Jennifer Jones Austin: Your Well-Being Is Her Business and Her Legacy

By R.L. WITTER

As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane, its aftermath continues to cause challenges in many lives. As always, Jennifer Jones Austin and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA) are standing in the breach—serving New York City’s social service system, providing support grants to help low-income groups meet basic needs while advocating for fair public policies on behalf of people in need and the agencies that serve them.

Jones Austin comes by the work honestly. “I was raised in a faith and justice household,” she said. “I was raised by two justice warriors who believed in actively fighting systemic racism, and also believed in showing up and being their best selves.” Her father, the late Reverend William Augustus Jones Jr., was a preacher and activist who was considered one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s closest confidants. He was the national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC’s) Operation Breadbasket, and authored the book God in the Ghetto, which has recently been edited by Jones Austin and republished. Her mother, Natalie Barkley Jones, was the first African American corporate arts-curator for a Fortune 100 company, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T). “When you grow up in that household… you can’t help but look at the structure of the system.”

Get Out and Vote

The current focus is on the upcoming midterm elections and the importance of voting to improve life in our local areas, initiating policies that will bring about real change and begin to bring about equity. “Structural racism today looks like knowing Black women are the primary breadwinners in our households, yet despite Black women being the most educated segment of our society, the structures allow for them to earn on average 54 cents to the dollar compared to what a white man earns.” She continued, “If you know the Black woman is the primary breadwinner, then you also know that her wages, if they’re subpar and suppressed, aren’t going to allow her family to survive and thrive—which is why one in four Black children lives in poverty, compared to one in ten white children.”

Impressing upon the impact policies have on minority communities, Jones Austin further discussed structural racism. “Those structures take the form of laws, policies, and programs that serve to keep people of color in a perpetual state—on average—of not having enough to get by and then to get ahead. This is why we saw COVID was so devastating to Black and Brown communities.”

Jones Austin comes by the work honestly. “I was raised in a faith and justice household,” she said. “I was raised by two justice warriors whobelieved in actively fighting systemic racism, and also believed in showing up and being their best selves.”

“If you know the Black woman is the primary breadwinner, then you also know that her wages, if they’re subpar and suppressed, aren’t going to allow her family to survive and thrive—which is why one in four Black children lives in poverty, compared to one in ten white children.”

In addition to doing the work that helps make actual change, Jones Austin is also burdened with explaining the true meaning of “welfare” as it applies to FPWA, rather than the widely-held belief it means food stamps, WIC, and Section 8 housing. “The connotation becomes negative. Welfare, traditionally and for our purposes, refers to well-being, not handouts. When we talk about welfare, we’re talking about the well-being of people. The organization is now one hundred years old and there were times during my tenure when we thought about changing the title because people look upon ‘welfare’ with a negative association,” she explained. But we also appreciate that there are many people who associate themselves with FPWA for helping them realize greater opportunity in their lives by providing scholarships for people going to college or helping foster families care for vulnerable children in need. Welfare is really about ensuring our collective well-being.”

Putting Change on the Ballot

As commissioner of the Racial Justice Commission (RJC), Jones Austin puts her dedication and experience to work to put life-changing proposals that will being about improvement on the ballot. “The RJC is an outgrowth of the City of New York’s realization during COVID that so many Black and Brown communities were being devastated by the number of people who lost their lives, became gravely ill, had limited access to quality healthcare, and the Black and Brown children who struggled because they didn’t have the tools to learn remotely,” she said. “The then Mayor Bill De Blasio said, ‘Maybe we need to take a look at how government functions may be allowing racism to persist.’ So, the RJC was created in March 2021 and given the mandate of going into the New York City Charter to identify how the Charter allows for the upholding of inequitable and racist structural laws and the promulgation of policies and regulations allow for inequity based on race and gender, as well as religion, immigration status, and sexual identity and orientation.” The Commission is made up of people from all five boroughs, values lived experiences, and has met with more than 3,000 New Yorkers thus far.

Three proposals from the RJC are on the ballot; they are:

• Define our collective values and acknow

• Define our collective values and acknowledge our history through a guiding statement

• Establish a plan and bodies to hold government accountable to racial equity

• Measure the true cost of living to recognize that New Yorkers need a standard of dignity to thrive

New Yorkers decide what changes are made to the law. Once changes are voted into the Charter, it is difficult to undo those laws; they are different from an executive order that can be undone by a mayor. And, every two years a racial equity plan will be developed based upon the data collected and analyzed by the RJC.

The third proposal could be particularly life-changing for many New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet. “If you live in New York City (any of the five boroughs) or anywhere else in America, the federal government says you are not poor if you are a family of four, two adults and two children, and you have a gross income of $27,750 or more,” Jones Austin explained. “According to the [New York] self sufficiency standard, one adult and two children living in the Bronx need at least $81,000 to make ends meet… This is inherently structurally inequitable.”

It’s never been more important to vote. A “yes” on the aforementioned proposals can flip the switch that starts the machinery that works to create equity and fairness. Of course, progress takes time. But the sooner we vote to get started, the sooner we accomplish our objectives. The way to do that is to let our voices be heard, exercise our rights, and cast our votes for policies and programs that begin to benefit us.

When we talk about welfare, we’re talking about the well-being of people. The organization is now one hundred years old and there were times during my tenure when we thought about changing the title because people look upon ‘welfare’ with a negative association,” she explained.

She’s Every Woman and Then Some

As an executive, activist, wife, mother, proud member of the church her father pastored for 43 years, and a person with a huge heart, Jennifer Jones Austin’s plate is more than full. But as Matthew 25:31 says, “His master told him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant! Since you’ve been trustworthy with a small amount, I’ll put you in charge of a large amount. Come and share your master’s joy!’”

When asked how she continues to do so much for so many with such an incredible amount of passion, she replied without pause. “As a family we believe it is a social responsibility to look out for your neighbor and lift up your brothers and sisters. It becomes part of who you are. My father preached, ‘Don’t you know God didn’t save you for your sake? He saved you for the kingdom’s sake.’ If you embrace that, your living has to have meaning and purpose.” Jones Austin continued, reminiscing on her hard-won battle with leukemia. “Twelve years ago, the doctors said I wasn’t going to be here. But God had another plan and I believe God allowed me to live for a purpose far greater than me.” With her dedication and passion for helping people, let’s all pray God’s got plenty more for her to do.

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