Transcript: Season 2, Episode 7

Jae Williams


Terri Trespicio:
Jae Williams is an Emerson triple threat. Quadruple threat, actually. He graduated with a degree in film in 2008, earned his graduate degree in Integrated Marketing Communications in 2016. Taught as adjunct faculty, and today, he's Director of Special Projects at Emerson's Social Justice Center.
He cannot get enough of Emerson, clearly. And that's because Emerson cannot get enough of him. At first, I couldn't get my arms around exactly what Jae does, but by the end of the conversation, I wanted to hug him. Jae will tell you he loves what he does, but there's been nothing predictable about his career, as it continues to surprise even him. If there's one thing to listen for in our conversation, it's this: How he followed his love of storytelling, but found more than his own story worth telling. He has always made room for many other people's stories, too. And that's where you see the social justice activist coming through. The more space he made, the more room there was for him to grow. I give you Jae Williams on Making it As a Socially Conscious Storyteller.

Terri Trespicio:
Jae Williams, some people are triple threats. You're like a quadruple, quintuple threat of Emerson, having earned your undergrad, your Masters, you've taught at Emerson. You have won awards and been acknowledged by the school, and you now work full time for the school. So this is like, so much to learn about that. You must really like the place, Jae. Just saying.

Jae Williams:
Yeah, I do. I do. I mean, I guess that's the short answer is yes, I do. But there's so many layers to my Emerson experience and what I've learned from Emerson, the people I've met, and the things that I've embraced as far as my creativity and my work in the community. So if you zoom out, it all makes sense. Why I'm so connected to Emerson is I'm excited to get down to sharing my journey.

Terri Trespicio:
Well, I mean, really, there are whole chunks of your life that you were involved... You are and were involved in Emerson at different ages. And we all think about how our lives will turn out at different stages, in different ways. If you go way, way back, to when you were working on your degree in film at undergrad, you probably had an image. We all do. We just always project these images of what we think our life will be. Tell us about what you kind of fantasized about when you were an undergrad.

Jae Williams:
Well, so I kind of felt... I was a transfer student coming into Emerson. That's one. So I didn't really know what Emerson had to offer until I was in a position. You know how when it's just like, as an adult, you figure out, you're like, "I don't know what I want. But I know what I don't want." And so, that's really how my journey to Emerson began. I was at an institution, HBCU, which is Morehouse College, which I absolutely loved. That experience was such a great experience for me as a human. But it didn't connect to the things that I was interested in as far as developing a craft. So, Morehouse College is in Atlanta.

Jae Williams:
And I share that with you, because when I was... My Freshman year in college, Atlanta was the hotbed of entertainment for that time. It was a lot of music videos being shot there, there was a ton of movies. And I was fortunate enough to go to college with Denzel Washington's son.

Terri Trespicio:
Wow.

Jae Williams:
Now, why that's important is because he was a big football star at the time. And it was the first time where I was exposed to black Hollywood. So him being Denzel Washington's son, of course his dad's coming to the game. And who's his dad bringing with him? He's bring Oprah. He's bringing Samuel Jackson. He's bringing Wesley Snipes. He's bringing Spike Lee.

Terri Trespicio:
Yeah.

Jae Williams:
So I'm sitting in the stands next to all these folks in Hollywood, and I'm seeing these music videos being shot. I'm seeing these movies being filmed, and I'm like, "I want to do that."

Terri Trespicio:
You got the bug.

Jae Williams:
Yeah, I want to do that. And so, Morehouse exposed me to a culture that I adored, but it wasn't a place for me to actually dig into something I was interested in as far as my creativity. And so I left in 2003 and was trying to figure it out. Came back to Boston, and was really just trying to figure out what do I want to do, where do I want to go? And then my path, going to a community college at Bunker Hill, then gave me the opportunity to meet somebody who was an Emerson alum who became my mentor, and asked me a very simple question. "Jae, what do you want to do, besides just finish up your associates degree?" Because I just wanted to stay in class, just to sort of continue my college education. But I didn't actually know the steps to become a filmmaker. And I was like, "Well, I want to tell stories." And I didn't know what that actually meant. I was just like, "I just want to tell stories and create."

