L. Joy Williams is a national political strategist, media thought leader, public speaker, and social justice advocate. She is a trusted strategic adviser to elected leaders and organizations across the country and is sought after by various media outlets for her expertise in politics, civic engagement, and social justice. L. Joy Williams is the Founder and Principal of New York-based consulting firm LJW Strategies, President of the Brooklyn NAACP, Creator, Host, and Producer of the civic education podcast #SundayCivics and founding Chairman of Higher Heights for America.
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
I’ve created a number of different things over my career but right now I’m creating a show called Sunday Civics which focuses on teaching civics in an engaging way that applies civics outside of the classroom and into everyday life. My mission and my job is to help people understand and learn the process and the tools that they can use to be more participatory in our government structure.
BGC: Why do you create?
I don’t know a time of not creating. When I was young I moved from New York to California. In junior high school in New York I participated in cheerleading, so in order to get acclimated in California and in high school, I tried out for the cheerleading team. Cheerleading in New York was very different than cheerleading in California and I tried out and didn’t get it because it was a very different space. I had been taught cheerleading from Howard graduates and sorority members and coming to California meant coming to that traditional, competition-type cheerleading.
I was devastated. It was the first thing that I can remember that I tried for and I didn’t get. I’d always been used to trying out or going and doing things and being accepted. I was told to try out again next year and in response, I created a step team at the high school. That has been my response to things, I just create spaces for myself. When I’ve been rejected or if I don’t fit in somewhere, I think that there have to be other people that feel the same way. So you’re not only creating space for yourself but your creating space or creating something for other people who may not have the courage or may not even know that they can create something. I come from a family that built churches, community, and spaces, that was always an alternative for me. If something doesn’t exist, just build it. If you build something there are people that need it.
BGC: Who is your audience?
With anything that I create whether I’m writing an article or creating an image, I visualize who the person is that I’m trying to reach. I’ll give you an example, I’m creating a new segment called What I’m Reading because I read so much. I was thinking about how to lay it out on the website, how to actually write the segment when I say it on the show and I thought about who am I talking to when I do this, even if it’s a subsection of the show, who do I want to see this? Who I visualized for the show was an adult who is long past school, out of college, out of high school, so the thought of a civics class is from a long time ago, but they know that there should be something that they are doing about addressing issues that they talk about with their friends and colleagues. It can be something as simple as “there’s got to be a better way to fund the library so we don’t have to do campaigns every year to save the libraries from being closed.” Then understanding how that process works and where they can intervene, where they can intersect. So that’s who I’m thinking of, the person who is not about to get a degree in government or a second masters degree in public policy, they really just want the library to be open longer than 12 - 2 on Saturdays. What is the government structure that does that or why do we have to pay private garbage pick up? It’s basically, here’s one hour a week where I’m breaking down for you different topics, who the players are, and giving you a route you can take to address it. That can be large things like the farm bill or public utilities to smaller things like why can’t the library be open 7 days a week.
BGC: Who/what inspired you to do what you do? Who/what continues to inspire you?
A group of folks, including a woman named Septima Clark who during the Civil Rights Movement was doing training in civics classes. They were doing this because of the poll taxes and tests that were required for African Americans to take in order to register to vote. Their mindset was “we’re going to fight these poll taxes and ID laws in court, NAACP and LDF are going to fight that but at the same time, we need to register people to vote. While these laws exist I need to make sure that our people understand the process and understand how to get registered.” Then they went beyond class and taught other things. A lot of folks didn’t have their own bank accounts or how to write a check or balance a checkbook. So in addition to teaching people how to register to vote and evaluate candidates, they also taught things like how to open a bank account and negotiate contracts and things of that nature.
That is what inspired me, creating a space, a way to teach adults about something that they could immediately apply to their lives.
BGC: How do you continue to be inspired, especially in these specific times?
Feedback and comments from people who listen help fuel the work. Someone saying, “I ran for school board” or “I ran for the library board” or “I’ve learned a lot and have my students listen” are an important motivation. Just knowing one of my favorite Bible passages is “be not weary in well doing”, I know it’s important to push this education, I know that it’s lacking. It’s not a big shiny thing because it’s an election now and everyone is saying “we need civics” and I’m saying “civics isn’t just about elections”. That’s what keeps me motivated, knowing that there is a real need for it and that keeps my focus.
BGC: Why is it important as a Black person to be civically engaged?
One of the things, when I was first envisioning the show, was how awesome would it be for a Black woman to be the one who taught Americans about civics. The person that received the right to vote almost last. A double marginalized person in terms of race, sex, and maybe even class. The only more ironic thing would be a Native American teaching civics. Someone from a historically marginalized group in this country teaching all Americans about civics and how to engage and move the process. Particularly in that it has been marginalized people in this country that have tested the limits of our democracy and have really forced the country to live up to its promise, which it still doesn’t completely do 100%. It speaks to me about having someone that represents that be the person to be America’s civics teacher which is what I’m aiming to be.
BGC: Why do you think it’s important as a Black woman to create?
Because the institutions that exist, primarily, were not created with us in mind. So it’s important for people of African descent in this country to create things that will be long-lasting. To create foundations and groups that for generations our people did not have the opportunity to do. It’s like Beyoncé singing the song “I Was Here.” Our ancestors who were enslaved without any ability to build foundational wealth, build long-standing institutions were still able to put their mark on society in a number of ways. Now that we have greater access in terms of financial access, greater ability to put our mark on the world, I believe that we ought to build and sustain institutions to demonstrate that we were here.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
Horribly. There is no balance, I mean, its a seesaw. If you’re focusing on one thing something else is lacking. The reality of that is that every now and then you have to re-shift and rebalance whats higher priority based upon need and focus. I would say I balance things horribly and every now and then I can get the even balance on the seesaw, but for the most part, I do it horribly but it all works out in the end.
BGC: Any advice for young creators/ones just starting?
Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Just create it. This is something I suffer from as well, waiting for things to be perfect, for all of the stars to align to build this magical project. I struggle with it and I definitely understand it, but at the end of the day just create it. I’ll be honest, when I first started the show I wanted to do it live before a live audience and 4 people came. But now I’m on Sirius XM and thousands listen to the show. Do the first version of it, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th version of it will be better, but start out first. The second thing I would say is to abandon the fear of failure, get over it quick. Let your failure be the tipping point of what to do next. How do you go from the failure to how it helps prioritize the next focus.
Make sure to check out Sunday Civics on SiriusXM Urban View channel 126 and listen to the show live every Sunday morning at 10 am or you can listen and subscribe wherever your podcasts are found. You can follow L. Joy Williams on Twitter and Sunday Civics across social media.