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Now serving his second term in office, Washington DC Mayor Anthony Williams MPP 1987 returned to Harvard Friday to kick off the Kennedy School’s first-ever black policy conference, conceived by students concerned about the lack of interaction between black students and black alumni.
Williams, wearing his trademark bow tie, hit on a huge range of topics during his 90-minute speech — from the challenges he faces to his vision for the district to the criticism he often receives for being a straight-laced politician.
Regarding the state of affairs in his city, Williams said that although the economy has turned for the better and crime has dropped, more could be done.
“There’s a need for bold, innovative leadership in the cities,” he said. “The greatest challenges in my city are ahead of me: education reform, support for ex-offenders, and moving kids from foster care to adoption. I’m also not proud that although the number of jobs in the city has increased, so has unemployment. There’s a tremendous disconnect between jobs that are available and the folks who can fill them.”
When asked by a student who lived in DC whether he saw Washington first as a city or as the nation’s capital, Williams said it didn’t need to be one or the other.
“There are three cities in DC: the international, the federal, and the local,” he said. “People always ask me why I spend so much time with the ambassadors that come through. To them, I say, ‘Chill.’ If these ambassadors go back to their countries and say, ‘Great city, great people,’ they’ll want to invest.”
Williams spent a fair amount of this time talking about the criticism he often receives for being a serious black man who is out of touch with the black community. He joked about the cartoons lampooning his style and educational background, despite growing up in a working class family.
“Everyone assumes I came from nobility because I went to Yale and then here to the Kennedy School,” he said. “I say to them, ‘Yes, I come from a noble family, but it’s noble because of hard work and sacrifice, not money.’”
He urged future black leaders in the audience to challenge these assumptions. “In terms of African American leadership, I urge you to be more skeptical consumers of style over substance,” he said. “Overall, just be more skeptical and more appreciative of people willing to take risks. We ought to be open to new approaches.”
He said that although it’s not easy to be targeted, each student must figure out his or her own way to lead. “It hurts when I see the cartoons. There was one that said I was the only African American who didn’t like greens,” he said. “Look, I don’t like greens. I’m going to be who I am. You need to respond to people and touch them in your own way. I’m still trying to figure out that way. People say I’m getting better.”
The conference, which continued throughout the weekend and included other prominent Kennedy School alumni, was sponsored by Kennedy School students and the Wiener Center for Social Policy.
Photos: Tanit Sakakini