Humble beginnings and a kind demeanor have made him a great public servant, including work as a city council member and college president. It also has led him to foster a deep friendship with legendary John Lewis.
Jabari Simama’s story has many different chapters. He grew up in Columbia, Mo., and attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., through a football scholarship. During a college Christian fellowship, Simama traveled to Connecticut, where he found kinship and a job the following summer. The experience led him to transfer to the University of Bridgeport, where Simama earned his bachelor’s degree. Afterward, he found his way down to Atlanta, Ga., where he eventually earned two graduate degrees, a master’s from Atlanta University and his Ph.D. from Emory University.
At this point in his life, Simama entered public service and served two terms on the Atlanta City Council, then worked as deputy chief operating officer and chief of staff for DeKalb County and later became the president of Georgia Piedmont Technical College. Despite the challenges, he has always found inspiration through his own childhood and his family’s humble beginnings.
“All of my life, I felt this tremendous kinship and commitment with lifting up ‘the least of these.’ And it's probably because at one point I was part of ‘the least of these,’” he explained.
Jabari Simama’s commitment to helping others has also come from the great support he has received from others throughout his life. A friend from the Christian fellowship organization Young Life helped Simama travel outside of Missouri for the first time. That same friend introduced him to Jack Carpenter who headed Young Life in Connecticut and offered him the summer job. After college, a woman named Lillian introduced him to his first job in Atlanta and to her husband, the late Congressman John Lewis.
Jabari Simama and John Lewis met in 1973 and maintained a close friendship. Simama recounts how it was good to know the human side of John Lewis and to see his loving and humble nature even when their wives were conspiring on the phone about the lunches at their children’s shared preschool.
“I could hear John in the background saying ‘Lillian, remember we're non-violent, we don't talk like that, we're not violent,’” Simama said. “So even in his personal life, something that didn't exactly have anything to do with civil rights, the spirit of non-violence was the way he lived.”
Listen to the latest “In The Arena” episode to hear more about Jabari Simama’s friendship with the late John Lewis, the tenderness of his heart and the racial discrimination of hand dryers.
Jabari Simama is the education policy columnist for Governing.
Governing is a division of e.Republic
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