The Sammies Series: Q&A with Booz Allen Hamilton’s Cedric Sims and civil rights lawyer Jon Michael Seward
In his nearly 30 years at the Department of Justice, Jon Michael Seward has successfully brought lawsuits against banks to ensure that tens of thousands of people living in underserved and minority communities could gain access to credit. Seward, a principal deputy chief in the DOJ’s civil rights division, was a 2020 Service to America Medals finalist in the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement category.
Jon Michael Seward discussed his civil rights career with Booz Allen Hamilton’s Senior Vice President Cedric Sims. Prior to joining Booz Allen, Sims served in the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Secret Service.
Sims: Can you describe the specific work that you do at the Department of Justice?
Seward: My work directing the Department of Justice’s fair lending enforcement program gives me the opportunity to enforce our nation’s fair lending laws. We live in a credit society. Credit is vital if you want to start a business or purchase a car or home. I make sure that people have access to credit on a non-discriminatory basis. There’s nothing better than the personal and professional satisfaction I get from making a difference in people’s lives.
Sims: One of the unique things that I’ve experienced at Booz Allen is that, as a values-driven firm, we have a responsibility to create a more equitable world. Recent events compelled us to deepen our commitment to racial and social equity, and I appreciate everything you are doing within your role to do the same. Was this part of why you initially chose a career in public service?
Seward: I didn’t envision a career in public service or in civil rights when I was in law school. After working as an attorney at the Department of Agriculture for a year after school, I accepted a job with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency was looking for attorneys to work on the newly passed Fair Housing Amendments Act, and it was there that I developed a penchant for what became my career’s work.
I tried a case on behalf of a woman who was being evicted because her landlord doubled her rent after discovering that her children had Black friends. We won the case, and the woman wrote me a letter saying how I had turned the most traumatic experience of her life into a happy ending. She said that she and her kids were made whole by the work I was doing on behalf of the government. That letter resonated with me in a powerful way, and I developed my passion for civil rights work.
Sims: As you reflect on your years of public service, is there one accomplishment of which you are most proud?
Seward: DOJ resolved a lawsuit against Wells Fargo for engaging in lending discrimination against minority groups. Part of the $234 million settlement included a $50 million fund for down payment assistance on homes. I interviewed a teacher in Baltimore who was able to purchase a home because of this program. She was the first homeowner in her family, and she described how being a homeowner had transformed not only her life, but also her family’s lives.
Because of this program, 3,000 borrowers were able to buy homes, and 2,400 of these were first-time homebuyers. It felt great to see that our work made a difference in people’s lives all across the country.
Sims: We want to amplify your story and share it with others to ensure that leading executives such as yourself are recognized for your service to our nation, which is absolutely core to our values. We also share these stories of incredible public servants to inspire the next generation to serve. What would you say to persuade a recent graduate to serve in government?
Seward: The Department of Justice, specifically, provides excellent opportunities for young attorneys to develop their skills. The agency has a professional development office committed to training newer attorneys. Also, when people or companies are sued by the Department of Justice, they retain the best defense attorneys money can buy. That helps you develop your skills because you’re always going up against very skilled and high-paid attorneys. I work with some of the smartest, most driven people imaginable.
One of the significant benefits of government service is that decisions are made according to what’s best for the public interest. In the government, you take on a fight because it’s the mission of the agency. There’s something very inspirational about going to court and saying that you represent the United States of America. It might sound corny, but I find that to be quite a thrill.
Sims: That reminds me of the two times I had the chance to take the oath – when I started with the U.S. Secret Service and when I joined the Senior Executive Service. There’s such a responsibility in taking these oaths on behalf of our nation and the federal government. I fully appreciate the opportunity, but also the gravity, of the call to serve.
Do you have any closing thoughts to share?
Seward: I’m appreciative of the role you play in sharing the stories of federal workers to inspire others. If not for those efforts, people would not be aware of the exciting opportunities for their careers.
Read Jon Michael Seward’s Sammies profile for more on his civil rights work at the Department of Justice, and visit Booz Allen Hamilton’s website to learn about the company’s mission and work. For more on this year’s Sammies virtual awards program, read Inspiring Stories from this year’s Service to America Medals.
Join the conversation with #Sammies2020 and follow the Partnership on Twitter @publicservice.
This post is part of a new blog series featuring in-depth interviews with our 2020 Service to America Medal finalists. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.