse Project in Drama (CAPID) for the Belize Rural Women's Association. Young also co-founded Alabama's Branch Heights Dance Company. She is artistic director and co-founder of Blackbelt Arts & Cultural Center in Selma, Ala. She also served on the boards of the Alabama School of Fine Arts and the Alabama Humanities Foundation.
Throughout her career, Young has worked at various colleges and universities on faculty or in a visiting role. In 1988 and from 1990 to 1996, she was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Speech & Dramatic Art at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. (Much of her local-to-national outreach work was begun during her Mississippi years.) Young also has served as an adjunct professor, artist-in-residence or visiting professor at such institutions of higher learning as the University of Southern California, the University at Albany-SUNY in New York, Colby College in Maine, the University of Alabama, Mississippi State University, Selma University, Stann Creek Ecumenical College in Belize, and Judson College. She joined the Judson College faculty in 2006.
Dr. Billie Jean Young is pictured with Dr. and Mrs. David E. Potts; he is President of Judson College, where Young teaches drama.
Billie Jean Young
Black Women's Hall of Fame from SRBWI
MacArthur Fellows 'Genius' Award
1st African-American History Calendar AL
Women of Distinction Award, Girl Scouts of NC AL
Lucy Terry Prince Unsung Heroine Award
ESSENCE Magazine 'Legend in Our Time'
Mississippi Governor's Award for Artistic Achievement
Outstanding Alumna of Judson College
Citation from the Governor of Maryland
Honorary Citizen of Belize, Rural Women's Association
Alabama Black Belt Hall of Fame
and the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus'
Fannie Lou Hamer on the Road to Freedom Award
~ Samford University Cumberland School of Law, Birmingham, Ala., Juris Doctorate Degree. 1979
~ *Judson College, Marion, Ala., Bachelor of Arts
Degree in English, Magna cum Laude, Degree
with Distinction; Thesis: 'The Evolution of
the Black Hero in American Drama.' 1974
* Young was in the first class to graduate
African-Americans at Judson and
is proud to be on their faculty today.
~ "Selma University, Selma, Ala., Associate
Arts Degree, with Honors. 1972