Balm in Gilead: Nat Williams
October 16, 2014
October 16, 2014
As Executive Director, Nat Chioke Williams leads the Hill-Snowdon Foundation in its philanthropic and programmatic work, operations and partnerships within the community. Nat manages HSF’s Youth Organizing and Fund for DC programs. He is also responsible for developing learning and leveraging opportunities in these program areas.
In partnership with other social justice funders, he has recently been involved with the development of Grantmakers for Southern Progress, an emerging network of local, regional and national funders committed to facilitating joint learning, collaboration, and leveraging of new resources to help build a vibrant and enduring infrastructure for social justice in the US South.
Nat holds a B.A. in Psychology from Morehouse College, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in Community Psychology from New York University.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Nat Williams: I guess my earliest introduction to organizing was through my father who was a union organizer and then a union officer, from the time I was born until about 11 years old. I didn’t really know what he did, but I would overhear conversations and I always had an appreciation for the rights of workers and the need to come together to demand a better life. This also came from my father’s work in the civil rights movement and again learning by osmosis about the struggle for equal rights and dignity in the African American community. So this was the foundation and later when I went to Morehouse College all of the things that I was exposed to became real, both in the classroom by learning about African and African American history and political struggle for the first time in a formal setting; but more importantly through actual involvement in grassroots African American political organizations.
During my time at Morehouse, I was exposed to and participated in organizations that represented the spectrum of African American political and cultural activism. It was an amazing and unique learning experience for me. My first organizing job though was while I was in graduate school as a tenant organizer in New York City for a group called Urban Housing Assistance Board, working with low and moderate income residents in multi-unit city-owned buildings to organize tenant associations so that they could eventually purchase their buildings. I later became the director of organizing at the same organization and was exposed to different forms of organizing and strategic campaign development in that capacity. During this time I also did some organizing and activism with the Brooklyn chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, particularly as it related to police brutality.
KR: How did you develop your organizing skills?
NW: In terms of formal training in recognized community organizing, I received this first from Urban Housing Assistance Board. But my upbringing and a lot of the activism that I did in college provided the political analysis and knowledge, the sensibility for building community power to fight against injustice, the spirit to fight, the negotiation skills with both targets and allies, and the ability to build relationships with people that undergird any particular school of organizing philosophy and training. Beyond that, I have had the absolute privilege to learn about organizing from the amazing organizers that I have had the honor to support and meet through my role as a grantmaker. Although I wasn’t organizing with them, talking with these organizers about their strategy, tactics, challenges, and triumphs were invaluable to developing my understanding and appreciation for the unique beauty and power of community organizing and organizers.
KR: You have worked both as an organizer and a grantmaker and had a chance to think about what is needed to build strong organizing capacity in Black communities. What are two or three of the key factors to building organizing work in Black communities?
• Money – there needs to be a much greater investment of resources from institutional philanthropy, individual donors, and community members (to the degree that this is possible) in support of community organizing in the African American community.
• A re-prioritization of the African American community in the United States – Memes like the “race card,” “reverse racism,” and “post-racial” have really suppressed the legitimacy of the need for focused and specifically named African American led organizing to address issues and build power in the African American community. This was the deliberate and the intended effect of the coordinated strategy by conservative forces. What that has created on a socio-cultural, and often unrecognized level is a de-prioritization of the African American community and a de-legitimizing of race as a persistent structural determinant of inequity in the African American community. So a big task in generating support, public will and legitimacy for building African American organizing is refocusing on the African American community and its on-going and necessary struggle for justice, freedom, equality and the opportunity to thrive.
• More training opportunities and support for racial justice organizing and analysis (as a distinct practice and school of organizing) – Racial justice organizing is not just organizing with a particular racial group. It has to be grounded in an analysis of how structural racism creates, maintains and propagates the social, political, economic conditions that disadvantage certain racial groups while privileging others. And most importantly the solutions, organizing and policy demands have to directly address these racialized structural determinants of this social inequity. This is hard to do and requires a lot of support to do it well. There is not enough support for this type of work.
KR: Hill-Snowdon Foundation has prioritized the South as an important region for social justice investment. What is the state of social justice and organizing work in Black communities throughout the South?
NW: To answer this question well would take up much more space and require more insights than I have to paint a comprehensive picture. What I will say though is that social justice organizing in Black communities in the South suffers from under-resourcing, but in a more profound and severe way than organizing does in other parts of the country. The challenges, barriers, and opposing forces that African American organizing groups in the South face are not just more severe, but also are qualitatively different than those in other parts of the country. Because of the under-investment in community organizations and the severe needs, African American “organizing” groups don’t have the luxury of just focusing on organizing and often have to try to attend to the multiplicity of needs of its members. However, the resourcefulness, creativity, perseverance and innate strength of these groups is incredible and often overlooked by people from the outside. So long and short, it is under-resourced, facing unique challenges, but is very resilient and with sufficient support can serve as the lynchpin for securing a more equitable and just future for low-wealth, marginalized communities throughout the region.
KR: There are a number of conversations that have been happening around the country about the decline in Black-led organizing work. What do you think has led to this perception?
NW: I think this is a mix of objective reality and relative perception. The objective reality is that there has been a steady decline in African American led organizing over the last couple decades. This has happened in major metropolitan areas and in rural areas; in every part of the country. The relative perception is that as the public has focused more on immigration and the Latino community, there has been a concentration of resources and political and public discourse on the Latino community, which in part, has had the unintended effect of shifting attention away from organizing in the African American community. This is a normal part of political and social history and movements where different issues and communities are prominent at different points in time. However, the reduction in prominence is also a reflection of the relative reduction in organizational and political strength in the communities whose issues are no longer primary.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
NW: I would go back to what I said earlier about building organizing in Black communities: Money, more support and training for racial justice organizing, and a socio-political re-prioritization of the African American community and our ongoing struggle for equality, justice, and power.