Formerly Homeless, a Community Organizer Seeks a Ph.D. to Expand His Reach

September 6, 2022

Jawanza James Williams sees a Ph.D. in Political Science as a path to transforming more lives.

Incoming Student 2022 - Jawanza James Williams (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)
Jawanza James Williams, the director of organizing for VOCAL-NY, is coming to the Graduate Center for a Ph.D. in Political Science.

Jawanza James Williams is entering the Ph.D. program in Political Science this fall with nearly a decade of political activism informing his outlook. He is currently the director of organizing for VOCAL-NY, a statewide grassroots advocacy group that focuses on issues ranging from AIDS and homelessness, to the war on drugs and its consequences, including mass incarcerations, overdoses, and hepatitis C.

Williams joined the group when he was homeless himself, staying in a New York City SRO where nearly all of the residents were, like him, Black. An avowed “radical queer, prison abolitionist, socialist, feminist, Christian,” he graduated from a private religious college in Kerrville, Texas, before moving to New York. Before his current position, he was a youth organizer, a statewide organizer, and lead organizer at VOCAL. Through his work, he’s spoken many times at CUNY campuses, and in 2016 appeared on a Center for the Humanities panel. Williams recently discussed his decision to enter the Ph.D. program and his goals for the coming semester. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Political Science

The Graduate Center: Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. now, after all your years of working as an organizer?

Williams: I’m nearing 10 years in community organizing, and engaging in New York State politics and New York City politics, and doing the sort of political education work that’s required in my organizing practices — you know, not just the mobilizations, not just the big, flashy, direct actions, but really the sort of conversations where I’m trying to help facilitate the transformation of individuals, to more fully and comprehensively understand the world around themselves. And to really locate this organization, VOCAL-NY, where I work, in a sort of larger story. 

And what I realized is that I would be better equipped to do that work to help people develop that critical consciousness — to develop the lens by which they’re understanding the world — if I were more developed. And then I started to ask the question, like, Well, what does that mean? So first I did just independent study for years. And then I realized that I needed to have some support and guidance in a community of people that were interested in asking these sorts of fundamental questions, and really doing a sort of deep analysis. And that it felt right to me to go to graduate school.

GC: When you started looking into the Graduate Center, was it because of a specific program or professor?

Williams: Many things led me to CUNY. I’ve been to many different classes throughout the CUNY system to talk about organizing, about the work that we’re doing, that I’ve been doing for some time. Maybe perhaps a year after I moved here, I was able to speak on a panel at the Graduate Center. I was there talking about AIDS, and AIDS as a movement, AIDS as a crisis, and the fact that AIDS is not over — as a person living with HIV, and heavily engaged in AIDS activism at the time. And I remember being in that room, and just the eagerness of the people that came to witness the panel. And just the fact that I was a voice of authority and respected at that stage was really important to me. I remember leaving thinking, I wonder if I’ll ever go here. 

The wild thing also is I only applied to CUNY Graduate Center. I wanted an environment that will encourage and foster progressivism and progressive thinking. Not treat it as some weird, utopian sort of perspective, but like a legitimate and meaningful engagement with reality, from a perspective that remembers the humanity of people. 

And I think the CUNY system is intentionally engaged with community. I think that the kinds of professors that teach in the CUNY system, those that I’ve met and those that I’m aware of, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore — I’m obsessed with the way in which she talks about abolitionist futures and what that actually means and how to build it — I think that’s been very helpful for my thinking.

GC: How did you first become involved with VOCAL-NY?

Williams: I joined VOCAL-NY in 2013 as a member. The day that I signed a clipboard, I was actually living in a homeless shelter in New York City, and at VOCAL we do outreach at shelters when we have access to them. And essentially, it was at a particular period where I was reading Angela Davis, a lot of her work, I was reading 1984, by George Orwell. And Black Lives Matter was at one of its zeniths at this point, as a movement.

I just had this sense that there were these bigger problems at play that were affecting me, including my ending up in a homeless shelter, not having access to comprehensive health care and needing it, and also having graduated undergrad with massive amounts of debt. 

And then I realized while I was in that shelter that [almost] everybody in the shelter was Black, and then it sort of clicked. There was like a light bulb that went off. And I realized, or I drew the connection, that the same racism, classism, sexism, etc. are the same kind of phenomena that were leading to Black and brown people being killed, maimed, harmed by the police, and the same things that were leading to massive amounts of people who experience homelessness, in particular Black people. 

And I just felt like I needed to do something, but I just wasn't sure what to do as an individual. And just like magic that day, an organizer knocked on my door.

GC: What are your goals for the coming months?

Williams: Primarily, I want to find ways for the VOCAL-NY membership to be meaningfully engaged with the community at the GC. I think that’s important to CUNY, but also necessary for our membership. We need public intellectuals, we need academics, we need researchers to more fully understand what organizations like VOCAL-NY do. 

[Another goal is] perfecting my ability to articulate the state of things, not just in speaking, but also in writing. That's one of the other reasons I really chose the GC — because of the writing politics piece. I think that’s really important. I think that’s where I’m headed in the next five, six years — more and more writing. 

I'm mostly excited about expanding the network of people that I’m able to discuss the world with.

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