Jesse Williams
Image via Helga Esteb /

Jesse Williams: Put down the scalpel and pick up the megaphone

by Georgia Van Cuylenburg

In the past few months it seems I can’t turn on the news or open my twitter feed without seeing #Ferguson #Icantbreathe or #blacklivesmatter. As infuriated and sombered as I might be by these reports, part of me is very charged. It is a well-documented fact of history that before things can ever change for the better, they must first get worse. Just as it is so often a sad truth that some must lose their lives so that those remaining may gain their freedom.

What I see in the wake of the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Treyvon Martin is that turning point when a voice that wasn’t previously heeded is now heard, loud and clear. In moments such as this what I believe is essential are leaders from within a community that are willing to put their name, face and peaceful fight behind their beliefs, and stand for the change.

Jesse Williams was born in Chicago Illinois. His mother is Swedish American and his father is African American – both of them teachers in the public school system. Jesse’s father made sure his son understood the challenges of those that had come before him – maintaining a constant dialogue about race with his son. Being mixed race Jesse felt that people often saw him as a safe place to talk about the ‘other’ race and as a result he heard perspectives about color, equality and racial issues that very few young men would be privy to. Therefore it is no surprise that Jesse went on to major in African American studies, along with Film and Media Arts at Temple University. He then followed in the footsteps of his parents and taught American Studies, African Studies and English in the Philadelphia Public School System for six years.

Then Williams decided to move to New York to pursue a career in acting. He first appeared in an off Broadway production of the Sand Lot at the Cherry Lane Theatre. He then began to be cast in guest roles in shows such as Law and Order, Greek and Beyond the Break. He was guest starring on the hit series Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Jackson Avery, when it was announced that his character would become a series regular on the show and has continued to be since 2010. He has also appeared in movies such as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Brooklyn’s Finest, The Cabin in the Woods, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and They Die by Dawn.

To leave behind a job working with the youth of America guiding them through their history towards a better future, in exchange for the red carpet, glitz and glamourous world of TV and film, may seem at first to be a frivolous choice. For Jesse Williams, however, armed with his unique life experience, education and determination to see change for his community, this decision may not only be life changing for him, but for all young people of color in America.

It is because of Williams’ celebrity profile that during these times of unrest he is being called upon to share his opinion. Had he stayed teaching in Philadelphia I’m not sure the top news services such as CNN would be calling him up for a sound bite – as worthy as that sound bite would have been.

Jesse Williams is a perfect example of how passion, education and celebrity influence can make a powerful and tangible difference in the world.

Williams certainly has that foundation and is putting his voice and energy behind some very clear goals. He recently became the spokesperson for Sons and Brothers. He described this initiative recently on The Arsenio Hall Show: “California Endowment put $50 million behind improving the living conditions and future for our young men of color. That is working around the school to prison pipeline. Trying to find as many off ramps as possible on that school to prison super highway so our kids can make a life for themselves, graduate, have skills so they can actually provide a life for themselves and those around them.”

He is also the youngest face on the Board of Directors for the Advancement Project – a next generation multi-racial civil rights organization rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice. It exists to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy. They use innovative tools and strategies to strengthen social movements and achieve high impact policy change.

Williams didn’t stop at supporting others on their quest for equality. He and his wife Aryn Drake-Lee started their own production company farWord. Williams’ explanation behind the name of the company truly represents everything that is powerful about his work: “When I think of farWord, I think of the distance that you are hoping to go, the direction that you are hoping to go and the means by which you plan to carry your plan forward. Storytelling is based on the word, being an honorable person of integrity is based on your word.” They formed the company to examine and affect the relationship between historical/cultural comprehension and the ways in which media content influences our health and behavior.

Their first project Question Bridge is an “artfully constructed montage from interviews with over 150 black men, and illuminates their shared concerns.” This project gives a voice for people who have a message that needs to be shared with the world. According to Jesse, “This project is a perfect one to launch my production company using media for social good and using any attention that I can get, to forward it to a cause that is attention worthy… and has a real future.”

There is no better way to sum up what makes Jesse Williams a true Hollywood Journal Soul Angel than with the words of Jesse Williams himself: “America as a whole needs to make some big changes but what we can do is do our best within our own communities and as influencers step forward and take that leadership role back. I think entertainers in the previous decades have had more of a leadership role in their communities, not only speaking all the time but listening to what is happening in and around them, instead of just ignoring it and selling products. There is a room, a vacancy in leadership, and now is the time to take it back.”

Lead the way Jesse Williams! Thank you for your incredible stand and commitment for the young people of color in America and for being our Hollywood Soul Angel of the month.

Georgia Van Cuylenburg

About Georgia Van Cuylenburg

Georgia is a comedian, writer and actress who started her production company to create work that makes people laugh and makes a difference. Through her entertainment and philanthropic work she is committed to sharing her personal trials to help others, and to having children around the world believe in their magic. Follow Georgia on Twitter @georgiavanc and YouTube

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