Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Civil Rights Warrior

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Civil Rights Warrior

Article excerpt

Maya Wiley came to understand social injustice at a young age, partly by listening directly to the stories of poor Black women on public assistance in her hometown of Washington, D.C.

As the daughter of Dr. George Alvin Wiley - a trained chemist and respected civil rights leader - Wiley studied the actions of her father who had spent his entire life advocating on behalf of poor Black women, who were fighting to receive more money so that they could raise their children and not be hungry and secure decent housing free from cockroaches and rats.

It was in their family home, Wiley recalls, that poor Black women would gather to recount stories of how they were arrested, humiliated and brought before a judge for staging demonstrations in an effort to push for adequate income.

"My earliest memory of what I thought I wanted to do was to be a judge" she recalls in an interview with Diverse. "I thought somebody better had to be sitting in that chair, and I thought that somebody should be me"

Even though George Wiley had graduated from Cornell University in 1957 with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and had taught at Syracuse University, he insisted that he and his family would live amongst those poor Black women and their children who had committed to organizing themselves into a powerful collective.

"My father and his work really represent that intersection of the civil rights and anti-poverty movement" says Wiley, who notes that as founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization, he collaborated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the planning of Resurrection City - the last movement organized by King just before his assassination in 1968 - that was squarely focused on economic justice.

George Wiley's passion for racial and economic justice was seamlessly passed on to his daughter, whose career as a civil rights attorney and now a university professor and administrator has catapulted her to national acclaim.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was looking to hire counsel to work in his administration shortly after his election, he phoned Wiley.

"I said, 'I'm not a traditional lawyer,'" Wiley recalls telling the mayor, to which he reportedly replied: "That's why I want you."

After earning a law degree, Wiley enhanced her legal portfolio by working as a civil rights attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Open Society Institute. She later founded and served as president of the Center for Social Inclusion, a national policy strategy organization dedicated to dismantling structural racism.

Although she had planned to turn down de Blasio's job offer, after meeting the mayor and his wife, Chirlane McCray, Wiley says that she was hooked.

During her two-and-half-year tenure at City Hall, de Blasio leaned on her to help him craft and move his income inequality agenda in a city that boasts 8.5 million residents.

"You have the ability to impact people's life in a really more direct way in city government than anywhere else," says Wiley. "But it's daunting because the issues are quite complex."

In her role as counsel for de Blasio, Wiley won widespread praise from civil rights and political leaders.

"Maya Wiley has represented the kind of serious and thorough scholar and lawyer that I have most regarded and respected," says Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization that he founded in 1991. …

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