Black Excellence: J.T. Wilson III
A seasoned trial attorney and partner in the Dinsmore law firm, J.T. Wilson III focuses on cybersecurity and data privacy, wage and hour class and collective actions, as well as labor and employment law. He leads the labor and employment team in Chicago for Dinsmore and is a member of the firm’s board of directors and handles internal investigations, arbitrations and trials before administrative agencies and in federal and state courts across the country. He earned a doctorate in law from DePaul University College of Law and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois Chicago, where he was a student athlete. He is a member of the International Association of Defense Counsel, member of the National Association of Railroad Trial Counsel, Young Attorneys Executive Advisory Board Member, member of the National Employment Law Council and is a member of the University of Illinois Chicago Chancellor’s Athletics Advisory Committee.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:32
Welcome. Welcome to University of Illinois Chicago’s “Black Excellence” podcast, sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement in partnership with the Office of Vice Chancellor for Strategic Marketing and Communications. I’m your host, Dr. Aisha El-Amin and I serve as UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. So, some of you may know this, but UIC’s “Black Excellence” podcast initiated in Black History Month 2022 with “28 Days of Black Excellence,” which highlighted the history and legacy of exceptional black faculty, students and staff that call UIC home. And during this month we talked to graduates in all walks of life from entrepreneurs to politicians, and they inspired, gave us sage advice and connected their past journey with our current one.
However, UIC cup of black excellence runneth over. So, we continue this month, as a monthly podcast series with the understanding that you cannot know where you’re going, unless you understand, appreciate and connect to where you’ve come from. So today, I have the absolute pleasure of being joined by J.T. Wilson III. An attorney, J.T. Wilson is going to tell us a little bit about himself. But just as an introduction, he graduated in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and he is a partner at a Chicago law firm right now. He is doing a lot of great and exceptional work and is still connected to UIC serving on the Chancellor’s Athletic Advisory Committee and just doing great things. And so, Attorney Wilson, please tell us a little bit about who you are, where you come from, and kind of how you landed where you are right now.
J.T. Wilson III 2:23
So first, let me pause by saying thank you for the opportunity to be a guest on this podcast. Knowing some of the guests that you’ve had previously, and knowing them personally, I’m not quite sure how I made the list. But I’m honored to be included in such an esteemed and distinguished group of panelists and guests. Thank you and the UIC community for the foresight in putting something like this together. Because I do think it’s helpful and it’s useful to see a different perspective of achievement and accomplishment and to hear the stories of what led to that accomplishment and the role that UIC played in it. So, I really appreciate the opportunity to share with you here today.
Let me begin by saying I am first and foremost a person of faith. And so that’s how I lead. That’s who I am. The things that I do in life are not who I am, but they are indicative of who I am. They are a byproduct of who I am. And so that’s first and foremost. I am also a Chicago native, a product of the West Side of Chicago. So, if I was in my circle, I’d say West Side. And then I am also a former student-athlete. Having graduated from the university, I spent time at two of the University of Illinois System campuses starting in Urbana-Champaign and finishing my collegiate career at UIC. I graduated from there and went on to law school straight through, which I’m sure we’ll unpack a little bit about my UI experience, my UIC experience which led to that. And then I continued to serve through the private sector as well as public sector and in the community through various roles that I’ve been fortunate enough to hold within the UIC community and within the Chicagoland and state of Illinois and national community at large. And currently practice in the Chicago office of a national law firm, where we have over 800 attorneys, and I lead the Labor Employment Practice Group here in Chicago.
Aisha El-Amin 4:09
Wow. And you say all of that in the other breath. You say I don’t know how I’ve been asked to be a part of this but [laughing].
J.T. Wilson III 4:17
No, no I don’t. But I’m glad you did.
Aisha El-Amin 4:48
Yes. No. Well, you are you are amongst the greats coming out of UIC and so we appreciate you spending the time with us. Tell me, as a young man coming from the West Side of Chicago did you know that you would end up here? Did you go in and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be an attorney, and I’m going to be leading, you know, hundreds of folks and doing trials and you know, defending,’ like, did you know this going in? What was that? How did you get there?
