Meet the Beautiful, Bold and Barrier Breaker - Leslie Irby!
Leslie Irby of East Point, GA, is a 2012 graduate of THE Fort Valley State University. While attending, Leslie had the distinct honor of pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. She currently is an active member of the East Point/College Park Alumnae. Leslie was involved in a car accident in 2013 where multiple fatalities occurred. She now becoming paralyzed, decided life was worth living, gave new meaning to “The Phoenix Rises”. Leslie was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Georgia 2015. From that experience, she was a featured Model alongside Top Runway Model Adriana Lima in NYFW. This marked the beginning of many now FIRST for Leslie, as she is now known as the First African American Female Model with a disability to be in a major fashion show. That same year, she returned back to school and in 2017 received her Masters in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. Leslie has always been an avid traveler, flying to more countries in her wheelchair than when able-bodied. While on a flight to France, Leslie had the epiphany to finish a Dream she’d started over 12 years ago: to become a pilot. Thanks to a program called Able Flight, after 7 long weeks of flying Day and Night at Purdue University, on June 28, 2019, Leslie accomplished her goal and became a licensed sport pilot. She is now historically known as the FIRST African American Female with a disability to receive a pilot license. She owes her love for aviation to Bessie Coleman and is proud to be a fellow aviatrix in her shadow of greatness.
In honor of Black History Month, name one black woman you look up to or influenced you and why?
Outside of Bessie Coleman, I also admire Rosa Parks. Initially, the immediate attraction to Ms. Parks was that we share the same birthday, however, I love her ”brazenness”. I believe her environment attributed to her personality, as members of her family were activists and the fact that she lived in a world where mistreatment and hatred was acceptable to people who were black. It is very understandable why she got tired of being treated less than human and wasn't going to give in that day on the bus. Ms. Parks was fearless and didn't back down from anyone, which is how I view myself as well. We will stand up for ourselves against anybody!
What do you love most about what you do?
I love being in the air. During those times I feel as if time has stood still. It reminds me why I am here, my purpose. It’s a place where I can be free from the world, but free to my thoughts. The worries and problems that I have or that I may take on from my family and loved ones all dissipate and clarity sinks in. It is important to have a place where you can reset, regroup, or just be in peace and flying does that for me. I love that I am able to me at my best.
What keeps you motivated during challenging times?
I am an optimistic, cup-half-full, kind of woman; my dad instilled that in me. However, some days come with an unexpected challenge, yet through the unexpected, I have learned to value the importance of self-care, particularly my mind. The mind is very powerful and is one of the most important determining factors for the decisions that are responsible for your outcome. For myself, the choice is simple, I will choose to not to be defeated or broken from a circumstance when I know that challenge only is a small chapter. Life is a journey that comes with mountains and valleys, and with acceptance knowing that, you can find clarity and peace. My motivation to keep going is dependent on the state of my mind, and during challenging times, so I choose to fixate my mind on the positive, the possible lesson from the situation, the growth that will occur once conquered, and the one who has my back (God).
If you could give your younger self advice what would it be?
Older Leslie would let younger Leslie in on a secret, which is, “The best is yet to come!”. My days growing up were great, I have no complaints and would not redo them over in any way, but I would have never imagined that I would be living a dream. I am traveling and seeing the world, learning in and out of classrooms, meeting amazing people, and really enjoying life; and the best part is that I believe I am just getting started, this is only the beginning.
What is your favorite quote by a Black woman?
Bessie Coleman is the first black female aviator to receive a pilot’s license in the world. She is the epitome of true black girl magic and my favorite quote comes from her, “The air is the only place free of prejudice”. I had that quote at the age of 16 on a Bessie Coleman posters given to me by my late father. At the time I did not understand it but liked it because there was a woman that was a pilot that looked like me. As I have grown, I have witnessed how cruel the world is and has been to black people and for one to be a female is even harder. I can relate to her adversities and even add my own personal challenges, as I have a disability, which is almost unheard of in the aviation realm. Now, the 29-year-old Leslie understands what 16-year-old Leslie did not when she saw Bessie’s words. When I am flying no one knows who I am, what I look like, what color I am, if I am able-bodied or have a disability, because the air is the only place truly free of prejudice.
Keep up with Leslie on Instagram @idle_but_wild