An Advocate for Albany

By Brad McEwen

I don’t know about everyone else, but in my daily travels—whether it be running errands, working on something for the bank, or hauling one of my brood around town for some activity or another—I encounter a lot of people.

Good people, bad people, happy people, sad people. All kinds of people.

But there are certain people, no matter the circumstances, that are almost always able to put a smile on my face whenever I have occasion to enter their orbit.

Although I’m fortunate to have relationships with many such people, I don’t always get a chance to visit with them all on the regular. So I was excited recently when I had occasion to spend some time with one such person, just a few weeks ago, while volunteering to help the Dougherty County School System with a scholarship program.

For the past two years I’ve had the distinct pleasure of serving on a panel of local, involved citizens, charged with interviewing area 8th-graders in hopes of determining which deserving students will be recipients of an annual REACH scholarship, designed to provide mentoring opportunities in high school and financial assistance for attending a Georgia college or university.

Being a part of that panel has been an awesome, albeit challenging, experience in many ways, not the least of which has been the opportunity I’ve had to interact with some incredibly bright and talented area students.

But as enjoyable as it’s been to meet some of the incredible products of our local school system, being a part of the panel also afforded me a chance to catch up with one of those smile-inducing folks I like so much—Jawahn Ware.

As we spent two days asking tough questions of some clearly nervous middle-schoolers, I was reminded how much I enjoy hanging with Jawahn and listening to her unique views about education and our community, so it made perfect sense for me ask my friend to sit for a Beyond the Bank interview.

A kindred spirit, who always goes out of her way to look for the good in all things, Jawahn is also an active community member who sees a bright future for Albany and who relishes the chance to share her time and talents whenever she can—even if doing so can sometimes be a daunting task.

“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Jawahn said of serving on the interview panel tasked with determining which five students, out of a pool of 15 candidates, would earn a REACH scholarship this year. “They were all deserving. I wish I could give scholarships to each of them.”

Despite the difficulty of the task, however, Jawahn relished the chance to meet those 8th-graders and see firsthand the caliber of students we have at our four public middle schools.

“I love it,” she said of being asked by J.D. Sumner, with the school system’s public information’s office, to serve on the panel. “I was so excited last year when J.D. asked me to participate. Our youth are really my passion.

“When J.D. reached out to me I loved it because I love interviewing. When I worked as a consultant with Albany State at one time, I used to come in and do interview critiquing and skills with the students, so this was just a dream opportunity to volunteer for.

“I just love to see our students. Sometimes the Dougherty County School System gets flack and it makes it seem as if we’re not giving the best education to our students. But then you see these children that are 8th-graders and some of them are saying, ‘I want to go Mercer; I want to go here,’ and they have thought about that, it’s great to see.

“You see the handprint of the village and it makes me proud and that gives me even more, I guess, resources to come out with to battle the misperceptions that are in the community.”

That Jawahn would mention “misperceptions,” is not surprising, given the fact that the ardent supporter of the Albany area sees it as her mission to educate and inform people about things happening in our community that often get misinterpreted.

In fact, as the clerk for the Dougherty County Board of Commissioners Jawahn is in a unique position to share valuable and impactful information.

“In my role I don’t really have an impact,” said Jawahn about the ability for her to influence policy as the clerk. “You sit there and you listen.

“I am the county clerk, which is the official record keeper for the actions that Dougherty County Board of Commissioners takes.

“But I think the greatest impact for me is knowledge. Prior to working with government I had no interest in politics, history, any of that. I think maybe the average citizen, you find out things when it hits the news, but I’m able to be a voice of community support, kind of like with the schools. We need individuals to be the advocates and to say, ‘Be more knowledgeable; be more informed.’ I think for me, that’s the greatest impact—when you can go out and you can correct those, how do I want to say it, misperceptions.”

And it seems she gets the chance to do that on a fairly regular basis.

“People will call and say, ‘Well, I heard this,’” Jawahn explained. “Sometimes a media person does those little snippets and people can misperceive. Perception is reality, but it may not be the true reality. People will call and say, ‘Well I want to speak to such and such because of this.’ Sometimes I take it on myself to say, ‘Sure, you can speak to them, but if it’s okay, let me clarify.’ And then they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’

“We never stop anybody from speaking to their constitutional representative, but it’s important to educate.”

A lot of Jawahn’s ability to enlighten people about policies and further explain how those might impact the population certainly comes from the experience she’s gleaned as county clerk. But her understanding of government actually predates her time in that role.

Prior to serving as clerk, Jawahn worked in the county’s human resources division and before that was employed by the city of Albany as a computer and network systems data assistant, a position she felt provided her with a firm knowledge base in various areas.

“The position with the city, they were really looking for somebody that was detail-oriented and I’m super detail-oriented,” Jawahn said. “It was interesting because I worked in the IT department and at that time I knew, keyboard, monitor, mouse. I didn’t know anything else.