J.T. Wilson III 5:22
So, I would say that practicing law is probably my fourth career choice. Well, third, third or fourth career choice, depending on how you count, but I’ve known early. So, it came to me and I must admit, it was not something that originated from me. And this is one of the reasons why I hold educators in such high esteem. There are three general roles in our society that I hold out as gatekeepers, because I believe they are instrumental in the formation of the lives of us all. And one of those roles is that of educator.
It was actually my third-grade teacher that instilled in me the desire, the passion, the thought to even consider law. I’m first gen(eration). There were no predecessors to me in my family. There was no roadmap, there was no structure to follow. My mom was — I love her dearly — primarily a single parent. There was a spell when my late stepfather was in the household. And I’ll talk about that in a moment as well, but primarily raised by a single mother and a single mother who was not educated. She did not complete high school, later went back and tried to get her GED, but did not finish and graduate from high school. And so, education was always important to her. But very early on, she tapped out. There wasn’t too much she can do to assist me in that realm. And so, I was pretty much left on my own.
But my third-grade teacher challenged me, and well, I guess it’s because I was challenging her on homework. And as an educator, please don’t hold this against me. But my very basic argument was, I did not understand why we had homework every day. And she told me that the purpose was so that we can learn the lesson. And I challenged her because I said, we’ve been in school for hours throughout the day, going over this work. If we don’t know it by now, then there’s something wrong with the system. So, what she told me, she said, ‘You know what, one day you will make a really good lawyer.’ And it just stuck in my mind. I hadn’t heard it before. I hadn’t seen it modeled in my family. But that seed was planted. And so that’s why I hold educators in very high esteem. And I also challenged them to look past that person’s current situation and see the possibility. See what you can see for them, that they may not be able to see for themselves because of their current circumstances.
Aisha El-Amin 7:46
Wow. Now I have to ask, what high school did you graduate from?
J.T. Wilson III 7:49
So, I’m a product of the Chicago Public School system through and through. I graduated from an elementary school which is no longer in existence but is now currently the site for one of the Ogden campuses was Philo Carpenter. And I graduated from high school from Senn Academy on the Northside.
Aisha El-Amin 8:05
Wow, wow. That I understand. I’m a CPS graduate. CPS. Absolutely. So, when you talk about the seeds and her planting that seed, you went to U of I (The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), you went to UIC, you went to DePaul University. Like how, how did you land there? From third grade to getting to all of these very elite spaces and making success out of your situation?
J.T. Wilson III 8:36
Well, children are frequently products of their environment, right? We know Maslow’s laws. And we know the impacts that the environment, the home environment, has on children. It’s the lens through which we first see the world. And I saw my mom who was not an educated woman from an academic perspective, but a very resourceful, and diligent woman. I’d be hard-pressed to find many that work harder than her. And so, excuses were not something that were suffered in the household. You know, her sacrifice and me being sensitive and consciously aware of the sacrifices she made to provide an opportunity, just a shot, for us to have a better experience and a better life than what she may have had from an accomplishment, achievement, academic achievement, perspective. For me, that was in large part motivation, right? Motivation because I saw the sacrifice and I didn’t want to let that sacrifice go by the wayside or faltered or wasted in any respect. She literally gave her life for her children. And so, I wanted to reward that by taking the opportunity to make something of it.
Basketball was a vehicle for me. I picked up when I was a student-athlete and basketball let me open some of the doors that I was able to walk into. I’m fortunate that I actually had as many, if not more, academic scholarship opportunities as I had athletic scholarship opportunities because although my mother was not an educated woman, she believed in the importance of education. And so, you have to be eligible to play. And my mom expected nothing but your best. And we’ll probably talk about that a little bit later on. So that became my standard, not looking over to see what anyone else did, but being very keenly attentive to what my best was and ensuring that I performed at an optimum level for myself. And so those opportunities led to me playing initially at U of I. I took a red-shirt year my freshman year. The coach retired, the coach we thought would get the job at U of I did not. He ended up getting hired at UIC, Jim Collins, the late Jimmy Collins. He gave me the opportunity to transfer from the University of Illinois, Champaign back home to Chicago.
Aisha El-Amin 11:05
I love it. So, you’ve given me so much that my mind is going 50 miles an hour. So, you connected with first gen(ereation), you’ve connected with some of our West Side students. And I’d love you to talk about how you balance your athletic world which we know has its own demands with your academic world. And if you can give advice to those athletes that are listening and trying to do that balancing act now.
