Students lined up outside of the Recreation Center hours in advance, waiting to hear social activist and “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jesse Williams speak at an Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) Events’ discussion May 21.
Williams, who has spent the bulk of his acting career on the long-running medical drama as Dr. Jackson Avery, spoke with Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion Jaime Patton and chairwoman of the ASI Board of Directors Daniela Czerny about his acting career and his social justice work.
Many students in attendance, such as biological sciences senior Raadhika Shah, came to know of Williams through his acting but were also excited to hear him speak about activism.
“I am a bio[logical sciences] major [and a] huge med drama fan, so ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is definitely a big part of me knowing him, but definitely his social activism is equally, if not more, important. And it is really cool how he is able to balance both types of roles,” Shah said.
Prior to the discussion, Williams spoke to Mustang News about how he has been an activist his entire adult life, long before he became a well-known actor. Williams does not only consider himself an activist, but an abolitionist as well.
“We still have slavery in many different machinations in very modernized ways now, so I am against oppression, I’m against controlling and confining people’s bodies and movements and political agency, social agency, so I am fighting hard to fight against that,” Williams said. “And, you know, keeping in mind that when folks were abolitionists around enslaved people and slavery, it was legal; it was a government-orchestrated and protected and propagated offense to folks, so it is also a reminder that just because something is legal or the law does not make it right.”
His passions for activism and social justice stem from his experiences as a biracial person in America and what he has learned from others over the years.
“I think it’s hard to unsee things. I am a student, I grew up a student of history and anybody who has any familiarity with the realities of how we got here … what has occurred in world history, both globally and domestically understands the great pains folks have gone to keep their boot on the necks of other folks and how deliberately tilted the scales are,” Williams said.
A few of the ways Williams has combated social injustices is through his executive production of the documentary “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement” and Question Bridge: Black Males, a trans-media project designed to answer questions and dispel misconceptions about the Black male community. He is also on the board of directors of the civil rights organization Advancement Project.
During the discussion, business administration senior Czerny asked Williams how Cal Poly can move forward as a more inclusive community after the blackface incident. Williams responded that he was unaware of the specific incident; however, he addressed the larger issue of racism across universities.
“What I would say is, again broadly, we need to figure out a way to do for self, how to take care of ourselves. That means individually, that means as a collective and you can do both. Not feed, people want attention or bring some douchebag here to talk or hang some sign or say something horrible to get a rise out of you because that is the fuel that they exist on, so if you give them no attention, they might just deflate,” Williams said.
Williams also touched on what it means to be an ally and how he has had to introspectively reflect on his own privileges as well.
After the discussion, students cheered and thanked Williams as he left the stage. Political science sophomore Abibat Iriafen, who became aware of Williams after his speech at the 2016 Black Entertainment Television Awards show, said she appreciated Williams’ honesty about the realities of social justice and injustice.
“He gets the message out without being offensive or telling a lie. He gets it out and it’s refreshing,” Iriafen said.
As Williams said prior to the discussion, his goal for the talk was to elevate the discussion around race and injustice.
“Hopefully I can contribute to that [discussion] and just continue the ball down the hill of people just kind of absorbing new things, gathering new information and maybe they disagree,” Williams said. “You know, it’s a process, this is not a destination … I want folks to dig deeper into themselves.”