In June, as demonstrations against police brutality swept the country, a speaker addressed a crowd of several hundred during a protest at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. “My name is Will Jawando,” he said. “I’m an at-large councilmember here in Montgomery County. And I’m a distressed Black man.”
A few weeks later, I asked Jawando to explain that striking statement. He was distressed, he said, because much of America didn’t know that police misconduct was such a significant problem until they saw the “brutal” killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis patrolman.
“You cannot think the person is human to put your knee on someone’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds,” Jawando continued. “You don’t do that unless it’s ingrained in the culture that that person’s life is less valuable, and you have the authority to take it. I think a lot of people woke up, but for me and for Black people in this country, that brutality is something we’ve lived with daily.”
Those encounters with discrimination did not end with his election to the county council in 2018. Last year, he was “pulled over for the umpteenth time in my life” by a Maryland state trooper who claimed Jawando had failed to obey a stop sign. The politician accused the trooper of a “classic” maneuver, stopping a Black man driving an expensive car for a minor traffic violation as a pretext for investigating his background and perhaps unearthing other crimes. “These stops are used disproportionately against African Americans and people of color and are ripe for racial profiling,” Jawando stated. “These tactics must stop.”
Jawando’s outspoken stance earned him a stream of hate mail as a “race baiter” from police supporters, but he remains undeterred. “I see my role as helping to raise issues that haven’t necessarily been raised, and fighting for people whose voices have been underrepresented and not heard,” he tells me.
Now 37, Jawando describes his family as a “quintessentially American story.” His father fled civil war in Nigeria in 1970, emigrated to Kansas and met his mother, who is white, when they attended the same college. The young couple moved east several years later to the Long Branch section of Silver Spring, a working-class community heavily populated by immigrants that seemed welcoming to an interracial family. But after his parents divorced when he was 6, Will and his mother moved into a decrepit one-room apartment, and, as he recalls, “There were nights when I was scared to use the bathroom because there were so many mice and roaches and things on the floor I didn’t want to get out of bed.”
His mother worked as a graphic designer in downtown Silver Spring, and glistening new construction projects like City Place Mall impacted young Will. “I was wondering why my apartment was so crappy, and they were building this really nice thing down the street,” he recalls. “It just seemed wrong to me.”
When he was in fourth grade, Will would occasionally walk to his mother’s workplace after school. One day his backpack brushed against an elderly white woman who yelled, “Get out of my way” and called him “the n-word.” He was taken aback because the woman looked a lot like his own grandmother, “but it was kind of the first time where I realized, wow, she really doesn’t like me just for who I am, and what I look like.”
A scholarship enabled Jawando to attend St. John’s College High School, where he starred on the basketball team and escaped the troubles and temptations that trapped many young Black men. His closest childhood friend got involved with drugs and was eventually killed. Jawando says that trauma set him on a journey to dismantle the systemic barriers he feels led to his friend’s death—racism, poverty, a lack of options and opportunity. He chokes up when he tells me, “That was a key moment for me. I think of it every day.”
Basketball was his ticket to college at Catholic University, then a largely white school located in the historic Black community of Brookland in Northeast Washington. Will befriended the support staff—gardeners, janitors, food service workers—who came from the surrounding neighborhood, “and they started complaining to me over time about working conditions and pay and a whole bunch of things.”
He decided to form a campus chapter of the NAACP, “so we could help the workers.” The university refused, which led to a summer of demonstrations that attracted national publicity. Jawando, then a 21-year-old senior, was widely quoted as the protest leader, and by fall the university had backed down and an activist had been born.
Life speeded up for the young man from Long Branch: law school at Catholic, a job on Capitol Hill, marriage to another law student, Michele, and the start of a family that today includes three daughters and an infant son. Jawando was fascinated by a new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, whose life story closely resembled his own: Black father from Africa, white mother from Kansas, wife with the same name who was also an attorney. On lunch breaks, he would walk across the capitol and deposit a resume at Obama’s office. “I did that every week for at least four or five months,” he says, until the senator finally hired him. When Obama introduced his new aide at a staff meeting, he jokingly called him “my long-lost brother.”
Will worked for Obama’s presidential campaign, then joined the administration, where he regularly played basketball with the hoop-loving president, before returning to Silver Spring and starting a political career. It did not go well—he lost races for both the state legislature and Congress—but when four members of the county council were forced to retire because of term limits, Will seized the opening and became only the second Black candidate to win an at-large seat (the first was Ike Leggett, who went on to serve 12 years as county executive).
Today, Montgomery County is only 43% non-Hispanic white, and 20% of its residents are Black. One-third are foreign-born. The Black Lives Matter movement has created a moment made for a political leader who embodies that diversity, and Jawando says, “I feel like I’m at the exact right place where I’m supposed to be at the exact right time.”
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send him ideas for future columns at email@example.com.