J.T. Wilson III 11:31
Well, and it is indeed very difficult. I listened to a few of the prior episodes and one young man whom I’m very fond of, Nathaniel Downey, Nate Downey, also played soccer at UIC, and I know Nate pretty well. It’s time management. And I also would say it’s important to identify transferable skills. So, one of the roles I play on campus as I’ve been part of, of this passing the torch program, which the athletic department has, which brings in professionals to speak to college athletes to help them understand and appreciate and identify transferable skills. Students in the general student body have opportunities for internships, they have opportunities to pursue different jobs and roles and internships within their respective fields.
But because of the time demand and the physical demands—physical, mental, and emotional demands of collegiate athletics—student athletes rarely have those opportunities. And so, it’s important to identify the skills that you develop as a student athlete that are refined. Home/time management, critical thinking skills. Problem solving, crisis management, conflict resolution skills, right? And the ability to make adjustments.
You know, in the game of basketball, no one lets you score. In the game of soccer, and no one’s letting you. There’s adversity and there’s opposition to you accomplishing your goal. And part of a student athlete’s makeup is to confront that challenge, make an adjustment, and find a way to get over it. Mistakes are made, how do you rebound and correct your mistakes to help propel you towards your goals? So, it’s helping the student-athletes understand that there are skills that are developed through the competition that enhance and enable you to perform in your chosen field. But also, another component of that is ensuring that you prioritize your goals and your future.
So, when I transferred from U of I, when I was at U of I, my major was political science, prelaw. And, you know, transferring into UIC, many of my colleagues at U of I were communications majors — and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with being a communications major — but that was not my path. And so, I had to be an advocate for myself to let them know that I understand that that’s where most student-athletes are, and particularly in the sports of football and basketball, which are the revenue-generating sports, but that’s not my path. And I needed to advocate for myself to follow my path. My path is to eventually get into law school. And I thought it was best for me to take courses and be in a major that I thought would prepare me for that.
I now have a broader view of that, but I do still think it’s important to advocate for yourself. When I transferred to UIC, many of my teammates and other student-athletes were in the College of Kinesiology. I appreciate it. It’s a very difficult field of study. But that was not again, that was not my path. And so being an advocate for myself, to pursue what I perceive to be my path where I wanted to go and really fighting hard for that, and then putting in the work for it.
There were a couple of professors because of the way the basketball season falls—basketball covers both fall and spring semesters, right? Most sports are in one or the other, but basketball covers both. And I remember one of my professors in the political science department — won’t forget it, Kevin Liles—he was perplexed because I spent a lot of time away from the classroom just because of our travel schedule during the season. And we took — I think it was the midterm exam — and I had the highest score in the class. And he was somewhat baffled by that because I was the one that was there the least during that particular period of time.
And so, you know, I just encourage student-athletes to remember that, you know, your student-athletes. Student comes before athletes, and you have to be eligible in order to compete to participate anyway. So why not give it your best, why not do the best you can to prepare yourself for the life after, after competition, right? Let’s say, let’s say your career goes exactly as planned, mine did not, but let’s say your career goes exactly as planned. And you play professionally, and you do that. In the game of basketball, 40 years old you’re a dinosaur, right? You’re old? But in the practice of law, I’m just now hitting my stride in many respects, right? And so, you’re going to, you’re going to work longer than your athletic career would allow you to compete.
And so, performing well as a student helps prepare you for life after competition. That degree, that education, that exposure that you obtained during your four or five, six years, at university, you keep that for the rest of your life. And you’re able to utilize that in a myriad of ways. Some of which you may not even be consciously or, you know, you may not be consciously aware of at this particular time. And so, I encourage every student-athlete to secure the degree. There’s an exchange, there’s an agreement between the university and a student-athlete. University says we will give you an opportunity to obtain an education in exchange for your athletic abilities. And I tell every student-athlete, if you leave the university, without getting that degree, then you’ve gotten the short end of the bargain, you’ve left something on the table. It’s vitally important to get that degree.
Aisha El-Amin 16:59
No, that is really, really, great advice. And I appreciate how laser-focused you were along the way in advocating for yourself. As you look back at that time, what are some words of advice for students who are kind of on the struggle bus and are trying to find their way? What can you, what can you offer them?
