Jennifer Jones-Austin: Rallying New York City for the Fight

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By Emma Jordan-Simpson

Jennifer Jones-Austin, CEO and Executive Director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (now known as FPWA), has said often, “I’m not a preacher, but this work is my ministry”. On the contrary, she is probably one of the most effective preachers I know. She preaches with her whole life. She stands in that legacy of Black women like Ida B. Wells Barnett who, deeply inspired by their religious faith, set out each day of their lives to use everything they had to challenge and confront the vision of America that did not include Black people, poor people and women.

Speaking truth to power with and on behalf of marginalized communities and creating platforms for people traditionally left out of policymaking discussions to be heard and contribute to change that affects their lives is in her DNA. A daughter of the late Rev. Dr. William A. Jones, one of the nation’s most effective civil rights activists and religious leaders, Jennifer has even widened the traditional civil rights lens beyond the imagination of her late father’s generation of leaders. She has put the legion of “isms” that have fed inequity in New York for years on notice.

“With One Voice: A Vision for Economic Equity in NYC” – is FPWA’s 2017 report that examines systemic oppression in NYC and advances policy goals to move New Yorkers toward equity. This report is important because Trump’s agenda means very little if we are not fighting for New Yorkers in our own backyard. It is not enough for New York to be a national leader in “progressive antipoverty policies” when an obscene percentage of this city’s populace suffers daily against the backdrop of incredible wealth. The report states:

“While New York City has been a national leader in implementing progressive antipoverty policies, 42% of New Yorkers still struggle every day to meet their basic needs. This economic insecurity is a result of systems of oppression – including racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia and capitalism – which bar people of color, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants and low-income New Yorkers from accessing economic security and stability.”

With 160 partner organizations and 40 faith partners, “With One Voice” reframes how FPWA understands economic equity in New York City. They are positioning, front and center, the conviction that systems of oppression must be dismantled. The hard work of change is even more urgent now. Washington has sent an ominous message to all Americans about who has value in our country. The Senate and House Republicans passed legislation that provides over $1 trillion in tax breaks over the next decade to the wealthiest Americans and corporations. The rich did not even have to fight or lobby hard for that consideration; it was the government’s gift to the wealthy. What does Washington’s disregard and New York City’s incredible wealth disparity mean for the 42% of New Yorkers who are fighting for their very lives?

In more than one way, Jennifer knows how to fight. She authored “Consider It Pure Joy”, which will be published this spring to share her experience with a fight that changed her life. Diagnosed with a leukemia that was an almost-certain death sentence, Jennifer fought with everything she had. She wants people who are facing adversity to fight, to be wide awake in the battle, and to appreciate every moment of grace. She has called for the faith community to go deeper into the fight for people’s lives by reimagining our collective power to bring about change and our shared responsibility to fight for the marginalized.“Imagine if thousands of churches took on the Trump agenda and organized to say no to policies aimed at the most vulnerable. Just imagine,” she has said often. The Concord Baptist Church of Christ’s William M. Moss Brotherhood honored her father in 1985 with the same award that will be bestowed upon her later this month. Dr. Jones’ spirit will be in the room, but it will be Jennifer Jones-Austin’s own strategic leadership, passion, fighting spirit and faithful life preaching that will be celebrated.