Jae Williams:
And she said, "Well, I'm an Emerson alum, and they have a great film and screenwriting program. I think you should look into it." And then from that, the rest is history. That's kind of how I was exposed to Emerson. Through another Emerson alum who believed that storytelling was very much something that I would be interested in, in a way that I hadn't actually thought about.

Jae Williams:
When you look at celebrities on television or you see the movie, you say, "I want to do that," but what do you want to do?

Terri Trespicio:
Right.

Jae Williams:
I knew that I didn't want to necessarily act. So that wasn't a thing, even though I was seeing a lot of actors. But I just loved seeing cameras and lights, and the crew, and everybody working together. I was like, "Well, I feel like I can fit in that ecosystem, so let me get into film and see where I go." And so, I was exposed to that, and that let me to directing, and my storytelling career began.

Terri Trespicio:
Can we give a shout out to this wonderful person who led you in that direction?

Jae Williams:
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Her name is Carolyn Assa. There's so many different layers to my storybut I definitely feel, in my heart of hearts, that the universe, God, however you want to describe it, wanted me to go to Emerson. 

Terri Trespicio:
She’s an angel of God. We've just elevated this woman.

Jae Williams:
Yeah, because it was one of those things where you don't know who you're going to meet and how that person is going to impact your life.

Terri Trespicio:
Right.

Jae Williams:
From a simple conversation. That simple question of what do you want to do once you graduate here was sort of the catalyst for me actually thinking about becoming a filmmaker. And so she ends up becoming my mentor, but she only became my mentor, because I used to wait outside of her office. Which was next door to my actual mentor's office, who was always late.

Terri Trespicio:
You're kidding.

Jae Williams:
he was always late, so I would sit outside of his office waiting for him. And as I was waiting for him all these days, that was that day that Carolyn had asked me, "Why are you always here? Why are you always outside of my office I said, "Oh, I'm just here waiting for Jesse," she was like, "Oh okay, well what's your name, what are you studying?" This and this and that. And so that's how that happened.

Jae Williams:
So fast forward, as I got older, he believed... Because I was a shy person, and so he purposely came to the meetings late, because he knew that I had access to the deans and to the chairs of departments, and all these different folks. And he said, "If you didn't take advantage of the wealth of knowledge, experience, and mentorship you had on that floor, then you weren't going to be successful."

Terri Trespicio:
And that is the best excuse for being tardy that I've ever heard.

Jae Williams:
Exactly. So he would intentionally show up late to see if I was going to take initiative to actually have conversations with people outside of my comfort zone. And so, in hindsight, that's one of those reasons why I was like, "That was supposed to happen." That interaction with me and Carolyn was supposed to happen.

Jae Williams:
So now we fast forward, I end up going to Emerson. I have a great experience there as far as my creativity's concerned. I learned so much, I met some cool people. So I graduate in 2008. And what happened in 2008? It was a huge recession. No jobs. So I had this degree, and I had these skills. I did the LA program, I went out there and realized that Hollywood wasn't for me.

Terri Trespicio:
Oh really? That changed that pretty quick.

Jae Williams:
Yeah, I just... I loved the experience and the people I met, but I just didn't like the energy of it. No knock on Hollywood, it just wasn't for me.

Jae Williams:
And so in 2008, I'm out here in Boston, I'm doing all these music videos for local artists, and I'm getting some buzz, and I become sort of the guy for underground music videos. And so around 2009, 2010... The end of 2009, early 2010, I get this email from Carolyn asking me, "Hey Jae, I saw your article in The Globe. I've seen you doing amazing things."

Terri Trespicio:
That's awesome.

Jae Williams:
"What are you doing?" And I was just like, "Oh, I'm shooting music videos," this, this, and that. And she goes, "Well, since the last time we spoke, I have left Bunker Hill, and I am now at this new organization. This new organization is called Perkins School for the Blind. I'm the new Communications Director over there. And we're trying to add some more visual content to our website and shift from a heavy text-based to more visually engaging." So I end up working at Perkins School for the Blind for four years. One of the best four years of my life.

