Jewell Jones makes history as youngest state rep
Jewell Jones, 21, is a former Inkster councilman who becomes Michigan's youngest ever state representative in January. Stephanie Steinberg, The Detroit News
Through social media calls to action, the 21-year-old from Inkster hopes to inspire Michigan youth.
Jewell Jones calls himself the “Neighborhood Hope Dealer” on Instagram, but come Jan. 1, the 21-year-old Democrat will be entitled to change his bio to “Michigan State Rep.”
Jones, D-Dearborn Heights, made history Nov. 8 when he became the youngest member elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, beating his opponent, Republican Robert Pope, with 65 percent of the vote. He’s no stranger to breaking age records. At age 20, the lifelong Inkster resident became the youngest elected Inkster City Council member last year.
In his city hall office with R&B playing softly from his computer, the University of Michigan-Dearborn student double majoring in political science and business isn’t ashamed to admit he never wanted to be a politician.
“I dreamed of being a spy,” he says.
“All that changed last year,” he adds, leaning back in a chair, repping a Detroit “D” baseball cap, navy sweater and jeans. Despite the time (9:30 a.m. the Monday after Thanksgiving) — and still recovering from Michigan’s painful loss to Ohio State — he’s full of energy as he chats about representing the 11th district, which includes Inkster, Garden City, Dearborn Heights, Livonia and Westland.
“I’ve fallen in love with it,” he says of his newfound political career. “There’s a lot of opportunity to do a lot of really great things, and you get to really dive into the community.”
Leading from a young age
Growing up, Jones’ parents kept their son active in the community and church. Every week, they took him and his sister, Shaina, to volunteer at a Detroit nursing home.
“They’d not only cook but actually help feed some of the older individuals,” says his uncle Carlos Jennings, head deacon at Jones’ church. “All he knows is how to help others, so this state rep opportunity falls in line with the way he was raised.”
As a mere toddler, Elder Dr. Paul Turner Jr. of Spiritual Israel Church and Its Army in Detroit made Jewell a “junior deacon in training,” responsible for church maintenance and finances with senior deacons.
“I put him in a position of authority at age 2 because I saw so much in him as a little boy, and I saw the potential for leadership in him,” says Turner, one of Jones’ mentors.
Now a senior deacon, Jones remains an active member of the church that shaped him into a leader.
“He is such a humble young man, and he is so goal-driven and focused that anything he sets his mind to, he always accomplishes it,” Turner says.
In 2014, Jewell attended the Congressional Black Caucus conference in Washington, D.C. Surrounded by black youth leaders, he took the conference’s message to heart: “Go back to your cities, and take it to the next level.”
Two years prior, Jones campaigned for State Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, who became the youngest Michigan senator at age 28. Jones was familiar with the campaign process but hadn’t thought seriously of running for office until that conference. For kicks, he met with an Inkster councilmember to pick his brain about running for city council. The next thing he knew, he was filling out paperwork to enter the race.
Jones’ righthand man
Chief of Staff Javion Johnson, 22, whispers as Jones takes a call from a radio station (the media has been after him, including The Huffington Post, Essence and Teen Vogue). Keeping his voice low, Johnson recounts how he met his best friend-turned-boss three years ago.
A UM sophomore at the time, Johnson was wearing a suit when Jones (also a suit wearer) spotted him on campus.
“He was like, ‘What’s up man? I didn’t know nobody else dressed up on campus,’ ” Johnson says. “Usually people are in sweats or jeans.”
Call it suits at first sight. The two started Dress Up Thursdays and wore suits to class.
“We connected off just being in a suit and tie on Thursdays,” says Johnson, an economics major.
That led to Try It Tuesdays, when they dined at different campus lunch spots.
When Jones began campaigning for city council, Johnson, a Detroit native, offered to knock on doors and pass out flyers. He then attended a project management class evaluating Jones’ campaign. The professor asked who the campaign manager was, and everyone started looking around.
