“Conversations in Leadership”: Maya Wiley on the Power to Transform

Maya Wiley. Photo: Dennis Drenner By Amanda Krupman, Communications Coordinator

You could say Maya Wiley took AP classes on power and privilege while she was still learning to add and subtract. Wiley, who addressed CCNY students on February 21 as part of the Center’s “Conversations in Leadership” series, was raised in Washington, D.C. at the tail-end of the civil rights movement. Black communities and their organizers, including her parents, had just turned a corner from the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow and were fighting a system still mired in inequity.

“I want to be a judge,” announced six-year-old Wiley to her parents and other organizers crowded on their living room floor. “That’s who has the power.” It was past her bedtime, but she had been paying close attention: The group was in a tense meeting after protesters rallying for economic justice were jailed overnight at a malicious judge’s behest.

“I recognized that I wasn’t an organizer like my parents,” Wiley told students, “but I could argue, and there was power in that position to transform the law.”

Wiley is president of the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI), a nonprofit based in New York City. She has worked as a civil rights attorney, policy advocate, and adviser for more than twenty years, addressing structural racial inequity in the U.S. and South Africa.

Refocusing the discussion What is structural racial inequity? It's what Wiley, CSI staff, and other activists want to break down by analyzing how bad policy (i.e. in education, housing laws, transportation and broadband access) disproportionately hurts people of color, and how any social equity program must directly address longstanding disparities along racial lines.

This post-crash period has given Americans many opportunities to talk about social inequity by way of class—the classic consideration of haves and have-nots (and the elusive middle class), and our country's skewed wealth distribution.

But while headlines about megabank bailouts, continuing high unemployment rates, and the sequestration slash-and-burn reiterate what we already know—that most of us are struggling more now than before, and the very rich will stay rich—Wiley and CSI stress that any adequate policy consideration must address race. The right place to begin lasting reform is by gutting the policies trapping our lowest-income communities, overwhelmingly populated by people of color, while amplifying grassroots solutions up to the state and federal level.

Maneuvering for Solutions Wiley advised students that finding solutions for problems old and new requires both political savvy and an ear to the ground. “It involves a structural analysis and a certain amount of maneuvering…. If you want education reform, you have to look at our housing policies,” Wiley said, referring to quality gaps based on school districts’ reliance on local property taxes. Home ownership is historically lower in urban communities inhabited by African-American, Latino, and immigrant communities, meaning less resources make their way to kids who need it most, perpetuating a system that keeps generations at a disadvantage. Policies such as integrated bussing systems, charter schools, and magnet lotteries are merely inadequate and roundabout responses when fair housing policies are lacking.

Meanwhile, movements gaining new traction, like the environmental justice, or green movement, cannot be sustainable (so to speak) without having a plan for people of color, which means promoting business ventures and innovation in those communities. “[Those communities] are more likely to be concerned with the environment than the general population, because they live in poor environments,” Wiley said.

Ending her talk by returning to the subject of power, Wiley roused students to face the challenges of structural inequities head on. “Foucault says power is diffuse… how do we concentrate ours as a counterbalance to break up old structures?” she asked. “One of the fundamental pillars of leadership is recognizing that nothing happens by accident, and then having an analysis and a plan for action.”

Our next "Conversations in Leadership" will be with Thomas Farley, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, on Tuesday, March 19, from 5:30-7:00 in Shepard Hall, Room 558. Register  here.