Terri Trespicio:
Wait, you took a job there?

Jae Williams:
Yeah, I took a job at Perkins as, basically her assistant. And so one of the things, which is interesting again, the Emerson connection continues. So as I'm saying this, it's like no one's going to believe this. But this is literally what happened. So I end up working there, and every year, Perkins has this huge gala. The who's who of the city comes, donates money to have this big celebration. So one of the big donors and partners and community members of Perkins was Emerson alum, Kevin Bright. He's the creator of Friends, and he had a great relationship with the Perkins School for the Blind.

Jae Williams:
And he was doing this class for students who are visually impaired on filmmaking. So he was helping these students learn how to make films for the gala. So Carolyn was just like, "Jae, Kevin Bright wants to meet you. He knows you're an Emerson alum. He needs some help for this class."

Jae Williams:
I was super excited. So we did the class. I met some amazing students. We did the project. Here comes the gala. And Kevin goes, "Jae, I want you to meet this gentleman, and I think you'll really like him." So he brings me up to this gentleman, and Kevin's just like, "Hey sir, you need to meet this kid. He's amazing. He's helped me with this class. He's so much fun to be around. He has a lot talent, etc., etc."

Jae Williams:
So he brings me to this gentleman, and the gentleman, his name is Lee Pelton.

Terri Trespicio:
Oh my gosh.

Jae Williams:
So me and Lee connected at that point.

Terri Trespicio:
Aha.

Jae Williams:
And Lee became my mentor.

Jae Williams:
Fast forward three or four years. We stayed in touch throughout that whole time. Lee's an amazing human being, and he just really took me under his wing. So as I begin to hone my skills at Perkins, back in the day when I was in college, even in high school, I used to throw these big parties. Like big birthday parties. They were always in January. My friends always knew that around January, I was going to throw a big party.

Jae Williams:
So why that's important is because in 2011, I had this film. It was my first film. Like I was telling you before, I was doing music videos, but I really wanted to be a filmmaker. And so, from that aspect, I was like, "Well, I can't call myself a filmmaker if I haven't made any films."

Terri Trespicio:
That's true.

Jae Williams:
Yeah. So I ended up saving enough money, and created a film. I didn't have enough money to shoot the whole film, so I did it enough to shoot a trailer and a few scenes. Anyway, I was like, "Well, I wanted a place to showcase this place, so I'm going to do a birthday party, but I'm going to call it a trailer premiere party."

Terri Trespicio:
Oh, smart. Branding.

Jae Williams:
But that didn't make sense, right? Like a trailer premiere party? That wasn't something folks would really connect with. What do you mean you're going to throw a party for a trailer? What?

Jae Williams:
So I was like... Because I was in this "industry" at the time, I knew photographers, dancers, musicians, poets. All these different creatives. And I said, "All right guys. Let's get together, and I'm going to call this event Celebration of the Arts. And we're all going to showcase our talent. I'm going to showcase my film. You sing, you dance, you have a fashion show. You share your poetry. We're all going to get together, and we're going to do this event." And so I was like, alright, if I can get 75 people to come to this event, then it'll be awesome. That was my goal. It was a free event, and that was it. I just wanted people to show that I could make a film.

Terri Trespicio:
Yes.

Jae Williams:
Almost 500 people come.

Jae Williams:
Then the second year, I did the same thing, but I did it actually at Estate, which was the Alleyway of Emerson. If you remember back in the day in the Alleyway, there used to be these clubs there.

Terri Trespicio:
Oh yes.

Jae Williams:
So I did it the second year, and 500 people came. And what I did was I took all the proceeds from the event, and I donated it to charity. And at that time, it was The Boston Arts Academy.

Jae Williams:
Anyway, so I was doing this event every year. And every year, I would showcase a new film. So not only was I getting my chops into filmmaking, but I was also giving back to the arts community.

