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Renowned Social Justice Expert Is Optimistic About the Possibilities

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Maya Wiley came to understand social injustice at a young age, partly by listening directly to the stories of poor Black women on public assistance in her hometown of Washington, D.C.

As the daughter of Dr. George Alvin Wiley — a trained chemist and respected civil rights leader — Wiley studied the actions of her father who had spent his entire life advocating on behalf of poor Black women, who were fighting to receive more money so that they could raise their children and not be hungry and secure decent housing free from cockroaches and rats.

Maya WileyMaya Wiley

It was in their family home, Wiley recalls, that poor Black women would gather to recount stories of how they were arrested, humiliated and brought before a judge for staging demonstrations in an effort to push for adequate income.

“My earliest memory of what I thought I wanted to do was to be a judge,” she recalls in an interview with Diverse. “I thought somebody better had to be sitting in that chair, and I thought that somebody should be me.”

Even though George Wiley had graduated from Cornell University in 1957 with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and had taught at Syracuse University, he insisted that he and his family would live amongst those poor Black women and their children who had committed to organizing themselves into a powerful collective.

“My father and his work really represent that intersection of the civil rights and anti-poverty movement,” says Wiley, who notes that as founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization, he collaborated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the planning of Resurrection City — the last movement organized by King just before his assassination in 1968 — that was squarely focused on economic justice.

George Wiley’s passion for racial and economic justice was seamlessly passed on to his daughter, whose career as a civil rights attorney and now a university professor and administrator has catapulted her to national acclaim.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was looking to hire counsel to work in his administration shortly after his election, he phoned Wiley.

“I said, ‘I’m not a traditional lawyer,’” Wiley recalls telling the mayor, to which he reportedly replied: “That’s why I want you.”

After earning a law degree, Wiley enhanced her legal portfolio by working as a civil rights attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Open Society Institute. She later founded and served as president of the Center for Social Inclusion, a national policy strategy organization dedicated to dismantling structural racism.

Although she had planned to turn down de Blasio’s job offer, after meeting the mayor and his wife, Chirlane McCray, Wiley says that she was hooked.

During her two-and-half-year tenure at City Hall, de Blasio leaned on her to help him craft and move his income inequality agenda in a city that boasts 8.5 million residents.

“You have the ability to impact people’s life in a really more direct way in city government than anywhere else,” says Wiley. “But it’s daunting because the issues are quite complex.”

In her role as counsel for de Blasio, Wiley won widespread praise from civil rights and political leaders.

“Maya Wiley has represented the kind of serious and thorough scholar and lawyer that I have most regarded and respected,” says Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization that he founded in 1991. “I have worked with her on issues like ‘Stop and Frisk’ that become far-reaching in its impact. She is totally knowledgeable, totally principled and totally committed to justice.”

Choosing law

During her undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, Wiley decided to major in psychology but was convinced that working as a clinician or going into private practice was not something she wanted to do.

“Everyone Black at Dartmouth either wanted to go to medical or law school, which made law less appealing because I thought somebody has to do something else,” says Wiley.

But in the wake of the apartheid movement and divestment in South Africa, Wiley decided that she needed to “get over my issues with law school and decided I had to be a different kind of civil rights lawyer.”

She headed to Columbia University for law school, largely because of Jack Greenberg. The legendary lawyer who had worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and collaborated with Thurgood Marshall was vice dean at the school. She joined the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

As the courts began to shift more to the political right, Wiley went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she decided to take on cases that involved discrimination in employment and health care.

She remained convinced that multiracial alliances were needed to fight back.

Joining academia

When her tenure at City Hall ended, Wiley accepted a position in 2016 at The New School, where she is the Henry Cohen Professor of Urban Policy and Management at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy and the senior vice president for social justice.

“We are thrilled Maya chose to bring her extensive experience in management and her leadership in social justice to The New School,” Dr. David E. Van Zandt said at the time of her appointment. “Her unique expertise and counsel will help further The New School’s commitment to providing a rigorous education steeped in social justice.”

In her role as senior vice president for social justice, Wiley works with the university’s senior leadership team to evaluate social justice needs and opportunities as well as develop an operational framework for advancing the university’s social justice agenda.

“For me, these are really intertwined positions,” Wiley says of her teaching and administrative duties. “Universities can impact the work and can work directly with communities on causes and issues.”

In the wake of widespread racial and economic disparities and other challenges, Wiley says that the goal of the university is to help produce “engaged innovators who know how to make change in a constantly changing world,” she says. “Our students are global.”

Her students, she says, gives her hope that they will continue to fight injustice, as her father did so many decades ago.

“I’m very hopeful, but hopeful in a Soren Kierkegaard way,” says Wiley. “My hope is a passion for what is possible, and I am very passionate about the possibility. Students are part of that passion. They are not stepping down. They’re engaging. People who were never engaged before are now engaging. The question is how do we channel engagement to be productive and deeply challenging to the status quo.”

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson


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