Bill L. James, Jr.: 2019 Alumni Award Spotlight
An advocate for diversity celebrates a life of service
By Elizabeth Speed
“When it comes to my life of service, I think that it's the result of having had many wonderful people who demonstrated right in front of me just what ‘service’ looks like”, says Bill L. James, Jr. (TPR 1978), calling out wonderful teachers, church leaders and his parents. This passionate alumnus built a successful career and a network of colleagues and classmates. He knows he could not be where he is today without service.
“There were so many people who helped me along the way, so many shoulders upon which I could freely stand,” he says. “The mentoring that I do comes from having watched so many great and wonderful people who supported me.”
Bill’s life is an extraordinary story of trailblazing, then circling back to help those who’ve come up behind him. He was always a standout student, both as a gifted scholar and as an African-American man who was educated in Montgomery, Alabama’s primarily white schools during the contentious era of school desegregation and civil rights crusading. Academically ambitious, he found listings of colleges in the back of a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and was drawn to CMU’s mix of arts, science, engineering and humanities.
When Bill arrived as a freshman, he was welcomed and supported by the Carnegie Mellon Action Project (CMAP), which aimed to better integrate diversity on campus.
“There was a learning curve for the changing student population and for the university as well, as the world was changing. Even though there was a clear intent to have an open door to treat all students fairly, equitably and without prejudice, the Action Project was needed and so very important to help bridge gaps in perception,” Bill says. CMAP provided critical support for this early wave of integration, and that became a foundation for CMU’s renowned diversity today.
“It was a new adventure for me. I found friends of every color and nationality, and I was open to that because I had grown up with that explosive idea that there were places in the world where all people could come together without race and creed being barriers,” he says.
In the years building his career in Chicago — including his current role as senior vice president at Chicago-based investment brokerage Loop Capital Markets — Bill has been committed to service, with his church, family and his alma mater. He’s now a member of the Andrew Carnegie Society Board where he works to build donor interest university-wide, and is also a passionate leader of the reinvigorated CMU Black Alumni Association (CMBAA). He’s worked to strengthen the CMBAA network, connect alumni with current students as advocates and mentors, and collectively create a permanent endowment that supports student organizations and initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion. CMBAA now has a strong, supportive presence on campus, consistent with the intent of its founders but strengthened with the energy that Bill has infused into the organization and the university.
“Black alumni come back to campus so that currently enrolled students can see firsthand that there is a shared legacy. There is a history of involvement, and there is a place for all of us to become service providers to such a great institution. Having said that, I come to the conclusion that it is ‘celebration’ that is most important to me. Celebrating who we are, both our differences and our sameness; celebrating our involvement with each other and our involvement with such a powerful institution,” he says. “That's the true celebration.”
Bill James will receive a 2019 Alumni Service Award for his meritorious service to Carnegie Mellon on May 17 during Commencement Weekend. Read more about CMU’s 2019 Alumni Awards and honorees.