Jae Williams:
So here comes the third event, and an Emerson employee comes. And then after the event, they come up to me, and they say, "This would be perfect for an Emerson event. You're an Emerson alum. We're actually reopening The Paramount Theater. And The Paramount Theater would like some programming. You should bring Celebration of the Arts to the Paramount."

Terri Trespicio:
Oh my God.

Jae Williams:
So again, here is the Emerson connection. So I end up coming an Emerson alum/community member connecting with The Paramount Theater to throw this event in the following year. So throughout that whole year, we're planning, having meetings, this, and this, and that. And as I'm coming, people are seeing me interact with Lee. And they're like, "Who is this kid? Who is this guy? How do you know who this is?"

Terri Trespicio:
He's the president's friend. Right.

Jae Williams:
I really got reconnected to Emerson through Celebration of the Arts, which then transitioned me to actually coming to work at Emerson, because they now had a new position opening that was essentially the next level of what I was doing at Perkins. And it was interesting, because I didn't really want to leave Perkins, because they encouraged me. Kevin Bright encouraged me, Carolyn encouraged me. It was like, "No, you need to take this opportunity. We don't see we losing you, we see us sharing your talent and your gift with an institution that helped raised us, that helped us with our craft. So go ahead, please. Go do that."

Terri Trespicio:
But let's stop for one second here. Let's pause. What we just heard is a fascinating romp through one person's life. Who not only had incredible work ethic and focus, but was open to the power of not just mentorship, but relationship. And I say this because we all want to make new connections. We need to find connections. And we tend to think of them as a lot of short stems. The real arc of your career so far hasn't been from all the connections, but a few choice connections that you, then, turned into relationships. And I think that's the part that gets missed. In our age of networking, you got to shake a lot of people's hands. You weren't just shaking hands. You put time in. That Carolyn, she didn't just go, "Yeah, here's some good advice. Bye." I think we think of mentors as give us a few Instagram quotes and send us on our way. When really, she kept reaching back out to you, too. It's two-way.

Jae Williams:
Absolutely.

Terri Trespicio:
When we think about mentors, we go, "Oh, I got a mentor, so I can milk them for information," and, "Help me, I'm a little baby bird." That's not the way you approached it. But also, it's not how they responded to you. And we miss this with mentorship all the time. We think someone's supposed to take care of us, when really, you took what they gave you, you ran with it. And guess who comes looking for their mentee? The people who value the relationship with you. Because if you were a disaster, trust me. No one would be coming back to see what the hell you're up to, because no one would care. But because of the quality, clearly, and the quality you brought to these relationships, the way you fed them. I mean, that woman was like, "What are you up to?" And you're like, "Gee, I don't know. Tough times. Hard to get work."

Jae Williams:
Right.

Terri Trespicio:
She's like, "You should come work for me." Now, here's the reason I say that. Perkins School For the Blind, no one necessarily, in your position, having studied film and doing all these different things, having your unique life, would have said, "Oh, I know. The next notch on my belt's going to be Perkins School For the Blind." And that's where opportunity comes out of places you don't expect, and I'm so glad that you shared that. Another thing you've said here that I don't want to get lost is that you said, "Hm. I want to do a film. I'm going to create a film. But I don't want to just do a party about my film. How about I invite other people?" You created an arts collaborative. Why? Because yeah, you wanted to share what you do. Of course. You weren't out just to be a promoter for other people's art projects. But you are a natural leader. 

Terri Trespicio:
So I say this, Jae, because it's so important for people who are listening, especially members of the Emerson community, but really, anyone who even wanted a career. They think that maybe Jae Williams knew what was up from the beginning, and knew exactly what to do. But you didn't. Because none of us does, right?

Jae Williams:
No. No. And I've been so fortunate. Like I said, I think the stars aligned to where Emerson was the place that was going to teach me about myself and my craft. 

Jae Williams:
I think that's the key to my success, is that my appreciation for the craft of storytelling, whether it be journalism, whether it be screenwriting, whether it be cinematography, or acting.

Terri Trespicio:
Yes.