“I started looking around, too,” Johnson says.
The professor pointed at him. “ ‘Aren’t you his campaign manager?’ ”
Johnson didn’t think so, but Jones nodded in affirmation.
“I was like, ‘Well, here we go,’ ” Johnson says, laughing.
On Election Day 2015, Jones won the seat with 65 percent of the vote. Johnson became his chief of staff.
The sudden passing of State Rep. Julie Plawecki, D-Dearborn Heights, in June propelled their political careers forward when Jones was chosen out of 11 Democrats by precinct delegates to fill the vacancy on the August primary ballot.
Studying at night after meetings — and saving sleep for “later” — the two are ready to take their public service to the “next level.”
“We have our foot in the door,” Johnson says. “We just have to walk through the door.”
There’s just one potential door-stopper.
“Being taken seriously might be a challenge since we’re so young,” Johnson says. “People don’t think we have the experience to do what we do, but we have the power, the drive, the right mindset to get things done. We have an understanding of what’s going on in the world.”
Especially in this “technological world,” he adds, their age could be an advantage.
#holla for political activism
There’s about 25,000 residents in Inkster and roughly 80,000 in the district Jones will represent.
Yet the 16,000 people who follow him on Facebook and 9,000-plus on Instagram aren’t necessarily all his constituents.
“I use social media to build up the electorate in general and get people more engaged across the board,” he says.
The Instagram stories and Snapchats also are also a way to show his personal side.
During one week, he introduced followers to family members dancing while gathered for Thanksgiving and posted at 4:02 a.m. to share he was watching a movie and “just happy to be alive at 4 o’clock in the morning.” He also recorded a video at his desk announcing plans to unite all the young “movers and shakers” and brainstorm ways to “move forward” in the community.
“We’re about to shake up the state and the whole nation,” he said, ending with “Peace and love. Holla.”
In fact, every post ends with his signature hashtag #holla. He can’t remember where it came from — “last year I just picked it up and just ran with it,” he says.
Inkster Mayor Byron Nolen fully supports Jones’ hashtags and emojis.
“Most cities are run by middle age and older folks, and we kind of lose touch with the younger generation and a lot of times they don’t participate,” Nolen says. “(Jones) definitely got a lot of the young folks a lot more interested in local government and has been out there on social media and brought more attention to the city itself.”
Becoming a Lansing lawmaker
As a councilman, Jones focused on Inkster’s education system, which was dissolved in 2013 due to a $15 million budget deficit.
“We’re trying to figure out how to get (the district) back,” he says.“There’s an outstanding debt that needs to be paid off. It’s not just something we can pay off overnight.”
Other goals included improving public safety, economic development and income equality.
“A lot of people don’t work, so they’re struggling,” he says. “That’s something I want to focus on: strengthening families and empowering individuals — how we can get them resources that can get them on their feet and then sustain them.”
Once sworn in as state representative, he plans to tackle these hot-button issues for the entire district.
Jonathan Kinloch, the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party Organization chair, met Jones as a city council candidate and has since offered guidance.
“It’s very good for young people such as Jewell Jones to be at the table,” says Kinloch, 45. “... Oftentimes, not enough young voices are being heard as it relates to some of these grandiose ideas that we adults try to put in place.”
While Kinloch says he expects “a lot of positive things” to come from Jones, it’s still too early to judge his political success. “Once he takes office, that’s when it all matters,” he says.
Until graduating in May, Jones will remain busy juggling meetings, studies and trips to Lansing.
One thing’s for sure, he plans to stay away from the ladies.
“There’s some people out there, but I’m not dating them,” he says, smiling. “I want to stay focused because the typical young black men that go out to Lansing have really been slipping, so I want to make sure I really dive in the work and accomplish what we set out to do.”
Then again, if the right someone comes along, his no-dating policy could change.
“That’s God,” Jones says. “You can’t determine life.”
Follow State Representative-elect Jewell Jones