Podcast Icon

Troy M. Williams and Simon Guma on Community Engagement and Institutional Change

  • Troy M. Williams and Simon Guma
  • July 2020
  • PC87-2020

Troy Williams
Troy Williams
Simon Guma
Simon Guma

In this episode, IRP and Morgridge Center for Public Service media intern Simon Guma talks to Troy M. Williams. They discuss Williams’ path to pursuing a PhD at UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology, advice for students and researchers who are engaging with members of their communities, and the challenges of working in institutions that still have a lot of work to do when it comes to issues of race.

View Transcript

Chancellor: Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. We’re releasing this episode for July 2020 and if you’re a regular listener you’ll notice that we’re taking a little bit of a different approach for this one. Back in February this year just a few weeks before a lot of the quarantine measures were really put in place here in Wisconsin, I got to record an interview between Simon Guma and Troy M. Williams, both of whom are students here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Simon is an undergraduate media intern who works in a joint internship program between the UW’s Morgridge Center for Public Service and IRP and this interview was part of a larger podcast project he’s been working on that explores how students and people who are early in their careers can get plugged into work in their communities, especially the sorts of things that focus on antipoverty and human services type efforts. So this is kind of a sneak preview for more work from him that we hope to share with you this fall. But for this episode, Simon interviewed Troy M. Williams, who is a PhD student at the School of Human Ecology here at the UW in the Civil Society and Community Research Program. They talked about Troy’s path that led him to pursuing a PhD, advice for students and researchers who are working with members of their communities, and the challenges of working within institutions that have a lot of work to do when it comes to issues of race. So, let’s get to their interview.

Guma: Alright cool, we’re just going to jump straight into it, so would you mind just telling us a little about yourself?

Williams: Well, I am Troy Williams. I am a third year PhD student. I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia. Born and raised. My road to this PhD is unlike a lot of my peers and colleagues who I speak with. I was a nontraditional student, so while I was in high school, my—I went to a very overcrowded high school if you will so I was actually pushed into a career technology degree is what they had so I didn’t have to take any of the foreign languages, any of the hard maths or sciences, so what that meant was I was not eligible for college. And they pushed me towards that track because I was like a B/C student at the time. And because of that, after I graduated high school I started working for warehouses, so I worked for Sam’s Club, KMart warehouse, I was unloading 18 wheelers. I had about four or five jobs at the same time, I was working 96 hours a week and I realized I would never get rich this way so I decided that I would start my own business. So I started an event planning business, I was around 20 with around six other guys. We started doing celebrity party promoting for college students. We did that for quite awhile, and around 2008, Barack Obama ran for president and said that he believes that every American should have a college degree, so I said I guess I’ll give this college thing a try. I took an admittance exam, got in there, got into college. Because I still had my business, I had a little bit more funds than my colleagues so I was able to study abroad quite a bit. I studied abroad total in my undergrad and graduate programs about 13 times. Jamaica being one of the places that I continued to go back to about 8 times. That was actually where I think was trained the most in working hands on with a community. Then I started my masters program at the University of San Diego after I finished that, so I moved from Atlanta to San Diego after I worked in the community there for two years. I got a fellowship throughout the city, I worked as an after school, director of an afterschool program. I worked as a teacher’s assistant in an elementary school, and I also filmed a documentary. And after that the program director here in the School of Human Ecology saw my document and then actively began to recruit me to come to the University of Wisconsin. And now I’m here.

Guma: Do you think you could give a little bit of more in depth perspective on some of the programs that you’ve done work for over the past few years.

Williams: Yeah, so I’m a human ecologist so I like to think of things in systems. So, individual-meso-macro and so forth. So at a macro level, I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, Freedom Schools. I was a servant leader intern. One of the most amazing things that I loved about the Freedom Schools was how they addressed a specific issue and they had tactics on how to go about doing that. So they were addressing summer reading loss, specifically in marginalized communities. That was something that I love that we had anybody who’s ever been in Freedom Schools, who’s worked in Freedom Schools knows that those are 18 hour days, they’re constantly trying to ensure that you’re in a safe space. What’s at stake here? We want to ensure that our students and community members are making up for that summer reading loss that they’re usually faced with. So that was something that was very powerful, that was about a ten day program I think. Ten days of training and then we went on after that into the summer. On a county level, one of the things that has really shaped my identity is this program called Arise San Diego, it was based out of San Diego, it was started by—he was the president of city council at one point—and another gentleman, Tony Young and Duane Crenshaw, both of them wanted to address urban leadership in communities. So they kind of encouraged people to create these things called community action projects. And in these community action projects every person was able to go into these and kind of address what they wanted to, so in these, in our community action projects, mine was something called Soul Sunday, so it was a space where creatives, activists were able to come together enjoy themselves but also relish in a lot of events taking place. I did that with two of my closest friends, Mr. Joseph French and Blake Dye, they were fellows as well. So that’s on a county level. And then on a school level, this group that I’m a part of right now where I’m listed as the program director, called the Power Collective, Power was a group of students who noticed that there was a gap in spaces for folks of color to kind of come together and explore the world if you will. They noticed that most of the large research centers here are white spaces and there aren’t spaces for folks of color to really come together so it was three amazing students that came together and said, ok, we need a space that will allow us to connect with communities and also conduct research. And kind of imagine this world that we want to be together. Those are three of the spaces that I can think of.

