Leading With Legacy and Heart in the Air Force

In a moving message shared across the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, Lieutenant Colonel Ja Rai “Jay” Williams evoked the African-American experience through her great-grandfather’s service in the Air Force to her husband, who serves as an Air Force chaplain.

Her eloquence is part of her job as an attorney, but also as a church leader of Grace Girls, a ministry of the First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

“We have had candid conversations about race, offering perspectives not otherwise considered and brainstorming solutions to 400-year old problems we had no part in creating,” she wrote in a memo shared by the Air Force. “But, we have the discussions actively listening and hearing each other as we attempt to grapple with the complexities of race topics and how it impacts what we do in the Air Force.”

In our current climate of discord, Lieutenant Colonel Williams shares her experiences as a Black woman and the challenges she has faced.

“Like many of you, I have faced a gamut of emotions especially in light of the current discussions and events in our country (and our Air Force) revolving around race and justice. Perhaps unlike many of you, these emotions are familiar to me. I am a Black woman. I have faced my fair share of bias and prejudice. I have learned to operate in our society as a person wearing a mask — one that I can only take off around family and friends, where I am confident I will be accepted and included,” said Williams.

She grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in a predominantly blue-collar area. Her maternal great-grandparents migrated from Alabama to Pennsylvania during the “The Great Migration” where millions of Black Americans moved to major northern cities searching for better social and economic opportunities.

Her great-grandfather found a job at one of the local steel mills. His job was one of the lowest paid and the most dangerous. At that time the ridiculous perception was that Black Americans were seen as “shiftless, ignorant and lazy.” Even this dangerous job, making 30 cents an hour, working eight to 12 hours a day, was a better option than what he would have had in Alabama.

Williams’ paternal great-grandfather was a retired Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force. He was friends with some of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen. His circle included the highest ranking enlisted person in the Air Force. Despite his treatment as a black service member, he was proud of being a Black man serving his country.

“I am the proud descendant of these two men, and many other strong and resilient men and women in my family, who have persevered despite years of institutionalized marginalization, bias and bigotry. When I decided to apply for the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps, I talked proudly of these men during my interview and my desire to show their good works, struggles, and hardships would not be in vain,” said Lieutenant Colonel Williams.

Throughout her career in the JAG Corp, she has been a prosecutor, trial defense counsel, appellate defense counsel and staff judge advocate. She has worked at bases in Arizona, Texas, Maryland and Colorado. She also deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom to Southwest Asia. While in Asia, she was the sole legal counsel on military justice, international, fiscal and contract law matters. http://www.fbcggracegirls.com/ja-rai-jay-williams

The Air Force selected her to attend a professional development school, Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama. She received a Master of Military Operational Art and Science degree. The school selected two of her student research papers for publication, titled “The Legal Limits of Targeting the Cyber Capabilities of a Neutral State,” and “Dual-Military Couples, Childcare and Retention.”

Throughout her career, she has faced countless disappointments and setbacks, mostly related to her race or gender, she said. She understood that those were expected experiences, as the Air Force is a subset of a society that is struggling to deal with the same issues. She perseveres just like the people before her.

“I’ve met some wonderful people — brothers and sisters in arms who have oftentimes walked beside me and even carried me when I could not walk on my own,” said Williams.
Subordinates don’t expect their leaders to have all the answers. They do want to know that their leaders care. Caring is leadership in action and leadership is what we need right now.
“Please have these constructive conversations so we can move one more step towards having the Air Force we need. Your Airmen need you,” said Williams.

There are similarities, as well as differences within the service members of the Air Force.
In the same post, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Rockwell, The Judge Advocate General, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, shared his thoughts:

“Head or Heart?” A distinction used to characterize a wicked-hard problem. The connotation is that the hardest issues to resolve seem to be those where people think with their hearts instead of their heads. Actually, “head or heart?” is really a false dilemma, a self-created, juxtaposition of two things, something I accuse others of often doing unnecessarily. Maybe “heart vs head” is just intellectual laziness on my part or a coping mechanism to make sense of a seemingly irresolvable issue. In the law, we pride ourselves on our objectivity, sometimes to the point where our strict objectivity may actually be a bias. In an attempt to reconcile the dilemma, perhaps a better way to say it is to always approach justice with an objective head, and with all the heart you can muster.

Lt. Col. Williams’ piece moved me, perhaps because it sounds like my family story, sans the race and gender aspects. My father and grandparents worked in the very same steel mills and mines in southwest PA she mentions, where they learned proper English and how to tell time, with words like “younze” and “10 til six.” They weren’t known as “lazy and shiftless”; instead, they were thought of as “dumb and stupid, fresh off the boat.”

Ja Rai and I are a lot alike. We serve two professions, both greater than ourselves, to defend a diverse nation. We love our Black and Gold too. We’re also a lot different, thankfully. A diverse force is required to defend a diverse nation. Perhaps part of that difference is easier for me to navigate, maybe because you can’t see a protected class in me, if any, like you can in her the instant she walks into the room?

Talk to each other, with “head AND heart.” We look forward to hearing your solutions to yesterday’s call,” said Rockwell.

Continuing to have these critical conversations is the only way we can move forward to create a greater understanding of the issues, as well creating solutions.

Caring isn’t a new idea but definitely something we need to continue practicing.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

Williams is also involved in her community as church leader of Grace Girls, a ministry of the First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, Maryland. Grace Girls is a place of connection for people who have struggled in life, but desire to serve God in whatever way they can.

Williams graduated from Clark Atlanta University in 2000 receiving her Bachelor of Arts in degree in Political Science. She also obtained her securities license and worked in the finance industry for two years. She is a former fellow of the Philip H. Corboy Fellowship Program in Trial Advocacy. She graduated in 2005 from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in Chicago, Illinois where she received her Juris Doctor degree and a Certificate of Specialization in Trial Advocacy.

In November 2005, she received a direct commission as a United States Air Force judge advocate. Lieutenant Colonel Williams is admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of Illinois, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the United States Supreme Court.

Lieutenant Colonel Williams is married to an active-duty Air Force chaplain, Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel (Reverend) Christian L. Williams.

They have two children, Christian and Micah, a biblical name meaning, who is like God?

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