Interview with Eric James: the first Wily Scholar

It’s not just advocating. It’s advocating with purpose, and advocating with confidence.

So it, it makes it so that I can really go and say, ‘here is how this is beneficial here.’ I can lay it out: ‘This is what I–this is the work that they’re doing. This is the work that this group continues to do. This is, you know, how they benefit the communities that they went into. This is the reason they should have that funding.’ Right? Like, learning how to advocate was one of the things that Wily definitely helped me, you know, come into and step into. Because it’s not just advocating, it’s advocating with purpose and advocating with confidence.

When Wily met Eric James, we were both just starting out. He hadn’t yet enrolled at UMass Dartmouth, and we were yet to partner with our first student. Now, seven years  and more than 100 Wily Scholars later, we sat down with Eric to talk about his new role. The first ever Wily Scholar has been appointed Mattapan’s Neighborhood Liaison to City Hall by Mayor Michelle Wu.

How are you liking the new position?

It’s a lot to take in, but I’m enjoying it! This job just brings me into contact with so many different people from all different walks of life.

I actually just got back from a community meeting with this neighborhood trauma response team, because there were several shootings last week. So we’re working on some constructive ways to bring a little bit more joy into the community during this highly traumatic experience, but also trying to address and tackle the situations that are going on. 

I definitely like being able to be out in the community, and I definitely like being able to work with people in a way that actually helps them.

Do you feel like Wily helped you along the way to finding this role?

My entire history with Wily put me in the position where I could even have this opportunity to engage this way. You know, when I first interacted with Judi, I was 19 and homeless. I knew that I wanted to become an attorney, and I knew that I liked to advocate for the people around me. But I had no tangible way to get there.

I remember getting to UMass campus and thinking, this place is huge. I’m never going be able to really fully fit in here. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. And Judi took me around campus and showed me all the departments, so I had a layout of the places that I could go and different people I could talk to. 

Now I see the connections and the networks that exist all throughout Massachusetts, because even though Boston is big, it’s very small too. And I wasn’t able to tap into that mindset before I met Wily. The mindset I was in before was all survival based. It was all just, I need to make money. I need to make enough money to get somewhere to live. And from that point on, whatever happens happens. But Wily gave me the security to know that I could do something more besides trying to figure out how to survive every day.

Did your experience with Wily influence the way you approach this position?

Definitely, just in the sense of being able to lead with confidence. 

As Mattapan Liaison, people come to me and they say, “listen, we want speed bumps on our street,” or “I want funding for this block party we’re going to host.” So I’m going between two entities: people who want something, and the city officials that have the means to access it. But they have to split time and resources between the rest of the city too. 

So being able to have the confidence to go into a situation and say, “listen, I understand that there’s only so much you can do. But here’s how having the funds for this type of block party will benefit the community. It will allow them to feel like we can know each other, we can feel safe around each other, we can feel like the violent events that have taken place, if anything, they united us. They’ve made us stronger. They didn’t create a rift. They didn’t create distrust amongst us.”

Especially because I’m very new at the job, to have that confidence to go in like that? I love the fact that I got to witness that firsthand through Judi and through so many people at the Wily Network who taught me how to advocate with confidence.