By Barney Blakeney
North Charleston community activist Jesse Williams has earned a reputation among the area’s most proactive proponents for safe progressive neighborhoods. And despite two unsuccessful bids to get elected to North Charleston City Council, Williams vows to continue his activism.
For Williams, community activism isn’t about media attention, hidden agendas or soft money. The transplanted North Charleston native who grew up in the Glen Terrace community has a genuine desire to fight for the underdog. Born in Maui, Hawaii to Polynesian and white parents, he knows what it is to be different, in the minority.
Williams’ family moved to North Charleston when he was nine – his mother is a North Charleston native. He attended neighborhood schools at Goodwin Elementary, Brentwood Middle and Garrett High schools. His dark skin and straight black hair made him an ethnic target. He remembers with a smile the fights that marked his years at neighborhood schools. More maturity marked his later years at the College of Charleston and Charleston Southern University as a Business Administration major.
But his years as an underdog who had to fight for his rights and recognition also marked him. His spiritual growth as a member of Seacoast Church led him to join with other young people in their 20s to make changes in their communities. “I wanted to be a part of the solution,” Williams says.
But he realized he couldn’t save the world so he focused on saving his neighborhood. In 2007, he and his friends started the Take It to The Street non-profit organization in the Dorchester Waylyn community. Although the community suffered many disparities in areas such as education, high unemployment and high crime the group focused their efforts on nutrition. Take It To The Street initially was a food distribution program, he said.
Williams said it soon became apparent he could magnify his voice and that of the community through the neighborhood association. In 2014, he succeeded neighborhood icon Joe B. Thompson as the Dorchester Waylyn Neighborhood Association president. The next year, he sought election as North Charleston District 6 representative. The incumbent, Dorothy Williams had held the seat nearly a quarter century. The entrenched incumbent was re-elected. He said it was apparent that it was by design that community neighborhoods had no voice in the decisions that affected them.
Representatives at various levels of government were put in place to stifle progressive initiatives. Education and economic instability were their tools, he said. So Williams began to focus on neighborhood schools advocating for more community influence and neighborhood recreational resources. And this year he again sought election to city council from District 6.
Although he met the same brick wall that stopped him in 2015, Williams says his ongoing activism will continue. He’s currently working with neighborhoods in Highland Terrace, Liberty Park, Ferndale and Russledale to impact encroachment from the planned I-526 construction. Williams said the threats that destabilize communities and facilitate gentrification don’t stop after municipal elections. Neither will he.