Jesse Williams Gets Candid About Inequality, Back To School & More

The Only Murders In The Building actor and activist sat down with Scary Mommy about raising kids today.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Fall marks the return of many favorites, from pumpkin spice lattes and series premieres to football season. And while most of us look forward to those things, fall also heralds the back-to-school season — a time often met with an equal mixture of dread and excitement by parents and kids alike.

And for many parents and kids, that dread is rooted in far more than having to readjust to early morning wake-ups or deal with doing homework. For some families, the worries include things so many of us take for granted, including having enough for school supplies and even basic things like toothbrushes.

As someone who grew up in disenfranchised communities and who, as an adult, served as a teacher in low-income school districts, Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams understands firsthand how deeply this lack of resources can affect kids’ confidence and academic success. It’s something that resonates with him now, perhaps more than ever, that he’s a father to kids Sadie and Maceo.

To that end, the actor, director, and activist has partnered with Crest and Oral-B for their latest #ClosingAmericasSmileGap campaign to end oral health inequity. Launched in 2021, the initiative raises awareness that many kids in underserved communities simply don’t have access to the oral care they need. (One-third of low-income parents say they can’t afford to take their kids to the dentist.)

Kids in these underserved communities ultimately end up suffering throughout the school year — losing sleep, missing class, and more — due to tooth decay. Black children are nearly twice as likely to have poor oral health; Hispanic children are nearly four times as likely.

With almost 90% of adults unaware that tooth decay is the No. 1 chronic disease among children, it’s not surprising that many of us are so caught up in our own little back-to-school season bubble that we aren’t seeing the bigger picture.

Williams sat down for a Zoom with Scary Mommy to unpack what makes this initiative so important and how being a dad has impacted his activism.

Scary Mommy: It’s honestly hard to believe that, in 2023, oral care and education aren’t just readily available and affordable for everyone. Can you touch on that?

Jesse Williams: Sometimes the things that we take for granted the easiest are those right in front of our eyes that are not really applicable for everybody. And, in this case, [it’s] regular dentist visits, quality healthcare, having a parent who's able to take off from work to go run you to a dentist when you need it … [It’s] being able to afford orthodontic work, toothpaste, a quality toothbrush regularly renewed and not worn down to hell.

These things seem basic, but a lot of folks don't have access to them regularly. And our mouth, our face, our smile is our calling card. It's already difficult enough to be a young kid with insecurities. You're trying to build self-esteem, self-awareness, and confidence to move in social and academic situations, and all of these things have a domino effect.

If you don't feel confident in your smile and what's happening with your teeth and mouth, you're not going to draw attention to yourself by participating in class, challenging ideas, signing up for that committee, or attending that event, etc. It makes you less likely to dive in and explore those curiosities, and all those things impact everything else.

I know from firsthand experience, as a young person and as a teacher and a parent, that these things can snowball pretty quickly. The best thing you can do for a young person is to help establish a solid foundation. A lot of that has to do with our sense of self-care and what we consider in the list of that trendy term “self-care.” What does that include? And some of these things we take for granted.

SM: You've been a student at an underserved school, but you've also been in these sort of exclusive private schools. What kind of perspective has that duality given you?

JW: It's totally informed my perspective... So many of us grow up on completely different planets in the same state, in the same region, in the same country. Completely different realities. There are resources and a societal patience and encouragement that so many do not experience.

To live it in person, to see the same behaviors and resources measured and doled out completely differently, indiscriminate of any earnership — you're a 10-year old, you didn't earn what school you went to, or whether you have healthcare or not, or whether these things are socially acceptable or criminal — absolutely formed and shaped my understanding of structure in our society and resourcing, as well as the way we value ourselves and how much that is informed by the way society chooses to value you.

SM: I have a 10-year-old son, and hearing you talk about a 10-year-old and earnership hit me right in the heart. It got me a little emotional, but it's very true.

JW: My daughter's almost 10. Yeah, we do our best, but we have different tools in our toolbox. It's very easy to use platitudes, like, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but a lot of people don't have boots or straps, and there are a lot of things that we just take for granted.

But we can help out … There is a real, real value, especially for our young folks, in people turning attention to them and making things a priority for their lives. This does matter. We do care about you enough to stop our day and pay attention to teaching you this so that you can have some accountability and agency in your own life.

Those kids that are 10 are going to be in their pre-teens soon. Their bodies and sense of self are changing, and it's very easy to be bullied and to feel insecure about yourself … So, we do what we can, for our young kids especially.

SM: Speaking of doing what you can, you do a lot. How do you balance your work, your activism, and everything that comes with being a parent — especially during a time of year as hectic as this?

JW: As you know, it's super demanding. I also have the privilege of help, which is something I never saw as a kid. We have a swimming pool, and I realized talking to my kids [that] I never saw a swimming pool at somebody’s house until I was maybe in my 20s. Nobody had a pool — that was something you see in a movie, and they live a completely different life than we do. And I certainly never knew anybody that had an au pair or a nanny; that's also something that was on TV.

Having to do it alone, having to do it and work and parent and run a household with multiple kids on a low income or working-class salary, that's who I'm living in service to because that's a different ballgame. I look around a lot when I have my hands full with my kids and my travel and trying to forge a career and have time for a personal life and all these things, and I'm astounded that my parents were able to do it — and that everybody else is able to do it with less.

SM: Do you feel like being a dad has shifted your activism in any way?

JW: I think it definitely affects my use of time and my attention, even when I'm in the house. You now have human beings that really want, need, and benefit from your attention — your whole attention. And that's critical and important.

It's just surpassed everything in terms of all my priorities. It doesn't replace them or erase them, but it just has surpassed them. So, having a new juggle — a new balance to try to manage and be efficient with my time and energy and physical presence — is always at the center of my time with them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.