Distinguished Alumnus Juan Williams ’72 visited campus on May 2nd to present the annual Dash Davis Gleiter Lecture on Social Justice: “My High School Eyes on the Prize.” Juan spent a full day at Oakwood, touring the campus and visiting with faculty and students. Bianca Luna-Lupercio ’17 had the opportunity for an in-depth interview with Juan before his presentation to the community.

When I met Juan Williams, I was taken aback by his casual swagger. I didn’t think someone - let alone a nationally known journalist, author, political analyst, and reporter - who had interviewed distinguished figures such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush, could be so mellow. The formal interview I thought I was going to conduct soon became a casual conversation as we shared our immigrant family background, reminisced about our hometowns (his being Brooklyn, mine being Los Angeles), and drew parallel Oakwood experiences, involving athletics, the arts, and our academic interests. The questions I wanted to ask Juan were not Google questions, in the sense where one could simply search on the internet for the answer. Rather, they were questions of depth - of genuine curiosity - about how Oakwood still played a role in his life, even with the glitz and glamour of national fame. Although a graduate of the class of ‘72, much of what Juan said resonated with me in present terms, such as what Oakwood offered him, how he grew through the Quaker testimonies, and how he came to find his voice here. As a member of the class of 2017, I can sincerely echo the sentiments that Juan shared during his last visit to campus - “Oakwood is where I got a sense of life’s potential and where I learned the Quaker spirit of caring.” Excerpts from the interview follow below.

How did your passion for civil rights begin, and what part did Oakwood play in it?

Growing up in Brooklyn, until I came to Oakwood, was growing up in a very tumultuous time, in terms of racial relations in the United States. I was 10 years old in 1964. That was the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, 1965 the Voting Rights Act, 1968 Dr. King’s assassination. Even before that, in ‘63, Malcom X is assassinated. So, there’s a lot going on, but I’m not of age to be an activist or involved. But, being in a working class black neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, you’re also dealing with the black Muslims standing on the street corners, with the bean pies and the “Muhammad Speaks.” You’re dealing with a lot of the organized church community, coming together around Civil Rights issues - that was the news, that was the temperature of the time! Even the music - if you’re listening to Motown, so much of it is about what’s going on. If you’re listening to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’,” that was the moment. And for me, to try to understand what it meant to be coming from a Central American country, with mom and brother and sister, speaking Spanish at home and all that. Then, in the American context to be black. In other words, in Panama, I would’ve been a dark skin Panamanian. But here, I was black because that’s the framework - that’s the paradigm of race in America, you’re black or you’re white, especially at that time. I think now with Latinos being the second largest majority, there’s much more variation and gradation of, “Oh yeah, this is a Latino, not a black person.” But there’s a big divide still in the country between being white and being non-white. And, so for me, it was like, I identify with the black experience as a black person, even though I come from this Latin country. My dad was born in Jamaica and my mother in Panama and so, there’s this whole West Indian aspect to the Latin experience. I remember, once reading in the New York Times, a story about two friends who fled Cuba - one was black and one was white in terms of skin color. They were the best of friends from childhood, but when they got to the United States, the racial difference proved too large that they were accepted in different communities, in different times, in different places, and they grew apart. And, so, I think for me it was learning how to be - how to accept me in this other framework. It was just black or white, and then dealing with being black in this society, and in that Brooklyn, urban, big city context. And then, keeping those thoughts about, what does it mean to be racially aware? Part of this ongoing effort to change America for the better. I really think that is the seedbed of my interest which has become a lifelong interest in Civil Rights and race, and how we deal with racial difference in America.”

How did Oakwood give you a sense of life’s potential?

“I had many experiences. As I said earlier, things like being student body leader, and editor of the paper, and learning that I was a good cross country runner, and having the opportunity and becoming the captain of a good basketball team (shooting guard). At that time, Oakwood didn’t have a great reputation in sports. But we had a few years, a good run at basketball. I think all of those things were life opening opportunities for me in terms of, “I can do this” and “I can play in the larger world,” if you will, on the larger stage. It opened my mind to the idea of what I could do in the larger world, who I could be. Oakwood opened my eyes, but then I think, opened windows and doors that I could go through and say, “I can do it.” It wasn’t one specific experience, it was being here. People took time, worked with me, believed in me. It’s not that there weren’t teachers like that in public schools, but because this is a smaller place and there’s such an emphasis 0n community, I think there was more attention to me and I just drank it up. I was like a sponge for that.”

Rumor has it that you had an afro back in the day when you attended Oakwood. Obviously, a lot has changed. What have you seen or felt that is still the same here at Oakwood?

“The students. I think we’re more multicultural today, but, what I notice is - and I don’t know if it’s from meeting you, or even the middle school students down by the chicken coop, or the baseball players I ran into yesterday - that there still is this sense of small community, where everyone is of value and people are engaged. There are people who are struggling here, I would imagine, but in my little time here, all I’m saying is that young people that I’ve run into, strike me as young Juan Williams. They’re engaged, they’re in place, they have a certain cynicism about them that young people have - but there’s much more. I think this sets Oakwood apart from other places - there’s much more of the sincerity about trying to be yourself and trying to be of value to a community, and believing in community and believing in the idea of progress and positivity. That’s the Oakwood experience for me.”

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