Jae Williams:
I learned. I was exposed to the craft of these things at Emerson. And so you could be entertained by movies and music videos and such through screens or going to live concerts. But when you see somebody develop. When you see or you are a part of experiences and conversations where ideas that started on a napkin ended up being a full production on the page, there's a different level of appreciation that you have for the craft.

Jae Williams:
And so, that is why I was so passionate and eager to share my friend's work, because I understood what it takes to actually creates a three minute music video. There's so many people that are a part of a production.

Terri Trespicio:
Right in the beginning, you said ecosystem, which was such an important word, because you didn't say, "I want to be the head of everything. I want to be the star. Everyone else listen to me. Every has to do, because I'm the best." You have never said that. You said, "I want to be part of the ecosystem." And it turns out, you ended up being a kind of gardener, because you've cultivated other people.

Terri Trespicio:
But Jae, that's really important isn't it? Because everyone thinks they have to crush competition. But you have nurtured fellow artists, and you're not afraid of that. But can you speak to that, because some people really are. "Well, if I help that person they'll get better than me." How come you're not afraid of that?

Jae Williams:
Yeah. Well, because I truly believe that I can light another candle without dimming my light.

Terri Trespicio:
But that's really unique. That is unique.

Jae Williams:
Yeah. And I think that if there's more... Listen, I wasn't exposed or I wasn't encouraged to do and to share art until I was early 20's, because it wasn't the cool thing to do. It was books, and it was sports for me. Football, basketball, books. That was my life, but I really wanted to create, but I just didn't know how, or I didn't think that it would be accepted or cool amongst my peers and my sort of ecosystem that I was growing up in.

Jae Williams:
And so, when I got to a place where it's okay, it's okay to be wanting to be an artist. It's okay to want to tell stories. And you can actually thrive in that.

Terri Trespicio:
Well, that's a cultural shift, right?

Jae Williams:
Right. And I had a child at a very young age. And so, you really have to decide what do you want to do? I know that I didn't have it in me to be a starving artist, because I had people depending on me.

Terri Trespicio:
Yeah, of course. That would have been a luxury.

Jae Williams:
Exactly. Exactly. My relationship building and my intentionality around building strong, authentic relationships was something that was my currency. That was what was going to get me to the next level. And it wasn't so much a monetary value was what can I learn from this person?

Terri Trespicio:
See, that's the winning. That is the winning attitude. That's how you did it. You said, "I'll just go do it."

Terri Trespicio:
The original question I had coming in, when I thought about what I wanted to talk to you today. Is you came about in Emerson, and really coming into your own as a storyteller, and as a filmmaker, and doing videos, and doing all kinds of things that you were learning the skill. But then there's the intersection with the socially conscious part. Why and how does creative storytelling intersect with social justice?

Jae Williams:
To me, it was always in me. It was in me, because I didn't see much of it in sort of the real world. I grew up in the era where Spike Lee was making his movies, John Singleton was making moves like Boys in the Hood, and different things like that. And I felt that if I'm going to tell a story, what is it going to be about, and who is it going to impact? So I didn't know any other way to tell a story other than to think about how this is going to land with the people that look like me. Because we'd all flock to a movie that had folks of color in it. Black people, specifically, in these films, that represented us in ways in which that we could resonate with. Right?

Terri Trespicio:
Aha.

Jae Williams:
But there was only a handful of them. There would be, say 100 films come out in a year between all the studios, and maybe five of them represented what I would call representative of our culture. To some degree.

Jae Williams:
But that's... There's so many different dimensions to the black community and the brown community, that I wanted to be a part of helping to create a narrative, or help to push the culture forward and say, "Hey, we can do this, too. We're also like this. We're also flawed in this way. We also are really gifted in that way." Right? Versus this one dimensional way of representing us as people.

Jae Williams:
So all the people and all the things that I've done throughout my career has always been about how can I celebrate or shine the light on people who are doing amazing work that just don't necessarily have the platform in which to do so?

Terri Trespicio:
Ah. That's about representation.

Jae Williams:
Yeah. Even if it's just a small stage, that's better than having your artwork sit underneath your bed, or in your closet. Or your music video just sitting on a tape deck. 