Guma: So what would you say are some of the impacts that you’ve been able to witness as a result of being a part of some of these programs, whether that’s on the students involved, or the general community, or yourself?

Williams: I would have to go back to Arise San Diego. So when I arrived here, I was going to conduct research. My dissertation was going to be around them. I’m just totally enamored. So I also worked for the black resource center at UC-San Diego and just the ability for people with professional staffs of three or four to really shape what’s happening throughout an entire community, to actually shift a system is something that I am extremely in admiration of, right? And something about Rise, even though they had a very small professional staff, they were able to really, I don’t want to say get people elected, but they empowered people to run for office. They were able to empower creatives to use their creativity to push movements forward. One of my colleagues who was a Rise fellow the year before me, she opened up a cooperative coffee shop. So these are the types of things that are really changing the fabric of society and community is something that I’m completely in admiration of and Rise San Diego has done it in a way that I have never seen before.

Guma: So you’ve definitely done a lot of work in youth development. What would you say are certain skills that would be helpful to have for someone who may—say is interested in pursuing a career in community work or just community help? What are some things you wish you would have known?

Williams: Patience is something that you absolutely have to have. I’ve been in… I’m an evaluator, I’m a program evaluator right now and I’ve gone into spaces where I’ve felt like, ok, they’re going to be glad that I’m here, they’re going to be happy that I’m here to evaluate. And I’ve been kicked out of those spaces because people weren’t open to those types of change. So you need to be very patient. You need to be flexible. You need to be very observant of what’s happening when you’re conducting, when you’re working with communities. A lot of times I tell people, if you’re going into a space, make sure that you’re invited in because there’s a difference. That is really what allows community work to take place. I think those three qualities, patience, being observant, and also being flexible are the most important things when working in community spaces.

Guma: Could you tell us a little bit more about how your response was to, say, when you were kicked out of that space? How did you respond to that?

Williams: Oh, I was fine with it. I mean I understood it. If you hear my story and I’ll talk about that more later, but I resonate more with the community than I do with the academy. So being in a space like Madison where the University of Wisconsin has this overwhelming presence throughout the city, I was unaware of the trauma that folks may have received throughout the history of the existence of the University and the black community. So when it first happened, I was a little taken aback, right? I was like, wow, ok, I’ll leave. And then much later on, once I began to read all of these reports written about black people, when I began to understand that there have been over 300 recommendations from all of these reports, written about black people, that hardly any had been implemented, then I began to realize the actual pain that people were going through. And if they thought that I was going to be another person coming into these communities, extracting resources, extracting their stories, using their pain for my benefit so I could get tenure, so I could get more money, so I could publish more articles, then they weren’t willing to partake in that. So when I was able to put all of those things into perspective then I was very understanding of their anger or—I don’t even want to call it anger. I think it was brave. They were very brave to say, we appreciate your assistance but we’re fine. You can leave. I appreciated that.

Guma: So have you noticed in the years that you’ve been working with community organizations, have you noticed there to be a shift in the way people are pursuing change in the community?