J.T. Wilson III 17:24
Well, I want to make sure that I don’t give the perception that life was a bed of roses for me, because one thing that happened to me that an experience that I encountered at UIC is I became a parent very young. So, the beginning of my junior year, my firstborn, my daughter was born. So, I was just turned 20 years old, almost a month after I turned 20. So, my laser focus was, in large part, because I had a mouth to feed. And I had someone to take care of, to be honest, right? At a very early age, but I would say, I’ve broken it down to the six Ps.
I think the first is purpose, you know, why are you here? What is the purpose that you are here to accomplish in life?
And then the second I would say is perception. Where have you been that you bring to you? I am the byproduct of in large part, single-parent household. You know, my late stepfather was first-generation Greek. So, a diverse household during a time that diversity was not popular. And you know, I was raised with as much Greek culture as I was African American culture, because there wasn’t a “this is your turn, this is my turn.” It just was how we lived. And so, I saw the importance of inclusivity modeled in my home. I also saw the adverse impacts of inequity. And I saw how my late stepfather was ostracized from his community because he chose to love a woman who was from a different ethnic background than he was. And so, I saw that struggle. And so I became sensitive to inequity. So I think it’s important to appreciate the perceptions that you bring through the experiences that you have.
One of the most significant classes I had during my UIC career was taught by Dick Simpson, who I understand is hosting a lecture coming up here in a few weeks, and it looked at the segregation index of the city of Chicago as one of the most segregated if not the most segregated cities in North America. And that remains true today. Right? And that inequity, which is by design, it’s not happenstance, it’s by design in large part. That triggered me, right? And I understand that that’s the lens through which I view the world. I resist waste. And I resist inequity. And I actually am an advocate to bring those down. So, it’s not just seeing it and being triggered by it, but it’s actually employing, deploying resources that are available to me to ensure that no one misses out because of it. So that’s, that’s the perception, it’s important to know where you’ve been because it shapes how you view the world ahead.
And then I think it’s also important, the third P, is to have perspective. Where are you going? And in order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you currently are. Right? So, perception gives you where you’ve been, but perspective gives you the foresight from where you are, what is my vantage point? Where am I starting from.
And then I think it’s important to be persistent. You know, it takes discipline, it typically does not happen and occur overnight. It is the persistence of pursuing the destination, pursuing the journey pursuing the goal. It’s that pursuit, that I think is important, and it must be persistent and must be consistent, right. There’s a rhythm to life. I think there’s a rhythm to your pursuit.
And then I think it’s also important to persevere. It’s not going to come easy. You will make mistakes. And I think mistakes are great teachers. Because mistakes help shape, they help refine, they helped strengthen us for the platforms and for the positions that we will hold. It’s the process, and I think the process is vitally important.
And then the last p I would toss in is perfection. And let me spend a little time on this in breaking this down. I appreciate excellence. But excellence, as I see it from a definition is a comparative language. So that means I’m comparing myself to something or someone else. But just because I’m better than the person to the right of me does not mean I’m my best version of myself. I’m just better than them. And so, perfection, as I define it, I use it from the Greek root, which defines matured. Now, maturity does not speak to an absence of fault, an absence of error. But it speaks to the ability to identify the error, to identify the shortcoming and to make the necessary adjustment to overcome it or to meet it. So, for example, a child, a baby, an infant. An infant gets hungry but lacks the ability to feed themselves. If it gets tired and sleeping, it frequently cries because he doesn’t how to put themselves to sleep, right? But an adult mature person gets hungry and knows how to address the hunger. A mature person gets tired, gets fatigued, but knows how to address the weariness and the fatigue.
And so, when I speak of perfection I speak of ‘Can you look in the mirror at the end of every day, and say, I’ve shot my best shot today?’ Now you may have only had five bullets — and I know that’s dangerous language, probably figure another analogy in Chicago — I’ve given my best, right? I may have only had a can or a cup that can hold three ounces in it. But you know what, I filled all three and I used all three ounces, right? And so that’s not comparative, but that’s looking inward, to challenge myself to be the best version of myself that I can be.
So, purpose, perception, perspective, persistence, perseverance, perfection.
Aisha El-Amin 24:01
I wrote those down, because I certainly appreciate them, and I appreciate the thought that you put into each of them. And I’m sitting here, and I know that the audience won’t see you rocking your UIC swag.