Jae Williams:
So for me, it was just like... What can I do? How can I contribute to celebrating and uplifting the voices of those that are on the margins? And that has translated in all my work. From the first music video that I created, even now, into working at the Social Justice Center. I think there's just not enough of it. And so, rather than complain and say that there's not enough, I want to be part of the solution and finding a way to start showing more.

Terri Trespicio:
Can you tell us a little bit about what the Social Justice Center is and does?

Jae Williams:
Yeah, so the Social Justice Center is sort of the anchor of finding ways to center students who are on the margins in ways that they haven't. And it's not just about diversity, equity, inclusion. Right?

Terri Trespicio:
So define that for us, because I don't know what that means, and how do you know when you've achieved that?

Jae Williams:
It's an ongoing process, and I don't even think that it's really something that I can fathom of "achieving," but I do think that it's an opportunity for us to really understand the different dimensions of what it means to be included and heard.

Jae Williams:
For example, it's like... Diversity is like being invited to a party. And inclusion is being asked to dance. Right? So if folks is just like, "Hey, I want you to come to my party, because I think you'll add to the energy and to the experience," that's great. But if no one asks me to dance, if nobody asks me to have a conversation, am I really included in that?

Jae Williams:
So we use that as the anchor for all things social justice, because social justice is all different. It's not just about race. It's about different identities, it's about culture, it's about all these different things that come along with being human. And so, if we can use our collective expertise Uplifting the voices of those who are traditionally suppressed or ignored, to us, that is social justice.

Jae Williams:
But not only just what happens on campus, but also what happens in the community around.

Terri Trespicio:
Is the Social Justice Center there to make sure undergrads at Emerson, or actually grad students, any students at Emerson, feel included? But I think it's bigger than that, you're saying. 

Jae Williams:
It's not even just about the students. It's about the human beings on that campus, right? Because it comes down to staff. It comes down to faculty. It's administration. It's anybody who is human on the campus that feels like they're on a margin for various reasons. Folks can be on the margins in so many different intersectionalities that the conversation is constantly ongoing, which is why it's hard to sort of fathom, "Oh, we achieved diversity by having X-amount." You start getting into the nitty-gritty on statistics, and that kind of stuff.

Jae Williams:
We're more or less, "How do people feel when they're in the space? What does it feel like to be in a classroom with these people?" Or, "What does it feel like to be in the elevator with these people? What does it feel like to be at an event with these people?" And as you start looking at all the different spaces that people occupy on campus, do they leave that space feeling seen and heard, or do they leave that space feeling alienated and marginalized?

Terri Trespicio:
That's awesome.

Jae Williams:
And if we can ask ourselves that question for every space in which we create as an institution, and then also how that, then, translates into the broader community, that's the goal of thinking about that and finding ways for people to feel seen and heard. Which is, again, it's an overarching goal, but it's hard to think about achieving it, because the world is constantly evolving.

Terri Trespicio:
Well, right. There's no box checked, by the way.

Jae Williams:
Exactly.

Terri Trespicio:
And I didn't mean to imply that there would be, like, "Okay, we're good. We're diverse now."

Jae Williams:
Right.

Terri Trespicio:
But there is a balance of, like you said, the energy and how people feel.

Jae Williams:
Right.

Terri Trespicio:
And also, the thing about... And this is kind of a weird thing about the metrics of it. The last thing you want to be like, are there enough black people in this room so we can feel that we did a good job? Where do we bump up against metrics, like you said, tokenism. Like, to make sure. Because for instance, people think I'm a white chick. I'm actually not. I'm half white. My other half is Asian. My dad's Asian.

Terri Trespicio:
So someone who doesn't even like, go, "Okay, well, do they feel included?" It's not about just how many different colors of people do we have in the room?

Jae Williams:
Right.

Terri Trespicio:
But it's also understanding that we don't always know by looking, also.

Jae Williams:
Exactly, exactly.

Terri Trespicio:
That's really tricky, but is it a little bit about that? Do you have to look at metrics and be like, "We don't have enough Asian people in the room," kind of thing?

