Edelia “Dr. Jay” Carthan knows how to turn adversity into blessings. The three time Jackson State University graduate, author and activist is using her experiences as a teen mom and sexual abuse survivor to fight injustice, shatter stereotypes and educate Mississippi youth.
“I grew up in Tchula, in the Delta, which is one of the poorest cities in Mississippi. Most of the people there only have a high school diploma, if that,” says Carthan, in a soothing southern drawl.
Her father, Eddie James Carthan, is a pivotal force in his daughter’s advocacy for change. The businessman and pastor of Good Samaritan Ecumenical Church was the first black mayor elected in Tchula since Reconstruction.
“I grew up watching him, and others fight for freedom,” she says. “He spent the majority of his administration behind bars due to the color of his skin.”
In the early 1980s, and shortly after Carthan’s historic victory, he faced a series of “trumped up” criminal charges many said resulted from his lack of adherence to white political influence and racial discrimination. He was accused of hiring two men to kill a political rival. Carthan was acquitted at trial.
Although Edelia Carthan was a toddler at the time, her father shares that during his trial she would sit on his lap and even participate in the multitude of state and nationwide marches demanding his release.
“She inherited that activism, and she is very active today in things dealing with justice, freedom, human rights and civil rights,” her father said. “She’s out front on issues that affect the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised. She has a tremendous knowledge of how people can be pushed back and shut out.”
An assistant Tougaloo professor, Edelia is founder and CEO of Carthan Enterprises Inc., The Fabulous Life Ministries and Camp Fabulous – a seven-day, inspirational, experience designed specifically for girls ages 7-17 who want to learn about life in a Christian environment.
Her self-published book, “From Fear to Freedom: The 7 Key Elements for a Fabulous Life,” is in 17 state libraries including all 14 Jackson/Hinds branches and is also featured in the Mississippi Room.
Never be just a statistic
However, Edelia’s many triumphs are not without steep challenges. At the age of 15, she discovered she was pregnant.
“Growing up as the mayor’s daughter, everyone knew who we were, so it was like living under a microscope. Everybody knew. Telling my mom, my family, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she says.
Edelia chuckles softly recalling her mother’s response. “She said, ‘Well, how did y’all manage to get pregnant?’ And we just looked at each other, but, after that, my family was really supportive, and I’m so thankful.”
One thing the high school freshman knew for sure was she would not be just another statistic. “I remember praying to God and asking him to give me and my son the best life we could ever have. He’s gone exceedingly above and done abundantly more than I could have asked for or imagined,” she says.
Determined to prove her naysayers wrong, Edelia graduated from S.V. Marshall High School third in her class. Then she, and her son, Edetric “EJ” Carthan, promptly left for the capital city where she moved in with her older sister.
The young mother immediately found a job, enrolled at Jackson State University, worked full-time, pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc and completed her four-year educational technology degree in three years.
“I was always a good student and I loved school. I never missed a day until I got pregnant and would have to take my son to the doctor or something of that nature,” she says.
After deciding to pursue her master’s degree, Edelia accepted a position with Americorp as program director in the West Bolivar School District. Twice a week she made the two-hour commute from Cleveland to Jackson State.
Still not satisfied with two college degrees, Edelia dove head first into JSU’s early childhood doctoral program and also took a job in the Office of Academic Affairs and Student Life at her alma mater.
“I would assist teachers with becoming certified nationally by guiding them through the certification process. In 2007, I became the director of distance learning and helped to start the JSU online program,” she says. “Back then, online learning was really new.”
At 28, Edelia became one of the youngest in Jackson State history to obtain a doctorate in education. As a result, she and other Ph.D. graduates were featured on the cover of the university’s alumni magazine, The Jacksonian.
“It really inspired me to see my picture on the cover of that magazine. It made me feel as if I could do more,” she says.
Discovering God’s plan
Yet, Dr. Jay, as she is fondly called in reference to her middle name of Jawana, found herself at life’s crossroads. Looking to explore her options she relocated to California where her younger brother was in performing arts school.
There she was exposed to the entertainment industry and racked up more than 20 television appearances on nearly 20 major network shows such as “Hawthorne,” “House,” “Bones” and “CSI: NY.”
“I wanted to find myself. I had been going to school my whole life, but now I had all this free time on my hands. So, I asked God to show me why I was here, and if he didn’t show me why he put me here on this earth, then I didn’t want to be here,” Edelia says.
She soon found herself confronting memories of the sexual assault and abuse she had endured as a 9-year-old. Her chronicled thoughts on the taboo topic gradually evolved into “From Fear to Freedom, the Seven Key Elements for a Fabulous Life.” The work would initially serve as a guide for her camp before being published.
“I wrote it in about a month. I first started researching and reading all these books that would give me some insight on the keys to life. I wanted to know what other people said about this,” says Edelia, who counts author Rick Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life” among her influences.
Months later, she arrived back in Mississippi reinvigorated. “I had been struggling with myself and believing that I was the only one feeling like this, but when I started sharing my story I found out I wasn’t alone,” she says.
The more women touched by her story, the more she says she discovered the purpose God had designed for her. “That’s why I wanted to start Camp Fabulous. I wanted to teach these girls all the things that I didn’t learn growing up, things that I had to learn the hard way,” she says. “We need to share our mistakes and be honest with our girls.”
Every year in July, the educator welcomes approximately 20 girls into her home and daily teaches them her seven elements: faith, forgiveness, family, fitness, finances, fellowship/friendship and freedom.
Amid a mix of fun, motivational guest speakers and life skills training, the young women are also treated to cultural outings. This year, they went on a civil rights tour that included Medgar Evers home, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the Edumund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Ariana Butler, who attended Camp Fabulous for six years, is now a sophomore nursing major at Mississippi College. She describes her time at the camp as “life-changing” and, without hesitation, recites the seven key elements, explaining how each element has helped her through difficult moments.“Dr. Jay is a blessing to anyone who encounters her,” Butler says. “You don’t always run into people who are really cool, wholeheartedly give their all and treat you like one of their own, and that’s something she has done for me since day one, and I will forever be grateful for her.”
Now a senior at Tougaloo majoring in health and recreation, EJ Carthan often helps with Camp Fabulous, filling the roles of bus driver, chaperone and anything else his mother requests. “She makes me proud to be her son. I’ve had so many people tell me how my mother has helped them and I’m wowed. She makes me want to be the best that I can be.”
Recently, actress Aunjanue Ellis awarded Edelia a $12,500 Jackie L. Taylor Brave, Beautiful and Bold fellowship. She plans to use it to fund Camp Fabulous, produce a youth-led television show and funnel the remaining money into a study on racial discrimination.
If anyone could have told the teenage mother from Tchula that she would become the woman she is today, Edelia says she would not have believed it.
“This is why I share my story with young people,” she says, “because I want them to know that it doesn’t matter how you start, but how you finish.”