Deceased December 28, 2016
Alissa S. Wilson ’00, an accomplished singer, dancer and international peace advocate whose megawatt smile never failed to spread joy to those around her, died quietly from an illness Dec. 28, 2016 at the age of 38.
Wilson, a native New Yorker whose work empowering communities in the U.S. and Africa brought her to the American Friends Service Committee in Washington, D.C., embodied the college’s Terras Irradient motto, creatively mixing silliness and seriousness to give light to the world.
That was evident even in what Wilson sometimes wore to medical appointments and to work: a blue fluffy tutu. Dan Jasper, a colleague at AFSC, a Quaker peace organization, says Wilson was the only person he knew who could don a tulle tutu to the office and “make me feel stupid for wearing a suit.”
Says John Hammock, a mentor, “She just wasn’t hemmed in by convention as many of us are.”
Nothing about Wilson was frivolous, however, friends say. Her joy “wasn’t pastel colored,” says Sam Ender ’01. “If someone can be fierce in their joy, that’s what she was,” Ender says. “She was like a joy warrior.”
Wilson was born July 7, 1978 in Manhattan and grew up in a Christian Science household with her grandmother and mother, Karen Wilson, a singer, storyteller and conflict-resolution facilitator. She attended public and private schools, where she further explored the artistic and peacemaking expertise her mother fostered at home.
Even at the age of 4, Wilson displayed advanced negotiating skills, her mother says, recalling a story one of Wilson’s teachers told her about a daylong discussion Wilson had at preschool with the daughter of a Harlem pastor. The pastor’s daughter believed Jesus would come again but Wilson told her, “Jesus doesn’t have to come again.” The two girls discussed their disagreement at length until they reached a conclusion: If Jesus returned, the other girl would be right. “Until that time,” Wilson’s mother says, “they would agree to disagree.”
At P.S. 84, Wilson studied improvisational dance, starting as a young elementary school student. But she soon found school lacking sufficient challenges. “I’m ready for more,” Wilson told her mother when she was in the third grade.
Wilson would later attend Ethical Culture Fieldston School, from which she graduated in 1996. Wilson also attended The Cambridge School of Weston for a year in high school.
Wilson arrived at James Hall her freshman year with, by many accounts, more confidence and grace than many of her 18-year-old peers. “Her comfort level with herself was so striking at a time,” says Ender, “when we were all so uncomfortable with ourselves.”
Her audition that year for the Bluestockings a cappella group won her one of four spots that went to first-year students. She performed Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall,” a piercing song that addresses the scourge of domestic violence. “I remember when she opened her mouth I was blown away,” says Deny Soto ‘00, who also joined the Bluestockings in 1996. “It’s not just that she has a good voice, she performs. She lives the music.”
Josh Fischel ’00, who performed with the Zumbyes, recalled her deep, earthy voice as the sound of “blowing over the top of an empty bottle.”
Wilson thrived with the Bluestockings, drawing huge rounds of applause onstage and acting as a trusted source of guidance backstage. Once, when it came time for members of the group to select a soloist for “Shakin’ the Tree,” an empowering ode to strong women, Soto says the choice was so obvious that the group didn’t need to debate, a rare occurrence. (Sample lyrics: “Who can hear all the truth in what you say/They can support you when you're on your way/ It's your day—a woman's day.)
Link to Bluestockings performing “Shakin’ the Tree”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xo4sWIzv8k&feature=youtu.be
Wilson, who lived in Marsh House her sophomore and senior years, didn’t limit herself at Amherst to singing. She continued to dance, working with classmates to create student-led classes at Amherst and taking advantage of the Five College network to explore opportunities in her improvisational style off campus, too.
Wilson spent her junior year abroad, studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She’d been interested in the political history of Myanmar since at least high school, when she watched the 1995 film “Beyond Rangoon,” about the nation’s civil uprising, her mother says.
