As he retires, looking back on the remarkable legacy of Junius Williams
Published January 8, 2018 | Kaleena Berryman
He who thinks he is leading and has no one following him is only taking a walk – Malawian proverb
Almost 17 years ago, Junius Williams – a freedom fighter, community organizer, lawyer, and Newark visionary founded the ALI – Abbott Leadership Institute with the mission to empower the voices of the people of Newark to fight for educational justice and equality for their children. Knowledge is power, and in order for their vision for schools and Newark’s children to be heard, he knew that they must become informed and unafraid.
Education historically has been used as a tool to oppress people of color, and to break down systemic barriers we must first break away from the unspoken beliefs we have about our own power and place in creating change. The beliefs that we are deserving of substandard schools; that our voices are too small to be heard; and that problems in urban communities are to be moved away from vs confronted, had to first, be broken down.
Parents, educators, students and community stakeholders, he knew, must learn education policy and practice, how to advocate and organize, and how to hold school and district leadership accountable. His years of service in the Civil Rights Movement of the South and North also taught him that we must learn to believe in ourselves, and our collective power.
In developing ALI, he created a curriculum that mixed lessons in history, strategies for effective organizing from the 60s, and current local, statewide and national education reform policy. ALI began with 19 parents and 1 teacher in 2001.
The foundation was made at Rutgers University—Newark and for 17 years he has brought hundreds of community people to our campus for free and full classes that have made so many of us a force to be reckoned with. Saturday classes have become a staple in the education advocacy community, and anyone and everyone who has a VOICE and a VISION has come through them. Student educators in the teaching programs at Rutgers Newark and Montclair State are sent to ALI classes as a critical step to becoming great, culturally sound teachers. I too, was developed through ALI.
If you have never been to an ALI Saturday class, where 50-75 people are congregated early in the morning for no reason other than the desire to fight for the children of this city, know that there is nothing like it. We have held 33 six week series to date, and hundreds of workshops in schools and in the community. At ALI, you are heard. Over 4,000 people have attended and hundreds have earned certificates of completion.
We have persevered through four superintendents, countless reforms, tens of school closings and years of state control. Somehow, our trained advocates have managed to make some incredible gains at the student, classroom, school and district level. Many have created their own organizations. ALI teaches you to keep your eyes on the prize and that leaders are responsible for building new leaders. Along the way our voices and the voices of our partners in the struggle, were heard. And each success gave us the fuel we needed to keep on keeping on.
About twelve years ago, Junius Williams decided that the youth of the city needed to speak for themselves. His love for young people is contagious, and nothing makes him prouder than seeing them develop from shy, reserved or uncertain children to powerful, opinionated and “woke” youth leaders. ALI is a second home to many; and YMS has a culture of love and support that supersedes written grant goals and objectives.
The ALI Youth Media Symposium has produced some of the strongest youth leaders in the city of Newark, hundreds of college bound young people, and from their vision, the YMS College Success Centers. To date, the CSCs have helped over 350 Newark youth through every aspect of the college process. Our approach, as with our out of school time program, is to empower them, so we make sure to connect them to the people, programs and opportunities that make college completion far more possible. Plus, once they start their journey, they know that if they have any trouble the Rutgers College Success Center is just a bus ride away and we have their backs. (And a desire to see them fulfill their dreams.)
Our students are now attending Rutgers University Newark in record numbers and quite a few are a part of the Honors Living Learning Community. YMS students have produced tens of documentaries, recently winning the 2017 Newark International Film Festival, Best Youth Film title.
They have learned to use the media to tell their own stories, and many of them are finding careers in media and also city leadership as a path for their futures. With a recent grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Jersey Health Initiatives, ALI is now working with the City of Newark, NJ – City Hall Newark Youth Ambassadors to develop youth leaders for health advocacy.
Junius Williams has sown into many of us – into Newark, into our youth, and into me, and I am grateful to have been able to have a front row seat for the last twelve years. From him I have learned that loving my people means empowering my people. I have never seen him judge or dismiss or not make time for anyone who wants to make life better for the children and people of Newark.
Dear Mr. Williams, Rise Up! and enjoy your retirement. Know that you have left a legacy of truth and light in so many of us. And I am proud to continue your work, for it has become my life’s work too.
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