Last week I saw the face of America’s future, and it was a good one. Most of us know Youngstown, Ohio, for everything it has lost over the years; now, we can take a cue from something it has gained. Get to know the new mayor, Jay Williams. In 1999, my colleagues and I wrote a report with the support of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation about Youngstown, entitled Waiting for the Future. Back then Youngstown was a community stuck in place, mired by parochialism and mistrust. One man there told me, “I don’t see much hope here.” Others said they were waiting for a knight in shining armor to ride into town and save them. Not exactly a recipe for progress.
Today, much work remains to be done. Just drive around town – as I did with my host Margaret Murphy, the courageous executive director of Wick Neighbors, Inc, a community development corporation – and you’ll still see a town in trouble.
When I recently returned to speak in Youngstown to give an update on the community’s progress, over 300 people turned out. The progress people have made there is a story of perseverance winning out over despair. There are lots of signs of progress, impressive signs. I look forward to telling you more about Youngstown’s promising journey in the future.
But, for now, allow me simply to extol the good news story of Jay Williams. Last November, the people of Youngstown, in yet another sign of grabbing hold of their own future, turned from establishment party politicians to elect Williams. Merely turning away from the power-holders would have been something to note. But, the people did something more than that: they elected a young man (Williams is his early thirties), the first ever African-American mayor in Youngstown, and the first independent in 80 years.
What other city in America can boast as much?
To hear Williams speak is to hear someone seamlessly combine inspiration and policy moxie. He belongs to a cadre of young African-American leaders – including Barak Obama, the U.S. senator from Illinois, and Cory Booker, the odds-on favorite to be the next mayor of Newark. But he is even more than that; he is a new breed of elected official in America who is putting politics as usual aside and offering authentic hope.
People in Youngstown – old and young, white and black, old-timer and new comer – described Williams to me as honest and hardworking. He is someone, they say, who exhibits a depth of sincerity. He is a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of guy. And he is someone who speaks from the heart and leaves the doublespeak behind.
In the local Business-Journal he was quoted as saying, “I never want to overpromise. I would rather underpromise and overdeliver.” The article went on to quote Williams as saying, “we must be realistic” about the pace and scope of what can be accomplished.
There is so much wrong in politics and public life today, and the people of Youngstown are as quick to point that out to me as folks in any town. But they were also quick to highlight Jay Williams. And yet, he’s not the knight in shining armor that people told me they were waiting for in 1999. He sees his own role as one of many leaders – indeed, as one of many people – who will steer Youngstown into its future.
I have said here many times that I believe each of us must stand by leaders who exhibit authentic hope in what they say and do. They need our support. I’m glad to support Jay Williams.