Life is about evolution. Not the type that pits faith against science but the type that pushes individuals to become their best selves. Throughout life, you’re likely to encounter three types of people: those who simply accept change, those who welcome change, and those who enact it. AJ Woodson is arguably all three. A man of many titles, Woodson can be called a journalist, rapper, radio personality, author, and the editor-in-chief of Black Westchester magazine. Throughout his career, he’s proven that he’s also an agent of change.
Woodson, who was born in Mount Vernon, returned home in 2014 after a stint in Atlanta. He was back to help his sister care for his mother, but he’d soon find that there was other work to be done too. His time away allowed him to see how much had changed in his hometown for better and for worse. As far as he could tell, it was a place in need of something.
Friend and collaborator Damon K. Jones shared his sentiments, not only about the state of Mount Vernon but also about the skewed media coverage of the people who lived there. Together, they brought Black Westchester to life. They began to cover the local stories that impacted their community, stories that other outlets often ignored. Over time, they would grow to cover national stories, as well. “[Of the local news publications], there wasn’t one specifically for Black people, so we felt we needed to do that. We wanted to highlight our issues, educate our people, and help change the narrative of how we’re covered in the media,” Woodson explains.
Political news was never his intention, however. Before the launch of the magazine, in 2014, he’d spent most of his career as a freelance entertainment journalist, covering rappers, musicians, and the like. His résumé includes such publications as The Source, Vibe, The Village Voice, and Upscale. Now, he was on the brink of a new phase, and as can be expected, entering that phase didn’t come easily. One of the biggest challenges Woodson faced early on was proving his credibility.
“This was my first non-entertainment venture,” Woodson says, explaining that he was “never into politics” before Black Westchester. As often happens, members of his hometown community had a difficult time accepting this new version of AJ; they were already so familiar with the AJ they once knew. He found that if he covered the same story that appeared on lohud.com or News 12, he needed “more facts, more quotes, and more links,” before his own community would believe him. But he was prepared to rise to the occasion, so, like any good journalist, he became familiar with his subject matter.
“In doing the stories [for Black Westchester], I learned,” he admits. “I’d be asking questions for our readers and listeners, but sometimes it was for me too.”
In the beginning, Woodson was often overlooked at press conferences and events, and sometimes not even called when news was happening. Local leaders seemed to view his publication as a fly-by-night blog. “Very few of the local leaders actually took us seriously; they didn’t feel there was a need to give us quotes or even pay us any attention,” Woodson says. “Sometimes I would find out that a story was happening because News 12 was there live, then I’d hop on it very quickly.”
Along with establishing his credibility, it also took some work convincing people that there was even a need for such a publication. Mainstream media doesn’t always see the void it leaves, so it’s sometimes easy for mainstream creators to view publications created for a specific community or audience as redundant or even biased. “We had a lot of people say that Black Westchester was racist,” Woodson explains. “When you’re pro-Black, you’re usually seen as anti-something, and that’s not the case here.”
Anyone seeking proof that Black Westchester was needed can look to its longevity. In June, they celebrated eight years of the publication’s website and the online radio show, People Before Politics, which Woodson and Jones cofounded and host. This year also marks the five-year anniversary of the Black Westchester print magazine.
“I cannot tell you that I totally knew it would have the impact that it’s had,” Woodson adds We’ve done a lot. We did the stories that more mainstream media didn’t feel were important enough. We’ve been instrumental in getting people out to vote and in criminal justice reform too.” He even speaks of one story that led to a young man who was wrongfully incarcerated being released and exonerated.
The impact of his work is obvious. Although Woodson himself won’t take credit for it, it’s difficult to deny that since the rise of his magazine, there has been an increase in other publications covering the stories and issues relevant to the African American community in Westchester.
There’s also something to be said about the value he places on accessibility. After all, it isn’t enough to publish information that otherwise can’t be accessed by the people who need it most. When it comes to information about community leaders, politicians, jobs, etc., “there are so many things [the Black community] doesn’t take advantage of, because we don’t always get the news, so it was important for me to share that, as well.” That’s why readers won’t encounter any pay-walls with the online magazine; the print magazine is also free, and guests are able to appear on the radio show free of charge.
“I want to inspire, encourage, empower, and educate the next generation of truth speakers, whether they’re activists, journalists, community leaders, or something else.”
For Woodson, lifting up his community goes beyond his storytelling. He works to pay it forward whenever and however he can. In collaboration with the Boys to Men mentoring program and Cecil H. Parker Elementary School, he and Jones help young men expand their horizons and work toward a successful future. He also often speaks at Mount Vernon High School on career day or any other time they need him.
Budding journalists can also find an open door at Black Westchester. “I give opportunities to young photographers who need clips and experience, as well as to young writers who want to get involved in this type of work — and I share my knowledge willingly,” Woodson explains.
For Woodson, his faith has also been instrumental in his growth and success. “Outside of my talent and work ethic, a lot of what I’ve been able to do was because of my faith,” he offers, adding that he started off breaking the rules, “because I didn’t know what the rules were,” making it up as he went along. When he was unsure of what the next move would be or how this venture would make a profit, he kept the faith and simply kept moving forward.
Clearly, Woodson has shown that he knows what it is to evolve. His first book, Black Westchester: The Origin Story & How My Faith Was Instrumental in This Great Experiment, is now available on Amazon. If all goes as planned, his second book will be gearing up for release this fall. His third literary effort, which will educate readers on the many modern achievements of African Americans in Westchester, will be available in early 2023. There may even be some documentaries in his future.
“I want to inspire, encourage, empower, and educate the next generation of truth speakers, whether they’re activists, journalists, community leaders, or something else,” he explains. While he’s far from done, it’s likely not too soon to consider that goal accomplished.