Williams: Yeah, my story is very different. So I graduated May of 2013, I graduated from undergrad in May 2013. George Zimmerman was acquitted July of 2013 and in that same month Black Lives Matter was created and a lot of other organizations. One thing that I wish is that—so to answer your question, yes, the world has changed significantly over the years. What I wish is that I was in one space, like when Darren Wilson was acquitted, when George Zimmerman was acquitted. When all of these things were happening, so I could actually see how all of these cities and spaces have transitioned. I was on a college campus, right? So as we know, college students are there for four years and they’re cycling in and out and they’re coming from all over the world and they’re having so many different perspectives. So the spaces that I occupied from 2013 until currently in 2020, I have seen a major shift in the circles that I run in. I think that specifically when I’m speaking with people, I remember—I mean, we were in a post racist society quote unquote in 2013. People thought that, ok, we have a black president. Racism doesn’t exist, but when we were able to see all of these people murdered over and over and over again on camera, and see the violence that people were still experiencing. I think that it was an awakening that really pushed nonprofits, community members and a lot of other people forward.

Guma: Thinking of the direction that nonprofits have been taking. What would you like to see in the future for the nonprofit industry or community-based work?

Williams: I think a lot of times nonprofits—there’s a book written by the group Insight called the Nonprofit Industrial Complex and it really talks about how many times, nonprofit organizations are made to chase after money or if they get a large grant, they are told that they can or cannot pursue certain topics. What I would like to see is people not be forced and coerced to do things. Personally, I would say, I mean, I have my own nonprofit, right? I started it right out of my master’s program. And I began to see that my hopes and dreams in nonprofits, it may not actually be, it may not actually be the way to address these issues that I’m getting at. That I want to get at. If you’re constantly having to find money to sustain, to keep the lights on, you may not have the time and energy to fight the system the way that you’re doing. So a lot of times, your funders will want you to, I’m going to explain it in human ecological thinking, your funders may want you to address very micro things, pass out backpacks, do reading programs, pass out hams and turkeys. Those things, while helpful in the community, it’s not really addressing the macro systemic issues that many of these nonprofits state that they’ll be getting at in their mission statements. So while I do appreciate these nonprofits’ work and I admire it, I wish in a perfect world that we would not be under the gun when it comes to our funders.

Guma: So, I know we touched about this a little bit earlier, but what would you say, say for someone who was thinking about transitioning into doing community based work full time, what kind of advice would you have for somebody who is thinking of making that transition?

Williams: Actually one thing that I tell my classmates a lot… So I was trained by an ethnographer, Dr. Rafik Mohamed, he is a sociologist out of California, he’s a dean in San Bernadino right now. And one thing that I’ve witnessed him do, he wrote a book called dorm room dealers, and another book about black men and basketball, the politics of basketball courts, and one thing that I’ve always admired that he was doing in his writing is that he moved to spaces, he was very present in what was going on, and he just was there, right? So one thing I think folks can do if you’re interested in this work, if you have the resources, is just actually root yourself in a community. So for example, when I was in Atlanta and I explain this to my classmates all the time, I went to the same grocery stores every week, I went to the same gyms every day, churches, gosh, what else did I go to? I was rooted in this community so I knew people and people saw my faces over and over and over again. And I would attend town halls and when these issues came up, I knew who to speak to and I knew how we could go about addressing these issues so I think that step 1 when doing this type of work is actually root yourself in a community first. See what the issues are, see what’s lacking here, right? Are there fresh vegetables here? How are the police here? How are the school systems here? So actually know what’s going on here, and I think that because of our current economic situation throughout the United States, we don’t have the ability to explore and be free and sign up for these volunteer organizations, I mean, I told you at the top of the show that I was working over 90 hours per week and I was barely making it and I was 17 years old when I graduated high school, so I can only imagine what it’s like for a person who actually has kids. Another reason I went back to school, and I will never forget this, I was working at a hotel at the time. One of the housekeepers, we all got paid on Wednesdays, we were sitting in the breakroom, she opened up her check and literally started crying and said ‘how am I going to feed a family with this?’ Now she was a married woman, she had kids, she had family, she had this huge kinship network that she could tap into, however, when people are becoming this desperate, I think that it’s very difficult to just imagine what you think a world could be. So I think step one for beginning community work is actually root yourself in a community and figuring out what that means. One thing that I did, one story I can tell you about when I was a director of an afterschool program and a teacher’s aide, one of the schools that I worked in, a gentleman, one of the students, he was identified as a selective mute. Right, so he would come to school and he would not talk, so every single day that I was there, I would come in and I would sit with him and I would talk with him, and he wouldn’t talk back. And I would just sit there and some of the teachers even became agitated in that, they said, Troy, what are you doing? We have tons of other students that need attention. You can’t just pay attention to this student, but I didn’t listen to that. I stayed present with this student. After about three or four months, this student started talking, this student began to make friends, this student began to flourish in this classroom, and what the principal and other folks in our institute were able to point out was that this was because of the relationship that you established with this student that they were able to actually begin to do work. So I think that if you’re actually doing this community work you really have to have that patience, you have to have that willingness to actually build these communities. Don’t go in there with these agendas. A quote that I’m actually working on trademarking right now is that there are no solutions, there are only responses. Because as a human ecologist, we know that systems are super complex and if you throw a so-called solution onto this issue, it’s going to morph and it’s going to turn into something else. So it’s important that we understand that these solutions that we have are not actually it. We need to be working on how we’re going to respond to these issues that are negatively impacting our communities.

