When Aimee Allison was 14, her mother took her to see civil rights leader Jesse Jackson speak — and something changed in her.
Growing up black and biracial in a predominantly white community, Allison regularly experienced incidents of racism. And while she worked hard in school and wanted to someday attend college, it was hard to imagine herself as a leader. After all, she hadn't seen anyone in government who looked like her.
But listening to Jackson changed her whole idea of what her future could entail.
"It was the first time I heard an articulation of what was possible in our country's future by coming together across race," she says.
Image courtesy of Aimee Allison.
The experience inspired Allison to dream big: She wanted to become the first black female secretary of state. She dove into extracurricular activities to set herself up for success, and with each new challenge, she excelled. On her high school's speech and debate team, she did so well that she went on to compete at the national level. Eventually, she ran for student body president, and she won.
Then, when she was 17, she met a recruiter who convinced her that joining the Army Reserves and serving her country would bring her closer to achieving her dreams.
So she signed up and began her training — but it wasn't at all what she expected.
Image via Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller.
"I didn't start out as a person who wanted to pick up a gun," she explains.
The once passionate debater and leader quickly found the environment at odds with who she was. "In military training, there's two main things that you're taught," she says. "You follow orders, and you do not speak up."
So when her unit was called to fight in the first Gulf War, Allison felt the need to finally speak up. She didn't actually believe in going to war and knew her calling was elsewhere.
Image via Upworthy.
"There's an easy choice, which is to follow orders and say nothing," she says. "But my conscience, which is another way to say my heart, would not let me do it."
So instead of going to fight, she became a conscientious objector, which allowed her to be honorably discharged from the military so she was no longer expected to serve. It was a tough move to make, especially because her military training had told her not to question her orders. But she knew it was the right decision.
"Becoming a conscientious objector was my call to serving the country, to serving humanity," she says.
Image via Upworthy.
She learned in that moment that she had the ability to stand up for what she believes in.
"All of my work since my time as a teenager in the military has been to follow my heart, to do the thing that's right, and to be as courageous as I can," she says. "That's how I found who I was, and that's how I have been organizing my life ever since," she says.
Remembering how powerful an experience it had been to see Jesse Jackson speak, she realized that she, too, could use her voice to engage her community in the political process.
Image via Upworthy.
Women of color are 20% of the U.S. population and yet only 4% of elected officials. And that's why Allison is speaking out to make sure people of color get more representation.
She's the president of Democracy in Color, an organization that mobilizes black and brown voters and supports progressive candidates of color in order to diversify the government.
Allison also hosts the Democracy in Color podcast, writes articles on women of color in government, and uses social media to engage potential voters in the issues that affect the lives of people of color.
While it's taken a lot of courage for her to follow her heart, Allison's journey is an important reminder that the right path is not always the easiest to take. Now, as a fierce advocate for her community, she's showing others that when the path is unclear, it's time to blaze a new trail.