When you see Jesse Williams on screen as Dr. Jackson Avery in "Grey’s Anatomy," what you notice first are his striking good looks. Then you notice the undoubtable charisma that jumps through the screen.
Some might know him only from "Grey’s Anatomy," but the reason Jesse Williams was the student-choice for University at Buffalo’s Distinguished Speakers Series is his civil rights activism.
Williams was the first biracial doctor on television, and he has used the platform the show provides to voice his views on many of the most controversial topics surrounding equality in the country.
As Williams took center stage, he answered audience questions on everything from his character in "Grey’s Anatomy," to the projects he is currently working on, to the way capitalism impacts how races are represented today. Through all of these topics the audience was captivated by Williams’ eloquence and conviction.
Williams highlighted his struggles and successes. He came from a humble beginning in Chicago, and he acknowledged that life was not easy as he juggled to find the balance between his ego and expectations. When asked if he ever felt underestimated Williams said, "If anyone is underestimating me, it doesn’t matter." He believes that whether he is underestimated, it has no effect on the success he has today.
When asked about the path he took to get to where he is today, he went into a rather satirical description of the many jobs he had.
Williams began substitute teaching in charter schools while in college. He used this opportunity to transition from an inner-city Chicago high school to a suburban Massachusetts high school primarily composed of white people. Williams talked about the shift in mindset that came from switching schools, saying, "What I learned in that switch was that all these things that we were kind of taught to believe about our own inferiority and why we were surrounded by broken windows, and crack, and drugs, and police, and police violence and all these things, were pathological and implicitly black."
In many ways, Williams spoke the unspeakable, acknowledging the great inequality surrounding people of color today.
He spoke about the lie that films with large casts of white people gross more money.
"What’s proven to be true, and I’ve cited them several times, throughout the Bunche School at UCLA they have done some incredible work in the past five years, especially, breaking down actual profits, breaking down box offices and diversity, and the more diverse a movie is, the more money a movie makes, full stop."
The topics discussed were all largely based on Williams’ work as an activist. Williams is a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Williams is also currently working in the technology industry to try and create more opportunities for people of color, as seen through his new app, Blebrity. He also sits on the board of Scholly, an app designed to find scholarship dollars for people applying to college.
Williams has also been a part of several documentaries, including "Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement Documentary," which he mentioned. "Any work that I make, the documentaries I produced recently, or the shows that are in the works now, I guess are looking to disrupt, are looking to fill in the gaps of storytelling which involves the black community. It doesn’t feel like activism to me, it just feels like being active."
Throughout the evening the audience was captivated by the charisma Williams exudes.
To wrap up, Williams was asked where he finds hope in the world today. He said that people must demand space and demand to be heard in order to stand strong.
"I see so much promise and potential in every aspect of life, but in order to maintain a sliver of optimism and sanity, I do have to routinely yank myself out of the bubble," he said.
Julia Beck is a sophomore at Buffalo Seminary.