Guma: Could you tell us a little bit about bridging your community work with your research and any of the other things that you’re involved with?

Williams: Yeah, absolutely. One thing that I have been a part of, I can give you two instances. At the University of California, San Diego, I worked at the Black Resource Center as an event coordinator. And in this space, some of our students identified that there was not a safe space for black men to talk and exist and explore these ideas and things. So, these two students created this thing called the Black Men’s Collective and what I did was I created PowerPoints and just came up with prompts and all of these things for folks to be able to really explore what is it like for a Black man to really exist on this campus? So that was me kind of utilizing the literature that I have been reading about for years. Another thing that I’m currently working on that I’m very excited about is, my current research is on African American opioid use in Dane County, so where we are in Wisconsin. Black people are currently overdosing at higher rates than white people in Dane County, but a lot of people aren’t talking about that. So over the past two years, I am funded by a grant from the CDC and the Department of Health of Wisconsin and we’re just really getting a lot of the qualitative interviews and exploring what this means for people. How are they experiencing this city? So one thing that has come out of that is that we have created NA groups if you will almost, that are specifically for folks of color. So this is a part of the women’s focus groups that we had. So the women’s focus group we had was a closed space for women of color, I have not actually been invited into that space at all because it’s a closed space for them, but to be a part of the team that actually resulted in that has been extremely rewarding. And right now something that I’m working on, I also led focus groups with youth and one of our sites for youth focus groups, we’re working on creating a similar group where youth can actually engage in conversations around what is it’s like to exist here in Dane County. So those are some examples of my community work and research has kind of bridged this gap.

Guma: Would you have any advice to say to any students who are currently trying to involve themselves in community activism and are experiencing frustration with the process?

Williams: Yeah, have you ever watched the show Parks and Rec? So the main character Leslie Knope is really excited about government work and one of the throughlines of the show is this park that she’s trying to get built right next to one of her friend’s homes. And it takes like six seasons to get that park built, right? And I think my message is that the work that you’re doing is a very long, long, long process. And people are going to cycle out and people are going to quit and people are going to become exhausted but if you are able to really think about what your mission is and what you’re trying to accomplish—I’m not saying be patient with the administration by any means, I’m saying be patient with each other. Love on each other who are on this mission together and as you’re striving on this, have open lines of communication about what you’re trying to accomplish and I think that will hopefully give you the wherewithal to address these issues more effectively, because, man, the work, the mission that you all are taking on, goodness, working in UC, San Diego… Have you ever seen the movie Dear White People?

Guma: Yeah.

Williams: So that movie was actually based off of the university that I worked at, right? A group of white students threw something called the Compton Cookout where they asked everybody to come in blackface and dress like homies and homegirls and just all of this racist rhetoric. And the students from that movement gave the university a list of demands. There’s a book called Another University is Possible. They actually show all of the steps that they had to go through to create change in that university. And I will say that even though they were able to push things forward, that university still is extremely tense. It’s improved but there are things like this university was not created for women, for folks of color, for folks to explore, and really push boundaries. These large bureaucratic systems don’t want us to do that, they’re very comfortable with where they are. So if you all are actually interested in moving these things forward, just really being patient with one another, setting your goals up to be feasible, and being able to attack those goals on point.

Guma: Thank you for coming in today. I think this was a very helpful interview and you gave a lot of really helpful responses. Are there any last things you would like to say before we close out?

Williams: Yeah, keep up the fight, man. Thank you for this work. This work of working in the community is a very thankless job but it’s needed, it’s important, and I appreciated the invitation to be here with you. Thanks.

Guma: Thank you for coming.

Chancellor: Thanks so much to Troy M. Williams and Simon Guma for their work on this interview. We also want to thank the Morgridge Center for Public Service for their partnership in the internship program that underlies this project.

This podcast was supported as part of a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office, any other agency of the federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Thanks for listening. 


Education & Training, Employment, Employment General, Postsecondary Education