Fordham Law


Experience has Taught Jones Austin the Power of Community

Alumna Jennifer Jones Austin '93 in The New York Times, November 13, 2013

Media Source

By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS

On Sept. 11, 2001, Jennifer Jones Austin, six months pregnant, emerged from the subway with her 3-year-old daughter, Kennedy, to find that one tower of the World Trade Center had fallen.

They joined the procession fleeing through the dust and debris and across the Brooklyn Bridge. As they walked, the second tower fell, and Ms. Jones Austin, a preacher’s daughter, tried to distract her child by singing “Jesus Loves Me.”

Eight years later, Ms. Jones Austin came down with a mysterious fever that turned out to be caused by acute myeloid leukemia, one of the illnesses that has since been linked to exposure to the fires on Sept. 11. With the help of a family friend, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and connections to educational, faith-based and social organizations across the country, her family began a drive to find a bone marrow donor.

She nearly died because of a shortage of African-American bone marrow donors; instead of a bone marrow transplant, she received stem cells from umbilical cord blood, which she credits with saving her life.

“I learned a lot about disparities in access to health care,” she said. “I learned a lot about, you know, what people of color believe they have access to and what their rights are. I learned a lot about how they are sometimes limited in their ability to advocate for themselves.”

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has named Ms. Jones Austin co-chairwoman of his transition team, alongside Carl Weisbrod. The two are charged with leading Mr. de Blasio’s effort to recruit and screen candidates for his administration, and with advising him on how best to structure his management team.

Ms. Jones Austin has straddled the symbolic line between the establishment and the left that also characterizes Mr. de Blasio’s career. She is a lawyer brought up by a civil rights activist father and an arts-curator mother, but she has also had a long career as a child and family services administrator under Mayors Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg.

Ms. Jones Austin, now chief executive of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, said her experience being sick taught her how powerful a community working together could be.

Her outlook, she said, was also strongly influenced by being a child of the Rev. William A. Jones, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn, which she said she still attends every Sunday. Dr. Jones, who died in 2006, organized protests against the building trade unions and boycotts of the A. & P. and other supermarket chains to force the hiring of more minority workers. He headed the New York chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the late 1960s.

In 1988, he aided the mother of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who said she had been beaten and raped by white racists; Dr. Jones housed Glenda Brawley, the teenager’s mother, in his church for 40 days so that she could avoid testifying to a grand jury. His church provided a platform for Leonard Jeffries, a professor at the City College of New York, who was widely criticized for anti-Semitic statements, and he stood by Alton H. Maddox Jr., one of Tawana Brawley’s advisers, when Mr. Maddox’s conduct was questioned.

Mr. Sharpton, 59, described Ms. Jones Austin, 45, as like a younger sister to him, though he said their strategies were different — she more of an insider, he more of an outsider.

“She’s more into bottom-line progress than external drama,” Mr. Sharpton said.

Ms. Jones Austin said she had gotten to know Mr. de Blasio when he led the City Council’s general welfare committee. She said she was impressed by his “sincerity.”

Like Mr. de Blasio, Ms. Jones Austin said she was interested in promoting social equality. “Your ZIP code should not be a predeterminant of your life and your destiny,” she said, referring to the way New York neighborhoods have historically been Balkanized by race, ethnicity and income.

But as the city has become safer, the middle class — blacks and whites — has increasingly moved into neighborhoods with large poor populations, like the elegant brownstone neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, home to her father’s church. She said she thought that “community integration,” even in the form of gentrification, was “a good beginning” and could be a force to improve local schools.

Ms. Jones Austin and her husband, Shawn V. Austin, who works in insurance, live with their two children, Kennedy, now 16, and their son, Channing, 11, in the house she inherited from her parents in Lefferts Manor, a historic neighborhood near Prospect Park. Ms. Jones Austin has recovered from her cancer but is too cautious to say she has been cured. Her doctors told her that her leukemia was environmental. It is possible that her exposure to the falling buildings was a factor, she said, adding, “But I will never know.”