Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to building a middle class economy in honor of Black History Month
Guest blog post by Jay Williams, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development
Outside of my parents, the most influential person in my life was the late Bishop Norman L. Wagner. Bishop Wagner served as the pastor of the church I attended virtually my entire life. Some of his most powerful lessons focused on service to others and living a life of purpose. One of Bishop Wagner’s quotes that continues to resonate with me today is that “significance is paramount to success.” Those words have guided me in my career and life. I strive to do things that have significance and affect real change.
After graduating from Youngstown State University in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, with a business finance degree, I worked in the banking industry for several years, until leaving to pursue a career in public service – leaving to pursue significance. In 2005, I was elected as the youngest and first African-American mayor in the City’s history. I am proud to have been given the opportunity to help change the dynamics and the conversation about Youngstown. Not just because it’s my hometown, but also because the issues facing Youngstown were not unique. My work at EDA allows me to focus on critical issues that affect distressed communities like Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; Fresno, California; and rural areas such as Conover, North Carolina.
As Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, I have the privilege of leading the Economic Development Administration (EDA), which is the only federal agency with a mission focused solely on creating economic opportunities in distressed communities throughout the United States. Distress is something I understand on a very personal level.
It strikes me as somewhat poetic that I was born and spent most of my life in a community that was, for many years, defined by economic distress. Youngstown was often at the center of the U.S.’s “post-industrialization” debate for nearly three decades due to its historic economic dependence on the declining steel industry. While the city still faces many challenges, in recent years, it has become defined less by its problems and regarded more for its recovery efforts.
In my role at EDA, I often travel across the country and am afforded the opportunity to meet people from various backgrounds. They may differ in age, race, and wealth, but they share a common thread - a shared sense of purpose and a desire to create better prospects for their communities and themselves.
I was honored to be asked to serve in the Obama Administration – to help shape the legacy of the first African-American president. In my opinion, one of the defining legacies of President Obama will be his leadership in steering the U.S. away from the greatest economic decline this country has witnessed since the Great Depression. At the core of the President’s efforts, were his policies and actions to create greater economic opportunities for Americans. This speaks directly to what EDA does every day! EDA is a small federal agency, but our “fingerprints” are on a broad array of examples that the President often cites when making his case for expanded prosperity in our country.
There are many great black men and women throughout history who may not have been looking for significance, but they certainly achieved it. Although we should certainly not limit ourselves to one month a year, Black History month provides a unique opportunity to celebrate the contributions blacks have made to American history and our society. Throughout my career in public service, I keep Bishop Wagner’s words with me. See, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. However, I would offer to young black Americans or any young person for that matter, particularly as it relates to a career choice, that significance lasts far longer than success. Significance also provides far greater rewards, most importantly, rewards to others.