Jae Williams:
Yeah, absolutely. But then we have to ask ourselves... One, we point to that. We identify that. But then we go back and say, "But why? What was it about this space that was created where an Asian person didn't feel that they would belong in that space?"

Jae Williams:
So then it goes back to what's the messaging that the institution has, what's the marketing that the institution has? It’s really zooming out, and not so much looking at just the numbers, because the numbers only tell you one thing. That there's not enough. But the real question is why is there not enough?

Terri Trespicio:
Well, and let me ask the tough question now.

Jae Williams:
Yeah, yeah.

Terri Trespicio:
What work does Emerson still need to do? Now understand, I'm not an employee of Emerson. You are. So I understand this is a tricky question. But Emerson has, by in large, had a long history of just a lot of white people. There's no other way of looking at this. But how do you now, having just been working in this role two years.

Jae Williams:
Yeah, yeah.

Terri Trespicio:
What work does Emerson, do you think... Because they really do have their heart in the right place. What work do you think remains to be done?

Jae Williams:
I think the biggest thing is to know that it's an actual problem, and that they're actually missing out on the talents and the gifts of other people that they haven't...

Terri Trespicio:
Ah, thinking that we already checked the box.

Jae Williams:
Got it.

Terri Trespicio:
Thinking, "Oh, we're so open-minded. You can use whatever bathroom you want."

Jae Williams:
Right.

Terri Trespicio:
It doesn't end there, does it?

Jae Williams:
No. It doesn't. And there's a lot of different layers to that. We can't point to one thing. But what I can say is that as an institution, any predominantly white institution, but particularly an institution that is cultivating the next generation of storytellers, and a lot of this is what I'm digging into in my doctoral research, that I'm a year and some change into now, is any institution... Higher Ed institution for that matter, what do they do to pride themselves on? They pride themselves on alumni.

Terri Trespicio:
Right.

Jae Williams:
They can point to the perspective students and say, "Hey, look at so and so just won an Oscar. So and so just did this thing. So and so did that thing." Right? And so if you pride yourself on the alumni, and the work that they're doing in the real world now, and don't look at the amount of talent that you missed out on because you did not create a space in which they felt comfortable, you then look at your institution and say, "Well, how good are we? If we are talking about innovation, and we are talking about stories, are we only talking about one type of story?" Because that's the alumni that is being reflected in our messaging, is one type of story is celebrated. What about the Latinos? The LatinX, the African-Americans, the Asians, right? Middle Eastern. All of these different cultures add to the wealth of stories that are going on everyday in the world.

Jae Williams:
So if you're only going to celebrate this one white woman, or this one white man, as the example of the institution's gifts, then you are missing the point of a true institution that prides itself on story. Story is what makes us human. Period. We don't remember statistics unless they're connected to story. Just think about it. Just think about all the things that you have shared with your peers about anything in life. Nine times out of 10, it's connected to a story that you've either read, that you've experienced yourself, or that you've heard.

Jae Williams:
If you strip out story from any of our memories, that is how culture is developed. That is how tradition can be appreciated. Old wives tales, they always say growing up It always has to do with stories. So if you're an institution that prides itself on creating the next generation of storytellers, only sharing one type of story, or only celebrating one type of storytellers, limits the access and the prestige of an institution, in my opinion, that doesn't point to and say, "Oh, well there's all these other different cultures, let's add some seasoning to this pot. Let's add some flavor to our culture, to our ecosystem, because we are only going to be better that they're here."

Jae Williams:
Now, once that mindset shifts to that, that's when we'll be able to see more students of color, more walks of life coming through Emerson than just one-dimensional student body. And I think, for me, that is the goal. To be able to create spaces where students who do walk through those doors, who are not a white man or a white woman, coming into the institution and saying, "Not only are these two white students amazing, but there's all these other students who are amazing, as well. And they're going to have just the same opportunity. They're going to be heard just the same, and their stories are going to be celebrated just the same as everybody else."

