Andrew Williams ’85: ‘Earlham is where my passion for social justice sparked’
February 18, 2019
Andrew Williams ’85 grew up in a predominately African American working-class neighborhood of Indianapolis where he lived among people with direct experiences of the dehumanization, violence, and loss associated with U.S. and European racism.
Today, Williams works with undergraduate students seeking intellectual, political and artistic work in support of movements for social justice, peace, and environmentally sustainability. He is the executive director of HECUA, the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, located in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“My Earlham education has definitely undergirded my success, first as a graduate student, and in my career,” Williams says. “Even though graduate school work demanded more time and a higher level of intellectual sophistication, I felt like the rigor of my undergraduate course work provided me a solid foundation for a smooth transition into graduate studies.
“Earlham is also where my passion for social justice was sparked,” he says. “That might sound cliche, but it’s true.”
A first-generation college student, Williams was not initially aware of Earlham despite his ancestors’ early 19th century roots in the area. “I was recruited to play basketball and my guidance counselor told me I could get a quality education there,” he remembers.
As a child, Williams had already learned a lot about cultural difference, economic inequality, oppression and political resistance.
“I attended predominantly white public schools, spent a lot time in Black barber shops and hair salons as well as Jewish community spaces,” Williams says. “My neighbors were African American factory workers and Jewish Holocaust survivors who had serial numbers on their arms. I was crossing cultural and class boundaries early on.”
Williams’ grandfather was from Pulaski, Tennessee, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. “My great grandfather was lynched by the Klan,” Williams says. “Part of my experiences returning to Pulaski included my grandfather showing us the infamous lynching tree.”
Just recently, Williams discovered that his slave ancestors, James Ampey and Dicey Haithcock, were directed by their former Virginia owner to Levi Coffin’s home, a hub of the Underground Railroad, before settling in the Richmond area near Earlham’s campus.
Andrew Williams ’85, right front, is pictured in spring 2018 with students participating in HECUA’s New Zealand Program: Culture and the Environment; A Shared Future.
But at Earlham, Williams began a deeper, more formal, and sustained exploration of the significance of race, ethnicity, and culture in his lived experiences.
He mentions Stephen Butler, now a professor emeritus at Earlham, as one of his early and most significant mentors on his journey toward earning a degree in Sociology-Anthropology.
“Stephen not only ignited my Black ethnic and political consciousness, but he was also a caring and wise source of support as I participated in the divestment movement on campus.
“Stephen introduced me to W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis and Paul Robeson,” he says. “Exposure to the seminal work of these African American leaders offered me a compelling vision of being a scholar-activist that propelled me to graduate school and toward the sort of work and activism I have pursued over the last three decades.”
Through his activism at Earlham, he learned that being a scholar-activist wasn’t an easy or comfortable vocation. Five games into his sophomore basketball season as co-captain, as an act of solidarity with the campus and national anti-apartheid movement, he decided sit out the season until the College agreed to withdraw its investments with South African companies.
The administration didn’t budge. And his coaches and fellow players, Williams remembers, disagreed with his activism.
“I learned a great deal about both the pros and cons and the challenges of having ethical ambition and challenging an institution like Earlham,” he says. “However, it started an important conversation on campus and I came away with a much better understanding of how power operates on college campuses.”
After Earlham, Williams completed a Master of Arts in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Michigan. After graduate school, he went on to serve as an instructor of Anthropology at DePauw University, where he served numerous roles.
Later in his career, he became the founding director of the Posse Foundation’s Chicago office, the Director of Multicultural Affairs at Carleton College, Director of Development and Communication for Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Assistant Director of the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence at the University of Minnesota, and Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion within the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts.
At HECUA, Williams enjoys working with an organization that is committed to progressive liberatory education and has the potential to influence higher education through innovation and advocacy.
“Being a small non-profit, HECUA has the sort of organizational nimbleness and political freedom to offer more progressive, more robust and meaningful experiential learning opportunities,” he says.
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Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. We rank 7th nationally by Princeton Review for Best Classroom Experience and 22nd by U.S. News and World Report for commitment to undergraduate teaching.
Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at 765-983-1256 and firstname.lastname@example.org.