L. Joy Williams on the Power of Political Participation
July 19, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
L. Joy Williams is just a tad busy these days. An expert in civic engagement and social justice, she runs her own political strategy firm and hosts the #SundayCivics show on SiriusXM radio. She’s also the President of the Brooklyn NAACP and the Founding Chairman of Higher Heights for America. As the oldest of 10 kids, she grew up wrangling her siblings and managing ever-shifting family dynamics. As a professional, she’s applying those skills to the political realm—advising candidates, leaders, and organizations across the U.S. We chatted with her about professional pivot points, reciprocal mentorship, and how to more effectively “get involved.”
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I WANTED TO BE the first fashion designer / U.S. Senator. I had been accepted into the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) high school, but then we moved from New York to California, so that’s where I went to high school. When I later applied to FIT for college, I didn’t get in, so I was like, “I’ll just do my backup plan of going into politics.” I studied Political Science and Africana Studies at Hofstra. I still owe the school $86,000, so I don’t technically have my degree on the wall, but I have the education, so there’s that.
IN COLLEGE, I DID A DELIBERATE EXERCISE to determine what my political values were. I have family members who are Republican, including my mom, although she sometimes votes Democrat. I’ve been exposed to both parties all my life, but when I was in college, I spent time trying to define my political views for myself. I realized they were more aligned with the current Democratic Party than the current Republican party.
MY GRANDMOTHER HELPED RAISE ME, and her side of the family has very strong faith, which we practice through a social justice lens. So my interest in activism came from church, but then carried through into my studies and my career. After college, I worked at a Jewish nonprofit, and then I went to Demos, where I worked on election issues. I’ve always been passionate about fostering civic and political participation
AFTER THE 2016 ELECTION, I WROTE THIS TWEET that became kind of famous: “The political and organizing landscape is about to be like the gym in January.” It’s great that more people want to be politically engaged and are enthusiastic about getting involved, but their first impulse is often to create something new, rather investing in entities that have been doing this work for a long time but are still under-resourced. When people say, “I want to do something! How can I get involved?” I advise them to do a quick scan of the issues that are important to them. There is probably already an established entity working on those issues—start there. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel; you just need to learn how the levers of advocacy are already at work.
THERE HAVE BEEN A LOT OF PIVOT POINTS in my career. After I worked on Bill Thompson’s first campaign, I asked myself, “Should I go to a lobbying firm and get paid a lot but not have a choice about which issues I work on or which clients I work with? Or should I work for a nonprofit where I love the work, but the salary is going to be much lower?” Now that I work for myself, I still wonder how I can be more impactful. But I no longer wonder, “What should I be doing with my life?”
I MET MY MENTOR, Karen Boykin-Towns, through my work with the NAACP. She became the president of the Brooklyn branch, and then when she was ready to move on, I ran for president and she supported me. Over the last 15 years, our relationship has been reciprocal, which I think all mentor-mentee relationships should be. We are sounding boards and thought partners for each other. She never gives me the answers, but she helps me arrive at decisions by asking thoughtful questions: How will this further your career? Does this partnership make sense? We’re on AppleChat all day, and we talk about everything from professional questions to advocacy work to, “How do you get your husband to actually put his laundry in the laundry bag?”
MY LIFE IS A JUGGLING ACT. I have a three-year-old foster daughter. I do elder care for my 93-year-old grandmother. I have my consulting work and my social justice work. There are some days when I need to take Grandma to the doctor, pick up the baby, and get ready to go to D.C. for a client meeting the next day. I do get frazzled. When things start to spiral, my husband will step in and say, “How can I help? What should we prioritize?” I’ve learned that I can’t drop the ball on my health, because then all the other balls drop.
I SPENT MANY YEARS HIDING MYSELF behind clothes and not wanting to stand out, but lately, I’m starting to take more control of my look by tapping into my creativity. When I get dressed, I ask myself: How do I want to look today? What do I have to do? Do I want to shock with color, or should I be more plain so my words are more impactful? It’s a game I play with myself. I grew up dressing for church, so I know how to do that. What’s trickier is the “casual 40-year-old” look for every day. That’s what I’m working on right now.
MY OVERALL PURPOSE is not just to advocate for people, but to empower them to advocate for themselves. I want to give them the tools and information to understand how their government works and how they can have an impact on issues like policing, healthcare, and education. For instance, next year we have the census, and then we’ll have reapportionment and redistricting that will determine what the next 10 years of this country looks like. I want people to be knowledgeable and actively engaged in that process so that we’re not stuck with another decade of disempowerment.
Photographs by Celeste Sloman. Styling by Sam Michel.