Jae Williams:
And once we get to that point, I think that's when we'll be able to see a culture shift. But until then, if we continue to deem one type of story sort of the standard, I think we're going to continue to have these numbers that we are shaking our heads at.

Terri Trespicio:
Yes. 100%. Is it incumbent upon us as storytellers, since most Emersonians consider themselves storytellers... Is it incumbent upon storytellers to also be social justice activists? Can we actually separate them? 

Jae Williams:
I think we just have to be more intentional about what type of stories are we telling? Are we just repeating what's been said? Or are we expanding our lens to what hasn't been said? Because even if you took a snapshot of your own life, and you compare it to another multi-cultural human who has similar experiences, but it's not the same. Everybody has a story.

Jae Williams:
So to think. So to think, to have the arrogance to think that only one type of story is the play, that to me is mind blowing. So it's just like, you have to think about... If I'm going to be intentional about telling my authentic self, that is social justice in and of itself. If you give everybody a chance to tell their story, that mindset, in and of itself, is social justice. The problem is that they'll say, "No, you can't tell your story, because no one's going to pay attention. That story's not going to make money."

Terri Trespicio:
Oh, okay.

Jae Williams:
"That's going to make people uncomfortable." And that's the oppression. That's is the systemic racism.

Terri Trespicio:
That's right.

Jae Williams:
That's the problem.

Terri Trespicio:
That's the problem.

Jae Williams:
So it's not so much to say we're going to make a social justice story. No, no, no.

Terri Trespicio:
No.

Jae Williams:
The problem is let everybody tell their story who has the skills to be able to share their story. Because not everybody will call themselves a storyteller. But if you're at an institution that's built for storytelling, then I'm quite sure you have the ability to tell the story. So let's do that. Let's do that.

Terri Trespicio:
Yeah, we cannot call ourselves storytellers and not, within that, understand that everyone's story matter.

Jae Williams:
Everyone.

Terri Trespicio:
Not just what we think has been socially wise or monetarily valuable. Which by the way is only defined that way, because that's the way it's been.

Jae Williams:
Exactly.

Terri Trespicio:
So well, look, Emerson, you've got your work cut out for you. And my God, you couldn't do better than having Jae Williams on your team.

Terri Trespicio:
Last question for you, Jae. What, in your mind, does it mean for you to "make it." "Make it" at anything? And how will you know when you get there?

Jae Williams:
For me, making it is looking back at my work and listening to the people tell me, "Thank you, you heard me. You saw me." And I've been in conversations with musicians, with other filmmakers, with students, when they tell me, "I can't believe you heard me. I can't believe you actually listened. You remember that?" Yeah. And I think that's the basis for true love for the person next to you, true empathy for the human being that's either sitting across from you, or in the classroom with you, or in the trenches with you on set. Is, do they feel heard? They may forget... I think it was Maya Angelou who said you may forget what a person said, you may forget what the person did, but you'll never forget how that person made you feel. And so to make it, for me, is for folks to remember Jae as a person that made them feel seen and heard. And that's going to translate through a lot of different ways in which I work, whether that's doing an event, having a conversation, or teaching a student, mentoring a student, or the messaging that I'm creating in marketing campaigns that we do throughout the Social Justice Center.

Jae Williams:
I just want people to feel like they are a part of our world. They are a part of our community. And more importantly, that their voices, their story, their mere presence matters. If to no one else, it matters to me. And I think that's, for me, the ultimate achievement. For people to feel seen and heard.

Terri Trespicio:
Jae, thank you so much.

Jae Williams:
Thank you so much. It was a pleasure. And like I said, Emerson found me. Emerson found me. I have no...

Terri Trespicio:
You give a lot of credit to other people, to schools, to God, to angels. You made this happen. You understand that, right?

Jae Williams:
Yeah.

Terri Trespicio:
You did it. You did a lot of work, and I mean, it's the ultimate in humility, Jae, but a lot of people are given little strings of opportunity like this, and no one takes it as far as you have. And that is a real tribute to you.

Jae Williams:
Thank you so much. It was a pleasure, and thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to share my story.