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Williams honored for nearly 50 years of community & political action

On Monday, Feb. 20, 2012, the Progressive Women’s Alliance will honor Mary Alice Williams and Eric Foster during the Progressive Leadership Awards Luncheon for their leadership, community involvement and commitment to a progressive vision.
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Mary Alice Williams

Mary Alice Williams /Klaas Kwant

When Mary Alice Williams first began participating in community organizing in the 1960s going door-to-door meant literally that.

She said that engaging people was a one-by-one, house-by-house effort. Today, Williams remains involved in community organizing and is glad for the advanced tools offered by the Internet.

“I went from using a mimeograph machine, where if you made a mistake you had to scrape off the letters with a razor blade, to now, where I can galvanize a hundred people by sending a listserv message or I can galvanize a thousand people by tweeting or posting a message on my Facebook page. That not only increases the speed but increases your capacity to reach people you don’t even know are out there,” said Williams.

Williams, who is president and CEO of the Nokomis Foundation and lives in the Eastown neighborhood, grew up in Rhode Island, in an Irish Catholic neighborhood.

“It was diverse, mostly from the perspective of a bunch of immigrant communities living close together,” Williams said. “I grew up with the aftermath of World War II. Three of my grandparents had emigrated from Ireland and none of them had a high school education. They came here under duress because of what was going on in Ireland at the time and so I grew up on those stories.”

Growing up in an immigrant neighborhood opened Williams’ eyes to the idea that everyone has his or her own story and each person’s story is just as important to them as anyone else’s.

Williams also spent a tremendous amount of time reading. She discovered Lucy Fitch Perkins’ "Twins" series, which was a series of children’s stories written about a young girl and boy and their experiences growing up in different cultures. 

“I became almost addicted to the 'Twins' series books,” she said. “I think in a lot of ways the combination of my grandmother’s stories and then these books that I read independently really put me on the path to having a progressive vision of the world. I really do believe that my grandparents came here to improve their lives, and that gave me an awareness that made me take the perspective that everything is improvable and we need to do what we can to contribute to those improvements, whatever they may be at the point and time that we find ourselves living.”

While attending college at Marquette University, Williams joined Students United for Racial Equality and began protesting for open housing within the community. The group’s goal was to break down housing patterns and end the redlining that was a common practice at the time.

“That was really the first time that I became engaged as an individual, kind of stepping out and saying this is something that I can’t be a bystander about,” she said. “After that I became very engaged in civil rights in Milwaukee.”

Williams moved with her husband, Michael, and two daughters to Grand Rapids in 1974 and quickly got involved in similar housing issues as well as other social justice issues.

“When we first moved here, obviously we weren’t very familiar with the city and it was a bit of a culture shock to move to Grand Rapids, having been from the East Coast. But, we quickly discovered Eastown and that was a place where I most felt at home and where both my husband and I could get very involved in the developing Eastown Community Association.

“We love the diversity of Eastown, diversity in every sense. We made an investment in Eastown at a time when there was redlining and when people who wanted to sell their homes were not able to and we made an investment in this community pretty deliberately. We wanted our children to grow up in a neighborhood where people were diverse economically, racially, socially and ethnically. Eastown has proven to be home for us.”

At the time Williams and her husband moved to Eastown, it was a much different neighborhood than it is today. Banks were commonly engaged in redlining, which meant refusing to make loans in certain neighborhoods, despite a person’s creditworthiness for the loan. There was also a lack of police protection. For many in the community it felt as if the police department and local government had written them off.

After one particularly disappointing meeting with the police chief, Williams said her neighbors began encouraging her to run for a seat on the Grand Rapids City Commission. Though it wasn’t something she had previously considered, the support persuaded her to run. Because her decision came after the filing deadline she had to run as a write in candidate.

“We had to not only get out the vote, we had to get people to the polls and make sure they would make that extra effort to write in my name on the ballot.”

Williams served a single four-year term on the Grand Rapids City Commission. Besides serving herself, Williams has been involved in numerous local, state and national campaigns over the years. Today, Williams is devoting much of her time to one of her passions, access to health care.

“We need to make sure that everyone in our country has access to healthcare and I think this is an issue that is a woman’s issue. Women, regardless of race or class or economics, are primarily the people who make healthcare decisions for their families. So helping women to understand what actually is in the Affordable Care Act, what the benefits of the Affordable Care Act are, how they can continue to make sure that the legislation isn’t watered down and that the intent of the bill is to provide equal access to all Americans in the healthcare system and to reform the healthcare system, those are my priorities right now.”

Williams is also concerned with the current battle to retain choice and access in women’s reproductive health.

“I think that women’s control of their reproductive health is paramount...We will go back to the dark ages if women are not able to control their own reproductive health and that means women having the power and the capacity to make difficult choices about pregnancy, from contraception to abortion.”

Today, Williams is just as committed to the power of community organizing as she was when she marched in her first protest and knocked on her first door.

“The community organizing model always appealed to me because it is a model of empowerment, respect and inclusion. It isn’t telling people what is good for them; it’s listening carefully to what people perceive are their concerns, their issues and then helping them to find the information and the tools necessary to better their lives.”

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