Many of us were surprised when Jesse accepted his Humanitarian Award this past weekend in Los Angeles. I for one thought it was going to be a nice “thanks for thinking of me” speech and then we would get a smile from this nice looking guy. He had a sound that rang familiar to me although I had not heard it in a long time. It was that of a war cry, a leader, someone who had direction; someone who had some substance. I knew nothing about Jesse Williams but after hearing him speak, I wanted to know more about him.
Currently, he sits on the board of directors of the Advancement Project, a civil rights think tank and advocacy group. Its focus is work on-the-ground to mobilize and organize communities of color and provide support in their struggles for racial and social justice, from protecting voter rights and marginalization through redistricting to working to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Williams is the youngest member of the organization’s board of directors.
In addition, he is an executive producer of Question Bridge: Black Males, a multi-hyphenate art-media-education project that creates a platform for black men from diverse backgrounds to represent, refine, discuss, debate, and explore black male identity.
Williams himself has been open and influential on that very matter, the black male identity. He is biracial, the son of a white mother of Swedish descent and an African American father.
He credits his parents with first instilling in him a passion and obligation to social justice, something that became all the more important when his family moved from Chicago to suburban Massachusetts where, as The Guardian writes, he “went from being one of the whitest kids in the area to being one of the darkest.” When he moved to Massachusetts, he became co-president of the school’s black student union.
Williams attended Temple University, majoring in African American Studies and Film and Media Arts. His first job out of school was as a public school teacher in Philadelphia, something he said was “the best thing I’ve ever done.” He’s said in interviews that if acting doesn’t work out—or if, let’s say, Shonda Rhimes ever decides to kill his character off Grey’s Anatomy—he’d be a civil rights attorney, saying, “It’s what I love and what I care about. It’s why I wake up.”
He talked about his biracial experience growing up on both sides of segregated neighborhoods, often viewed as invisible when racial topics arose, and how he witnessed “candid dirt from both sides, and I studied it.”
“The conversation was almost always influenced by something people read or saw on a screen. Media portrayals greatly affect, if not entirely construct, how we interpret ‘otherness.’ People see what they are shown, and little less,” he wrote.
“If, like Tarantino, you show up with a megaphone and claim to be creating a real solution to a specific problem,” he continued, “I only ask that you not instead, construct something unnecessarily fake and then act like you’ve done us a favor.
For The Huffington Post he wrote a piece based on his experience as a Philadelphia public school teacher, using it to discuss the staggering issue of children experiencing hunger. That was almost five years ago. His public activism has only intensified since. Just last month, Williams released a documentary he executive produced called Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.
The film includes interviews with Black Lives Matter co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, along with other leaders including DeRay McKesson, Michaela Angela Davis, and Williams himself.
“Black Lives Matter is, in many ways, in its adolescence,” he told The Huffington Post in an interview. “It’s an ongoing movement, so we wanted to be sure that, as we catalog its origin story and machination, we also wanted to be sure we do not treat it as a fixed, finite, closed circle. We want to look back without being conclusive.”
Perhaps the simplest example of Williams’s social justice work and power is his social media presence. He’s scoffed at the idea of “hashtag activism,” telling The Huffington Post, “Miss me with that. I’ve yet to hear an intelligent reason or criticism of using your voice on social media.”
He continued: “We’re in the streets, we’re at the halls of power, we’re impacting policy directly, we’re changing the narrative and the way presidential candidates have to come correct in order to even show up in our town. And then we’re happening to report it online because those are the tools at our disposal. Ain’t nothing changed but the technology…the activism is what’s happening.”
It was like we heard the voices of Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown again. He awakened us to a consciousness that some of us had not known in years. He spoke up for injustice and it was overwhelmingly satisfying to our souls. This is why he matters.