As a child, Yohuru Williams would go with his father to the largest housing project in their hometown of Bridgeport, Conn.
His father taught music there, and a young Williams often tagged along. This is where Williams became aware of social and economic inequalities, he said.
“I spent a lot of time in that housing complex,” Williams said. “I saw the root of that inequality every day.”
Today, Dr. Williams brings a passion for education, social justice and equality to the University of St. Thomas as the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a position he took over in July. Williams was hired after working as the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
Williams is known as a historian in African-American history and culture, and an activist for civil rights and education reform.
Among his most notable career accomplishments, Williams has written and contributed to multiple books, including his most recent work, “The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution.” He is a former chief historian of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, as well as a regular contributor for the Huffington Post.
I sat down with Williams in September for a wide-ranging inter- view that covers his background, his plans at St. Thomas, the university’s new two-year Dougherty Family College, his thoughts on the current racial and social climate, and his vision for the future.
Question: Tell me about your background.
Williams: I was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I went to Fairfield College Preparatory School, which is a Jesuit school. I became deeply interested in and invested in Catholic intellectual tradition and the mission and identity of schools like Fairfield Prep, Fairfield University, St. Thomas, that really blend the liberal arts and a commitment to social justice.
From there I went to the University of Scranton, which is also a Jesuit school, for college, and then from there to Howard University for graduate school. And what they all have in common, even though Howard is an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), is [they’re] also deeply invested in the idea that if you are getting an education or somebody invested in you, you have a responsibility to give back to your community.
Q: What attracted you to the University of St. Thomas?
This is a great place. When you are on the East Coast—New York City, Philadelphia, Boston—those Metropolitan areas are very big and sometimes it can feel like you are not making an impact. One of the great things about the Twin Cities is that it’s big, it’s a major metropolitan area, but you actually feel like you can see the impact of the work that you do.
Q: How does your background in African-American history and culture transfer over to St. Thomas, a school that is lacking diversity?
W: By definition, it is. Because part of the idea of moving into spaces where you don’t have large representation of people of color is to shift the narrative and to demonstrate the importance of diversity. When you have a school that is willing to take on or to search for and be very open in the type of candidates it will attract, that by definition or extension should attract students of color because they see the opportunities for acceptance, they see the opportunities for diversity, they see the university’s commitment to diversity in that way. So it is not really part of my portfolio as dean, but it is certainly in the back of my mind in terms of making a difference.
When you are talking about private elite institutions, for the most part, diversity is a problem across the board. Parts of that are getting in and trying to create pathways for students of color to be able to a) have the financial resources to go to college—Dougherty Family College answers part of that—but b) just to create a space where they feel welcomed and accommodated. And that really begins with a diverse faculty, diverse leadership, opportunities for student engagement. And that is something as dean that you can really work to improve.
Q: How would you like to see St. Thomas contribute to a sense of community in surrounding public schools?
W: I think one of the great things that was attractive to me about this campus was ThreeSixty Journalism. That’s a good example of a program that shows the university’s commitment and investment in young people that live in this community. Whether they come to St. Thomas or not, that’s part of the mission.
We talk about educating students to think critically and act wisely toward the common good, part of that is thinking about the ways in which we can create opportunities for students in the Twin Cities to self-actualize, to realize their dreams, to actually make a difference.
This is a good example of a program that really demonstrates that investment and commitment to the young people in this community and also says, ‘Your success is our success.’ Ultimately, as we demonstrate and create opportunities for young people we hope to at the same time make our campus more diverse and give people a sense that the community and campus work in partnership for the better of the Twin Cities as a whole.
Q: What kind of atmosphere do you envision at St. Thomas?
W: I am an education activist and I also take on anti-racist activism. My agenda is to remain active in those areas in which I have expertise, and to try and create opportunities in those areas, to try and bring light to things like unjustified shooting and policing of black and brown bodies in public spaces, problems associated with education and educational inequality. And then on campus as a whole, just trying to make sure that we’re more diverse and that we address diversity in ways that are substantive so we are not just talking about it, but we are doing something to address that inequality.
Q: Are we taking steps backward in terms of social equality and social justice?
W: It is difficult for me to say that we are taking a step back because that would negate the work that was done by previous generations in addressing the more visible, legal structures that limited opportunities for African-Americans and others. So we are fortunate we don’t have Jim Crow segregation anymore. There are no “white” and “colored” signs. But there is still significant racial and economic inequality in this country.
Next April we will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. One could argue that the things that he was pushing for toward the close of his life in 1968 haven’t substantively been addressed. You had a King who said we looked very deeply at issues of racial injustice, but we should have also in part of that conversation been talking about access and opportunity, economic justice.
Right now in the present moment, a lot of the conversations… are about racism and economic justice. And when a society doesn’t live up to its principles, what you get are these embarrassing moments where you profess one thing, but the reality on the ground is something far different. Puerto Rico is a good example of that, our unwillingness to address police killings is a good example of that, the state of our public schools is a good example of that.
Q: How did you become invested in addressing these issues?
