David Jones, a Crown Heights Brooklyn native, knew what it meant to be a part of a community and to have a sense of purpose in his work. For over 36 years he has served as the CEO of Community Service Society. Most of his work involved tackling social problems such as poverty, student debt, and health care in low-income neighborhoods in New York City and the state of New York.
“Well, it’s kind of a family thing,” he said when asked where his passion for his job came from. Growing up in Brooklyn, he characterized his childhood as unusual, as did many others; his father, one of the few Black lawyers in the city at the time, had represented people like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, whom he had all seen sat at his dinner table with as a boy.
“Just sitting there as a young person, a pre-adolescent, and adolescent you sort of soaked in the hopes of a different generation,” he said. He recalled that at some point in his childhood his grandfather at the time was publishing a newsletter that was attacking lynchings that were widespread not just in the South but in the North as well. He described this as being a time where his family came under a lot of scrutiny by the FBI––which was common at the time for African Americans who were socially active.
His mentors, he says, were his father and grandfather, who were responsible for getting him involved in activism at a young age, and he recalled them bringing him to the Washington D.C. march. “It is a family tradition, and it is one that I have never regretted following. I have worked for profit and I have enjoyed some of that work but this is my passion” he says.
When he thinks back on his childhood in Crown Heights, he remembers feeling very protected, but it was also very racially segregated at the time due to segregation. Because of racial discrimination, he continued, “We had a community in Crown Heights that included people of all various abilities and financial levels, so doctors, my father was a lawyer, our friends were everything to individuals who worked in communities, factories, and dentists.” As obstacles to discrimination began to collapse the communities began to shift.
In the second and third grades, he recalls his school being impoverished and since his classroom lacked books he couldn’t read. Jones was still able to graduate from Wesleyan College with a bachelor’s degree in painting. He received his juris doctorate degree from Yale Law School in 1974.
“To realize that so much of what your life choices are, are based upon what academics and educational opportunities you get. That too drives me that it is still unfair that I am still fighting wars that should have been over two generations ago,” he explains.
An honorary doctor of humane letters from the City University of New York is one of his many accolades. After school much of his career consisted of professional work and volunteer work. Jones had enabled hundreds of people in both Black and Brown groups to register in one of the city’s largest registrations, working alongside Richie Perez, a member of The Young Lords. He had assisted low-income areas in obtaining more expensive health coverage while challenging hospitals and insurers who refused to provide them with what they were entitled to under Obamacare. Much of the activism in Black and Brown communities overtime has been focused on economic, social and political issues. He reflected on the achievements he had made as a result of the improvements he had assisted in the implementation of.
“When you are fighting for communities that don’t have political or economic power it takes up a lot more time and work and it shouldn’t just give up because of the time span,” he said.
Jones is currently a member of the MTA board of directors, and he spoke about something he is proud of: his work to combat discriminatory enforcement of laws against Black and Brown people. Most recently he was able to secure a half price MTA fare for those in New York City living below the poverty line.
“I don’t feel burned out by this work. In some ways I feel energized by the fact that you can have an impact sometimes small and sometimes not so small, so as long as I can see achievement I don’t feel burnout,” Jones expressed.
Jones said that his drive to continue working in this field stems primarily from his children and grandchildren, but it also stems from his frustration with problems that he believes the Black community has battled against in the Civil Rights Movement and that he believes are replicated today. Preparing the next generation to take leadership in appropriate ways without impeding their development is something that has been on his mind, and something that he is working towards.
“I have been at this for a long time and generationally I have been trying to understand and not stand in the way of new generations of leadership and how you step back and let the new generations step forward. Our reality is still based on growing up in Crown Heights in the ’50s and ’60s, that is not the reality of this generation,” he said.