“But God has always given me discernment and the ability to be a liaison. What that meant was you had an IT person and they were talking all, ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ and then I could go the person and say, ‘They want you to press F5.’

“I loved it because it gave me the opportunity to troubleshoot. I love to be a problem solver. So I would go out with individuals and figure out what they did wrong, and I would research and I learned. I don’t want to say I’m this technology guru, but I have maybe more technical knowledge than the average person.

“Also, that time gave me the ability to learn city and county operations, because that department supports both the city and the county,” she added. “So I know so many things operations-wise that the average person doesn’t know and that really laid the foundation for the other positions and the doors of opportunity that opened for me.”

Of course it took some time for those doors to open and one of the first steps of that journey was making the decision to move to Albany with her husband Richard and lay down roots in the place where they are now raising their three children.

“I met my husband in a religion class; I went to Spelman and he went to Morehouse,” Jawahn shared. “We met on Morehouse’s campus and he’s a native Albanian. We were at a point where we were going to decide whose hometown we were going to go back to and his mom, even though at that time was a very young woman, was deciding to retire. She has a home healthcare company and at the time a daycare, and she said, ‘I want somebody to come and run it.’ So he came here and we’ve been here now 15 years.”

Jawahn said that decision was certainly made easier by the fact that her husband had a good career opportunity waiting here, but she also said that the times she had visited Albany had given her a good feeling for the place.

“Coming back and forth while he and I were dating, it seemed like a pretty cool town,” she said. “Georgetown is also very small, but the difference between Albany and Georgetown, is in Georgetown you have to drive some place, like Myrtle Beach or Charleston, like 45 minutes or an hour, before you can get some entertainment. Here it was like, ‘Oh man, you’ve got a bowling alley HERE, you have a mall HERE!’

“It was like ‘Wow!’”

While she liked the various amenities Albany had to offer, Jawahn said more important in her positive estimation of Albany was the fact that she really liked the people she connected with on those visits.

“Of course I loved the hospitality,” she said. “And his family is here, so we got to be around his family. People were just always so friendly and cheery and that was a good plus in making the decision to move here.”

While she definitely came here with positive vibes about the community, Jawahn did say that her appraisal of Albany changed slightly once they arrived and she began looking for work. She told me that she struggled early on to find decent employment, despite her college education, and that discouragement was tough to handle.

However, Jawahn also believes those difficulties helped inform who she is a person and gave her the fuel she needed to work hard for the betterment of herself and others.

“When we actually moved here, my perception changed a little bit,” she said. “I did have a little heartache trying to find employment. That was a humbling experience for me.

“It was humbling, and it was depressing, because I even tried to apply to Walmart and Walmart wouldn't hire me. You're like, ‘Gosh.’ You can hear people when they are saying, ‘I just need to be able to get employment.’ I can understand.

“I got to see firsthand some of the challenges that some individuals here speak about,” Jawahn added. “I walked in a lot of those individuals’ shoes. So that’s why I tell people, ‘You can persevere; you can do some things. There are things here; you just have to be dedicated.’

“I still truly believe this is the Good Life City.”

Although her employment situation ultimately improved—to the point where she has multiple side-businesses in addition to her work with the county—she’s quick to point out that the influence of others in her life had a lot to do with her persevering and getting the opportunities she’s had in local government and beyond.

Coming from a tight-knit and supportive family, Jawahn said it was her sister that helped her get over her pride about being offered a low paying job even though she had college education.

“I was offered a job making, then, six-something an hour, and I had a degree from Spelman,” Jawahn remembered. “And I was like, "I made seven-something an hour gift wrapping when I was in high school, not having a diploma.’ The position, being offered for six-something an hour, was going to be with the city of Albany. I told my sister, I was like, ‘They can forget it. They want all of this for that?’ I was like, ‘No.’

“But my sister said, ‘Six dollars an hour is better than zero dollars an hour.’"

Even though that job was temporary from the beginning, it gave Jawahn a connection to the city and eventually led to the job in the IT department, where once again the influence of others helped her advance both personally and professionally.

“What helped me the most to stay put, actually, in this government realm, was Mr. Chuck Blair,” she said. “At the time he was IT director and he just really had a heart to heart with me and had me sit down. He knew I was trying to look for something else.

“At that time I was pregnant with my middle child and I was like, ‘Man I’ve got to do something.’ But he was like, ‘Stay put. Steady the course.’

“It was hard, but I trusted him and, that’s how I know so many people here. I think that’s how I’m connected to success, by just staying put when I didn’t even know why, if that makes sense.”

By hanging in there and slowly building a network of people within the community, Jawahn was eventually able to not only further her career, but she also became better connected to ways she could help and serve the community.

And for Jawahn one of the most important ways she believes she can help is by getting involved with the school system, which is something that ties back to important lessons she learned as a child.

“My mom has always been a big advocate of us furthering our education and of giving back,” she said. “I think my passion for community service came from her and from being a Girl Scout. I am really a lifelong scout. When I started Girl Scouts, they didn’t have Daisies, the beginning level, but I went on up to even being a campus scout in college—not too many people know that, but I guess they will now—to even having my own troop.