She returned to Amherst with an even deeper interest in Myanmar, having studied Burmese for the year, and she wrote her political science thesis comparing the democratization process in Myanmar to those in Thailand and the Philippines. Javier Corrales, her adviser, called the endeavor especially challenging because it tackled the intricacies of three countries’ political unfolding. Not surprisingly, Wilson pulled it off. “I remember very well how impressed I was she could do this comparison,” he says.
Improvisation guided her beyond dance, too.
In Valentine, she turned raw ingredients into enviable concoctions, says Jane Koh ’00.
“As chef Alissa,” Koh says, “she made a steamed broccoli tofu dish almost every day and a toasted cinnamon sugar tortilla dessert with vanilla soft serve on top that tasted like a churro with cream.”
After returning from London, Wilson joined Amanda Thomas ’00 in an effort to remind students about the world beyond Western Massachusetts. In that proto-Internet era, they did what ‘90s students at Amherst did. They created table tents for Valentine each week, in this case highlighting current events from around the globe with particular attention drawn to marginalized communities’ struggles. “Rather than being frustrated, her instinct was to take action and think about what she could do,” says Thomas.
After Amherst, Wilson landed what her mother deemed the “perfect job,” working with AmeriCorps as a conflict resolution trainer at the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis.
She also continued to dance and sing while pursuing her passion for improving the world. That didn’t surprise Annie Lok ’01. “To me, she’s someone who really seemed to achieve and live out her goals,” she says.
Wilson eventually made her way back to Massachusetts, to attend the Fletcher School at Tufts University. There she sang with a graduate student a cappella group, the Ambassachords (“promoting global harmony since 1933”). The summer between years at Fletcher, she worked at the Carter Center as an intern in the conflict resolution program.
Classmates selected her to be one of two student speakers at graduation in 2005. She rewarded them with a moving commencement address that combined song and storytelling to inspire classmates to do good in the world. “You will never regret treating someone as a human being,” she told fellow graduates, “or working with integrity."
Link to Fletcher graduation speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alof0xoD5uU
After Fletcher, Wilson joined her graduate school mentor, John Hammock, in writing a book that in many ways exemplified Wilson’s worldview. Published in 2008, it was called “Practical Idealists: Changing the World and Getting Paid.”
Wilson, though, likely would be uncomfortable with wearing that mantle—or any label that implied she was free from imperfection. “She was one of the most amazing people who didn’t think she was amazing,” says Pamela Beecroft, a friend from Fletcher. “She was always questioning herself and her purpose, whether she was doing enough in life.”
In 2010, Wilson went to Sudan, just as South Sudan was about to emerge as an independent country. She spent two years there creating and managing a nationwide community organizing program for the National Democratic Institute, says Megan Carroll ’02, who overlapped with Wilson in the country.
Wilson’s mother, Karen, recalls a time when her daughter called from the region to tell her that a friend was arriving in the United States for Christmas and needed a ride from the airport. Would she please pick up her friend? Sure, sure, her mother said, without so much as getting the friend’s name.
She went to the airport anyway. And when she arrived, she discovered her own Christmas gift: Her daughter standing there at the pickup.
Wilson eventually returned to D.C. and the American Friends Service Committee, where she had worked previously. Although it’s a Quaker organization, Wilson described her own spirituality as an adult as “Quaker adjacent,” her mother says.
In October, Wilson traveled again to Western Massachusetts to give a talk at the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett. Before the talk, she got together with Angela Brown ’00, a fellow member of the Bluestockings, who was in Amherst at a college summit for volunteers. Brown recalls a story that Wilson told her that day of a person she’d encountered recently. The person had acted rudely, but Wilson responded with characteristically disarming diplomacy. “Hmm,” she replied, “you’re giving off an interesting energy.”
Brown was struck by the response. “She saw the beauty in everyone,” she says. “Even the way she called this person out was gracious.”
Wilson is survived by her mother, cousins and countless friends and colleagues. A memorial is tentatively scheduled for late February in Washington, D.C.
Link to one of Wilson’s dance performances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=genhDyNJYy4&feature=share
Beth Slovic ’00