W: I grew up in a household where my parents were both educators. My father was a music teacher, my mom worked with young people, and they were community activists in the sense that they worked in community centers…
Everybody gets spiritual gifts, we all don’t get the same. Some people are great singers, some people are actors, some people are writers, some people are speakers. But whatever it is you’ve been given—some people are great athletes—you find a way to share that in a space that helps to build community and support others.
So when I had the opportunity to go to college, my parents were very clear, you have to do something with those talents in order to address the things that you came from and to do something substantive and tangible to bring others along.
My entire career has really been about that. That is why I stayed in higher ed. I spent a little bit of time with the Jackie Robinson Foundation. I was the chief historian there, but I also was the vice president for community outreach. What we did was provide scholarships to young people to be able to go to school.
Q: How can St. Thomas be at the forefront of becoming a more diverse university?
W: You have to create pathways to higher education for students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to go. A lot of that is financial. There is structural inequality that is kind of baked into all of this.
I think Dougherty Family College [St. Thomas’ new two-year school] is a very good example of how St. Thomas is trying to address that. It is one of the reasons that I was very attracted to coming here because to me that’s a very deep investment in, ‘Let’s create this pathway.’ And then hopefully our responsibility in the college will be, once those students get through those two years, to create a clear path to a degree for those students who matriculate through Dougherty.
Q: What can high schools do to help get students of color to places like St. Thomas?
W: It’s a good question, it’s a difficult question, because those schools are still struggling with the same structural inequalities that universities are. In fact, the problem is more acute when we talk about K-12. If we go back to Ferguson in 2014 after Michael Brown was killed, the number of students that were on free-and-reduced lunch in the Ferguson- Florissant School District, that was a good indication of the level of poverty in that community. So when we talk about K-12 and what teachers can do in that space, we have to equip them to do that.
It is not just about more technology. People say, “Teachers need to be better trained.” You can’t talk about that if you have classes that are 35 students deep. You have to have a small class size. Although charter schools offer one opportunity, there should be deep investment in public schools. All students should have an opportunity and we should be thinking about creating pathways for all students to get that quality of education.
We can’t abandon things. Foreign language should be taught, should be required. Technical skills. But also the liberal arts: history, culture, English… Schools have a big role to play, but they can’t do that if they are underfunded.
Q: What motivates you each day?
W: My favorite book in high school was “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger. Mr. Antolini offers some advice to Holden Caulfield in that book that I think kind of compels me, and whenever I start to feel discouraged I remember this: Mr. Antolini told Holden that the mark of an immature man is that he is willing to die for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he is willing to live humbly for one.
You wake up every day and you live humbly for justice, you wake up every day and you live humbly for others, you wake up every day and you think about what you can do, in your own small space, no matter how small, to try to make things better.
That can sometimes get you through the day, really get you through periods like this where we are all a little overwhelmed and shell-shocked about what is happening… You live humbly for justice.
Q: How will a shared sense of community affect our social climate?
W: We have to get there first. This is Dr. King’s concept of a beloved community and we are far from there.
Until I see every undocumented student as my child, we are not going to get there. Until I see every victim of violence as my responsibility, we are not going to get there. Until I see poverty as violence, we are not going to get there.
Q: Are we repeating history?
W: It’s funny, because people say that history repeats itself. It doesn’t necessarily repeat itself—it echoes.
In the Civil War, you abolish slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment but you don’t do the hard work of creating legislation that will address the inequality that you know is to come. It is the unfinished revolution in the reverberations of your lack of will.
[Hurricane] Katrina is not the Mississippi Flood of 1927 or Puerto Rico today. But what they share is this idea that black and brown people, when they are confronted with a natural disaster, can’t depend on their countryman that privileges their humanity. That’s a problem.
Q: When you were growing up, when did you first pick up on these inequalities?
W: I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1988 or ‘89, we were the murder capital of the world. I don’t think that story is, in and of itself, unique. Many people in many places can talk about that as being one manifestation of inequality.
But I was very aware of it even as a young person, because my dad worked in the city’s largest housing project as a music teacher and I would go with him when I was 4 and 5. I even taught music classes there later on when I was in my teens. I spent a lot of time in that housing complex. I saw the root of that inequality every day. In the summer, I would be there with him every day and it was just palpable, the injustice of it.
Not that we lived in a much better neighborhood, but we at least weren’t in those housing projects.
But being in that environment every day reminded me of the importance of trying to find a better way to address the poverty and inequality that impact those people that live there—who were good people, people who, for whatever reason, society in some sense forgot because they created a housing complex and said, ‘We solved the problem.’ And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Q: What do you want people to think about in the coming years when they think about the University of St. Thomas?
W: I want them to think the same thing that they think now, at least in terms of it being a high-quality education. But I want them to associate us more with our justice imperative. Like any private, liberal arts school, there is always going to be the idea that this is a haven for wealthy privileged students. The only way that you can really attack that is to do some of the things the university is doing—with Dougherty [Family College].
But then you also have to create programs, you also have to create community partners, you have to also go out and show yourself willing to engage with the community and say ‘This is your space, too. We are going to work with you because in that sense, all boats rise.’
If we can make a difference, make a dent in poverty, make a dent in education, make a dent in violence, if we can think about conquering food deserts, we are increasing for the betterment of the entire community, our ideal of pursuing the common good. That’s good for everybody.
This interview has been edited for length and content.