J.T. Wilson III 24:20
I’m rocking it, I’m rocking it. UIC basketball all day. And you know, there’s a little story behind that too. You know, having spent time at two of the Illinois system campuses, again, inequity, right? I started at U of I, and Champaign seemingly wants for nothing in terms of the resources that were deployed and available: 24-hour libraries, 24-hour computer labs and the like. And when I transferred to UIC I remember it was my first week on campus. I’m in the dorms and someone came to me, I was in a computer lab, and the person said, ‘We need you to log off because the lab is closing.’ And I was completely bewildered by that comment.
Aisha El-Amin 25:01
Like, ‘How dare you close.’
J.T. Wilson III 25:02
‘Closing? Like, the computer lab is closing?’ And so, I became keenly aware of the difference in the resources and the resources available to the campuses. And at that point, I vowed to do everything I could to make sure UIC obtained number one, the recognition that it deserved as an international world-class university. It is one of the world’s top research institutes. And I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that. So, I think it’s very important to promote and elevate that profile, but then also to ensure that the UIC community galvanizes, comes together, and supports the university to ensure that the university — not only that people are more aware of the university’s stature and its accomplishments — but also that the students who come through the university, not just the alumni, but also the students have a better experience.
The alumni feel that sense of belonging, that sense of inclusivity and not a sense of we’re the stepchild, or the delinquents out of this, but we’re actually on par with the other schools, the other campuses in the university system, but then also that the current and future students have a better experience than those that we may have had. So, I’m glad to see what happens on campus now. I mean, there’s actually a campus. I mean, I’m on campus quite a bit, but you mentioned with a few of the roles that currently play on campus and it’s exciting to see what the university has become over the past — wow, it’s been a while — two decades since I attended.
Aisha El-Amin 26:50
Yeah, you know, I appreciate that you, you’ve always been here, right? Like, you’ve not left. You’ve stayed connected, you’ve stayed serving UIC, and it’s greatly appreciated.
J.T. Wilson III 27:05
No, you know, UIC played such a pivotal role in my development. And, you know, I matured quite a bit during my time at UIC. I appreciated the experiences I had. I saw inclusivity. UIC is one of the most diverse institutions you can encounter. And that melting pot, literally, that melting pot, gives you the opportunity to benefit from perspectives and experiences that are different from yours. And the applications of those, I think are vast. I could not, I could not number them. I could not name them all. And so that’s a rich heritage and a rich experience that I believe UIC fosters.
So, not only do you have the academic excellence, and the academic element of it, but you also have the social component of it. And now that there is more of a campus experience, I think students benefit from that even more now. When I attended UIC it was still in large part a commuter school. That’s changed significantly. There is a campus now and students can benefit from that social, cultural exchange, ethnic exchange, by cohabiting environments in a campus setting. So, they can mature and develop and grow in a space where there are others in a similar process. But looking and viewing it through a different lens and having the opportunity to have that, I use the word tension because I think it…conflict is not the issue. The issue is how you resolve conflict. We’re in conflict within ourselves. It’s the ability to resolve the conflict within ourselves as it is with conflict with things that might be or experiences that might be different from ours.
There’s a saying that I frequently have and I apologize for waxing philosophical on you. But I say, change is inevitable, but growth is optional. When you’re confronted with difference, there’s a change that occurs. You can’t stop that. But you can turn away from the opportunity to grow. Some people are forced into change and refuse to grow. They want to remain the same. Others confronted with a similar opportunity and in the similar situation take the opportunity to expand to stretch themselves to grow. And growth is not without pain. There is some pain there is some discomfort in growth. But we’re better because of it. And so, I actively look for opportunities to grow.
Aisha El-Amin 29:38
You are just inspiring; I could just sit and listen to you all day. You have such wisdom, and I appreciate you sharing it with the UIC community. I appreciate all the greatness that you’re putting back out in the world with your UIC basketball t-shirt on while doing it. I want to take an opportunity to thank you again for joining UIC’s Black Excellence podcast and I want to encourage all folks that are listening to learn more about you. We’re going to of course attach your bio. You are an inspiration, and we hope to continue to stay connected as a UIC family.
J.T. Wilson III 30:21
I appreciate you greatly. I thank the UIC community, and yourself, for the opportunity to address the UIC community and the opportunity to serve. There has to be a recipient in the audience to receive this service, and I thank you for the opportunity to be of service.
Tariq El-Amin 30:43
Thanks for joining us. Find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alum, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.