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James Williams

College: John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Awards: New York City Urban Fellows Program, 2015

Making City Government Work

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, a fast-growing area with more than 21 million people, James Oladipupo Williams was used to a fast-paced urban crush. What threw him after he arrived in New York 2011 was the very notion of a city government that was responsible for the nuts and bolts of urban life.

"Nigeria's federal government presides over the largest economy in Africa, with a GDP growing at about 7 percent," says Williams (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, B.S., Public Administration, '15). "Most projects happen at the state level. Localities are reduced to performing a function of political mobilization, not local governance."
As a 2015 New York City Urban Fellow, he'll get an insider's view of how a U.S. city government works. When he returns home, probably after earning a master's in public policy or public administration, he says, "I want to create a more representative government for the Nigerian people and enhance their development."

The nationally competitive Urban Fellowship, a $30,000 nine-month program, introduces participants to local government and public service. Fellows work in a New York City agency, take seminars in urban issues and travel to Albany and Washington, D.C., to discuss government structure and finance with public officials.

Through CUNY's Edward T. Rogowsky Internship Program in Government and Public Affairs, Williams already has a sense of Congress. He interned with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn-Queens) in summer 2014. He helped with congressional office work, including reviewing legislation, answering constituent mail and researching policy issues.

An aunt in New York suggested that he look into John Jay for his college education. "The strength of the college, its commitment to public service and the coincidence that the student government president at that time also was Nigerian connected me to the institution."

He helped organize the International Students Association "to bridge the gap from whatever part of the world you're coming from and John Jay. We deal with issues ranging from social integration to professional dynamics in the U.S., because the culture here is so different. For example, I didn't know what an internship was until I got here."

Williams speaks with hope about oil-rich Nigeria, which is beset with chronic developmental challenges, Boko Haram terrorism and complex regional allegiances. Since gaining independence in 1960, it has seen repeated military coups, but on May 29, 2015, Nigeria was slated to see its fourth consecutive democratic transfer of presidential power.

"Increased engagement in public media and on the street is good news," he says. "We're not expecting magic, but there is hope that this new government can really move the country forward. At this time my deepest hope is that Nigerians do not go back to sleep. We must change the discussion from politics to policy and engage with leaders at all levels."

With his Urban Fellowship, Williams intends to add a new dimension. "I want to see how New York City government serves New Yorkers, and I want to take back and put into practice what I learn."