“We were always giving back,” she continued. “I remember at that time Hurricane Hugo came and that was one of the worst storms on that coast, and we had to give back. So that’s something that’s innate. Even prior to having children in the school system I always wanted to support them because one of my favorite adages, that I put in my email (signature), is ‘Become the change you want to see.’ I fell in love with Dougherty County Pre-K and that’s really where a lot of my time and passion and energy went.

“Since then, I’ve just served where my children were, or wherever I was needed, different schools, different boards. I don’t remember all the roles, PTOs, school governance teams, just being a community support person. Now I’m on the superintendent’s Charter Council.”

Additionally, much like her role as county clerk, being involved in the school system in various ways also gives Jawahn an important perspective on things, which she feels compelled to share with the community in hopes that people will understand some of the great things happening system-wide.

“I guess my outlook is different,” she said. “I always know there’s never going to be a perfect environment. In regard to negative impacts, of course you’re always going to be concerned about school scores. And I want to make sure my children have the best teachers. But I want that for everyone else as well. The concerns most parents have, I have them as well. But I think I look at things differently. And that’s what spurs me on to do things. I’m not the type to complain.

“You’ve got to do something. If you see something, say something. And do something.”

While Jawahn believes people should speak up about things they are observing in the schools and in the community as well, she’s adamant that simply complaining or being negative is not the way to fix anything. She feels very strongly that unchecked negativity has a serious impact on the future, which is why she uses her platforms to encourage positivity and growth.

“I think in regard to those negative individuals having a loud voice, don’t beat me up, but a lot of that is the media,” she said. “Negativity sells. I remember one paper that’s no longer here, when a lot of things were going on, people would run there every Thursday and get that paper for the juicy details.

“But I think those negative voices are suppressed when we all become unified on how we want to portray the community. A few years ago the Albany Herald got on board with that and did the Bright Side. Yes, we understand negativity sells, but let’s give a positive spin as well.

“I understand how that impacts economic development when you always have negative things out there,” she added. “I have my home business as well, where I do training and development and business process management and one of the things that I teach in my class is, ‘People don’t know what they don’t know until they know what they don’t know.’ And what I mean by that is, you have to help educate. I like to say, ‘You want to project what you expect.’ And vice versa, ‘You expect what you project.’

“On the latter, if I expect negativity, soon I’m going to start projecting that. When I say I project what I expect, I just want to be the change that people want to see. When you see those people with those negative voices and when you go back to conflict resolution, what is the root cause? Sometimes, a lot of that is spurred from something that they misunderstood, or somebody did something to them.

“I’m so relational. If you take the time to understand what’s going on, and you show them a different view, then you can come up with a win-win perception.”

While she agrees there’s still a lot of negativity out there, Jawahn did say that she’s really encouraged by what she sees and feels is happening in the community. In her opinion, Albany is very much on the right track toward a good future.

“I believe, after sitting here over the years and looking at Dougherty County, that we're on that right path because now we have individuals that are coming in and saying, ‘Hey, we have some great things,’" said Jawahn with a smile. “And those individuals who did not have a positive perception, they're now having their blinders taken off, and they get to see some of the positive things. Can we do more? Yes, we can, but I think we're starting to get the right people in the right places.

“I don’t remember the time frame, but Albany used to be called the ‘Little Egypt of the South.’ When I heard that I was like, ‘Wow.’

“Now if you start promoting those things again, it changes the image.

“There’s such great resources here, great people doing great things, and as we continue to tell these stories and put it together, people will say, ‘I just didn’t know.’

“Well when you know better, you can do better. It really does take a village.”

And, Jawahn believes, if everyone continues pulling together and strong, positive leaders continue to emerge, perceptions will change and greatness will become the reality.

“It seemed like there was a dark cloud over Albany years ago, a physical, dark cloud,” she said. “Now, over the years, it went away. It started going away prior to the storms [in January of 2017] and since then it’s gone.

“I think for me, because the way I look at things spiritually has changed, with that storm coming, it was like a fire forest fire. I’ll put it like that because I think I can make sense out of that. You know when you drive in different areas where the forest was on fire, people say, ‘Oh my gosh! The fire was there and everything burned.’

“Well nobody likes to go through the fire, but then you go back a few years later it’s so plush and it’s so green and it’s so vibrant. I think from the times of visiting Albany to living here, yes we’ve had a lot of negative things happen. Yes there was some publicity we did not want. But all of that was part of the fire.

“Now we’re going through our plush, lush stage. I think we’re a little bit behind where I want us to be, but I think that’s all in God’s timing.”

God may still have a good bit of work left to do before Albany becomes the place Jawahn believes it can be, but from where I’m sitting one the best things He has done is bring people like Jawahn Ware and her positive attitude to this community.

I’m in full agreement with her that if we all stay focused on the positive and do our part to combat the negative, Albany will continue to thrive.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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