Black History Month Spotlight and Interview with Jumaane Williams

BY AMANDA MOSES


Jumaane Williams is a renowned politician, who currently serves as a member of the New York City Council for the 45th district since 2015. He is a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform and an activist who is unafraid to publicly protest the many injustices his constituents have, and still, face. Williams plans to continue fighting to give a voice to the voiceless through his work as councilman and campaign for Public Advocate, making a name for himself that many can easily recognize and admire. He is often called an inspiration for younger generations, and like many of our heroes, they each have an origin story.


I sat down with Councilman Jumaane Williams for an interview regarding his background, growing up in Spring Creek Towers and his bid for Public Advocate (election is on February 26th).


Williams’ beginnings were like many New York children: the off-spring of immigrant parents. In 1967, his mother and father emigrated from St. Andrew, Grenada, in pursuit of their dreams of a higher education. His parents worked their way through school (his father earned a medical degree from Howard University and his mother earned a degree in pharmacy working as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company). Williams embraces his pa-rents’ heritage and most of all is proud of his upbringing in Brooklyn, New York. “I am Brooklyn-born and bred, and a hip-hop head. I often say I reek of Brooklyn wherever I go. I am very proud of my borough,” he said joyfully.


As a little boy, Williams never dreamed of being the political figure he is today. Like all children, he relished in the simpler joys of life. The former Spring Creek Towers’ (then known as Starrett City) resident affectionately recalls the days when he met up with his friends in front of Abe Stark Primary School 346 to play little league baseball. As he evokes these visions of the past, a large smile creeps across his face as he says “I remember Johnny…Johnny’s ice cream!” Williams could almost still hear the bell of the ice cream truck jingle on those sweltering summer days, when he would sit with his father and devour a toasted almond dessert bar.


“There was so much diversity. Starrett City really was a melting pot. You don’t realize how beautiful that is until you get ahold of it. There are people from all economic statuses. It was just great and that just kind of anchored me as I moved forward. There were a lot of places to play, hangout, and I have nothing but good memories from when I lived there,” Williams said fondly.


Many longtime residents who spent their childhood in Spring Creek Towers can recount similar memories to Williams. Whether it is mustering up the courage to attend daycare without being too upset about missing our parents at the Starrett Early Learning Center or drying our tears after scrapping our knees from tripping in the playground, Williams’ early child-hood was relatable. Some may say that is the perfect word to describe him, both as a person and politician.

Like many of our heroes in history, Williams had to overcome strenuous obstacles. At an early age, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome (Defined by the Mayo Clinic as a common neurological disorder that causes repetitive movements and sounds) and the chronic impulsive condition Attention-deficit/hyper-activity disorder (ADHD). For some, these disabilities can prove to be debilitating, especially in a public-school setting. However, Williams persevered and along the way discovered a love for acting.


“My intention when attending Brooklyn College was majoring in theater. I have Tourette’s syndrome, but when I got on the stage the tics kind of went away. It’s a very Zen place for me, and I still enjoy it very much. At the same time, I was also big on social justice issues. When I was small, I would always say that my heroes were X-Men, Spider-man, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. All of those merged together and so the heroes were always fighting for social justice,” he said candidly.
Williams’ interest in social justice coupled with a fierce passion to reach people, and perhaps even impact their lives, gave birth to a devout politician.


His education started at the Starrett Early Learning Center’s daycare to the bustling halls of PS 346. Upon his fifth-grade graduation, he attended Philippa Schuyler Middle School for the Gifted and Talented. His determination and remarkable intelligence earned him a spot at the highly competitive Brooklyn Technical High School. He rounded off his education with a Bachelor’s degree followed by a Master’s degree from Brooklyn College.


“I knew I would always use my voice for fighting for people, and I really started paying attention to the Electoral College while I was at Brooklyn College,” he said. Williams believes his drive for politics and social justice was cultivated at his alma mater. “It was a great breeding ground for civic and political leaders. I figured out how important the Electoral College was to social justice and then I knew that this was something I wanted to do,” he said.


Williams finds that in order to get young people involved in politics like he did, especially to go out and vote—we must engage them. “At this time right now, we can harness where we are and get them motivated that we have to push back on the craziness that is going on right now. Electoral politics is a great way to do that. People sometimes forget about local politics,” he said.
He also pointed out, that in cases when we feel angered by a jury’s verdict, Williams believes that we could use that as an opportunity to get youth civically engaged by explaining that the jury pool was selected from people who are registered to vote. “We have to attempt to answer these questions to get young people involved. We have to talk to them and ask them what is going to engage them,” he said.


As a young man, he learned about the importance of voting and the Electoral College, and decided from there to pursue his dream. After college, he started working with non-profits and as a community organizer. In 2009, he began his career as an elected official in the New York City Council for the 45th District where he has introduced over 53 bills. He is proud of much of the legislation he has gotten passed, but two that stick out the most are: the Community Safety Act (which aimed to end the abuse of Stop & Frisk) and Ban the box.

Councilman Williams at
the Public Advocate Candidates’ Forum


After years on the ground pro-testing, working with community groups, and his social justice efforts, Williams hopes to have a larger impact on New York City policies as a candidate for Public Advocate.

Photos by Dean Moses