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One On 1 Profile: Community Service Society's David Jones Balances His Social Conscience With Family Matters

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Community Service Society President and CEO David Jones has worked for more than 40 years to fix the problem of poverty in New York City, and gave up a lucrative corporate law career to help the city of his birth. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

David Jones is the president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, a historic non-profit advocating for poor people, and also serves on several boards. So he is accustomed to all sorts of situations at cocktail parties and dinners.

But that is not prepare for sitting next to socialite Paris Hilton.

"They sat me next to, you know, what's her name, the Hilton girl? One of the strangest conversations I've ever had," Jones says. "And I didn't know who Paris Hilton was, and we're trying to hold a conversation, and it was ridiculous. I mean, we could have been from different planets."

Jones says he is usually the guy messing up cocktail parties, because he constantly brings up a subject that most people would rather avoid — poverty.

"If you inundate people with too much bad news, they do tend to shut down," Jones says. "And if you inundate them with too much bad news and you don't have any prescription of how they should fix it, that they can do something about, then they really want to get out of there."

How to fix the problem of poverty in New York? It is a question Jones has considered for most of his adult life.

He is the son of former Assemblyman and State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Jones, and served as an intern for New York Senator and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Later, he worked for former Mayor Ed Koch's first administration.

For the past 25 years, as president and CEO of the Community Service Society, Jones has headed research and direct service that tries to help low-income New Yorkers.

"We started to attract people who were interested in a much different view of how you attack poverty. Not just putting out your hand, saying, 'aren’t these poor people,' but trying to actually build some political power for the community so they could fight for their own," Jones says.

He believes that poor schools and a lack of job opportunities are two main reasons why so many New Yorkers live in poverty, especially young African-Americans and Latinos. But Jones hears a different argument from some of his contemporaries.

"Why are people poor? 'Well, they don't work hard enough. They listen to rap music too much. They're gang-bangers or they wear their pants low,'" Jones recalls.

He says he hears such rhetoric from some of his peers, regardless of color.

"I go back and talk to black and Latino corporate law guys, and they say, 'Yeah, we don't know why they just can't seem to get it together,'" says Jones. "Both parents are working, or 'I'm a single parent, and I can barely get up to just pay the rent. The notion of my child getting into an after-school program that I would have to ferry them out to, it's insane.'

"But people want to see themselves as 'I did this all myself.' We didn't do this all ourselves," Jones continue

After attending Wesleyan University, Jones attended Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Clinton and worked for the major New York law firm Cravath, Swaine and Moore before serving in the first Koch administration.

Jones has always interacted with the prominent and the powerful. But long ago he opted for the non-profit world, forgoing a more lucrative corporate law career and choosing not to follow in his father's political footsteps.

"I didn't see my father for weeks and months on end, because he was totally immersed in it. There are costs to being an elected official," says Jones. "We wanted to raise kids and we wanted to be able to spend time. I wanted to take Sundays off."

Jones says he learned early in his career that he needed to balance his social conscience with an ability to support his family.

"As I watched my father struggle, in between political runs, this got really... when things were bad, it was tuna casserole all the time," says Jones. "I can't stand it, the smell of it still drives me crazy."

Much of what drives Jones today stems from his years growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. He remembers a close-knit neighborhood, but he also recalls police harassment.

Jones was thrown out of the Forest Hills Tennis Club, where blacks were not allowed, and a formative incident took place at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Maryland.

"They refused to serve us, and I think they expected my father just to go away," says Jones. "And my father must have been heard... a roar that went on forever. And we were dragged out by the police ultimately."

Jones' parents were an interracial couple, which was rare for that time. He says his black grandparents were supportive, but his white grandparents fled. He saw them only twice in his entire life.

"I think it hurt my mother," says Jones. "One time after I finished a case out in California, I did get to see them and my mother did tell me over and over again.... My mother called me and she was crying. She said, 'What a nice... you know, what I missed.'"

In 1966, Jones' father created Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration, the nation's first community development corporation, with help from Bobby Kennedy. Two years later, Jones interned for Kennedy during his presidential campaign.

"Being part of a new American leadership. That's what you felt when you were with Kennedy, that you were not in Brooklyn anymore," Jones remembers. "Martin Luther King's death and Bobby's death were an understanding that this was going to be a very long, hard road."

Jones says he is part of the generation that, in his words, "took the elevator up" because of the civil rights movement.

But he says several of his black peers who were part of that generation struggled. They were young lawyers, working without the support of the "old boy network" at the firm, under extra pressure to be perfect.

He recalls one Harvard Law and Business School graduate who was passed over for partnership.

"He made the mistake of going around to partners and telling them what he really thought of them all, and he found it virtually impossible to work after that and ultimately died of suicide," Jones says.

A serious man trying to tackle serious problems, Jones escapes through animated movies. His favorite is "Chicken Run."

But there is no escaping the skepticism he often faces when discussing poverty.

"'What are you talking about, Jones?' You know, 'Things are going great, new restaurants opening every five minutes, and you know, they're packed,'" Jones says.

One of his mantras is that the issue of increasing poverty is an issue for all New Yorkers.

"If we have these continual rates of crime, because people have no work, for years on end, forget it," says Jones. "You know, I don't care if it's the Trump Tower or Atlantic Terminal, it all goes up in smoke."

It comes back to the question Jones has tried to answer for more than 40 years: how to fix the problem of poverty? It's an old problem with many new challenges, but occasionally there are small victories.

"To actually know that if you shift even some minor issue in terms of more resources to people in poverty, in housing, in health, we are going to have an enormous exponential impact on tens of thousands of people," Jones says. "You don't generally get those chances in life."

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