Jay Williams made history in November, 2005 when he became the youngest and the first African-American Mayor of Youngstown, Ohio. A former banker who left the corporate world to serve as director of the city’s community development agency, Williams staked his mayoral candidacy on an unusual and politically bold plan to revitalize the city. Once home to 180,000 residents, the population of Youngstown is now half that number, with abandoned homes, storefronts and factories that have stood empty since the once-thriving city lost most of its manufacturing and steel jobs in the 1970’s. Williams won a six-way race with more than 50% of the vote, on a platform that called for the city to acknowledge its diminishing population and poor economic health, and to improve its circumstances not by growing, but by shrinking.
Prior to his election, Williams was a leader in developing and promoting the “Youngstown 2010” citywide planning initiative, which called for restricted development, refurbishment of dilapidated buildings, and demolition of certain neighborhoods to allow for green space. As mayor, Williams has continued to promote this unusual approach to development, which has led local and national observers to call him a visionary leader with an eye to the future. One of Williams’ first official acts as mayor was to funnel surplus funds toward demolition in the city. He has also increased city investment in economic development programs, and has worked to reduce crime by adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward offenders and developing close ties with law enforcement and community and religious leaders to increase education among Youngstown’s poor youth.
Williams was born and raised in Youngstown. He graduated from Youngstown State University with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration.
I would like to thank Mrs. Caroline Kennedy, Director Leach, Ambassador Shattuck, and all of the members of the New Frontier Award committee for honoring me with this award.
I would certainly be remiss not to thank those who have had the most profound influence on my life, beginning with my parents and other family members who have joined me here today and of course also my wife. I must too acknowledge my Pastor and others who have proven themselves as lifelong mentors to me.
I recognized very quickly in my term, that mayors, like so many others in similar positions, are often shouldered with too much blame, but also too much credit. Therefore, I graciously accept this honor on behalf of the countless others who are doing the work that the New Frontier Award embodies; those who often go unseen and unheard, however, without whose work, I would not have a platform on which to stand and be recognized here today.
From a young child it was instilled in me that serving others is not to be viewed as a burden but rather something to which we should aspire. It is a concept that was unquestionably reflected in the life and values of President John F. Kennedy; and forty-four years after his death, remains an ever present force in the Kennedy family today.
President Kennedy reminded us that public office is not be endeavored for fame or fortune. Civic-mindedness, vision, pragmatism and tenacity, these were the qualities that the President knew were necessary to identify and address the public challenges of his generation. And they remain the very same qualities needed to address many of the same and new public challenges that we face in the generation of today.
While I am humbled and eternally grateful for this award, I must acknowledge that I accept the honor with a modicum of trepidation. That is because I remain extraordinarily cognizant of the problems and challenges that the City of Youngstown yet faces. I wish to leave no room for cynics and critics to interpret this occasion as a dismissal of the significant work that yet remains to be done.
But I will also interpret this award as a sign of progress. There are times when you are left to wonder if your work (and that of others) is making a difference. There are times when you are left to wonder if the sacrifices of public services are really worth it. I will allow this award to answer those questions. It says to me, it says to all true public servants, not “job well done”, but rather a job that must be continued, pressing toward the New Frontiers of which President Kennedy so passionately spoke.
I also hope that this award will serve as a source of inspiration, hope, and optimism. Not only to the people of Youngstown, Ohio, but to people across this great nation, about the power and importance of civic participation in overcoming deeply rooted civic problems that so often breed cynicism, criticism, hopelessness and despair.
In closing, I am deeply honored to have been considered for this recognition by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. The award has special context to me.
It was two years ago this month after having been elected Mayor of the City of Youngstown, that I found myself wondering, what now? There was a wave of high expectations that had carried over from the campaign. I found myself trying to figure out how to balance those great expectations with the grim realties and daunting tasks that we as a city would together face in our efforts to rebuild a struggling community.
As we prepared for the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration, I wrestled with what I would say as we began this new journey; one that would be fraught with problems, pitfalls, and heartbreaks. Sure, I knew that there would be some successes, but they would come too few and far between.
It was a chance visit to this library in November 2005 that I found the answer to those questions. The answer was spoken by President John F. Kennedy as he addressed the challenges waiting on the horizon of the New Frontier during his inauguration in 1961. It was his words that provided me with both solace and inspiration. It was his words that I shared with my own community.
President Kennedy admonished us to recognize, that as we seek to tackle the problems and challenges of every generation, whether it be crime, racism, social decline, or economic decay, he reminded us:
“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin”.
Remarks delivered by Youngstown, Ohio Mayor Jay Williams on receiving the 2007 John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award, November 7, 2007.