My interview with Angela F.

Angela F. Williams. United Way Worldwide; photo courtesy of the United Way

How did your childhood influence your leadership style?

I was born in 1963 in Anderson, S.C. At that time, my dad was the pastor of Royal Baptist Church. He, along with ecumenical ministers, white ministers, Black ministers, Jewish, Catholic, you name it, were coming together to integrate the city.

My dad was also the executive director of the South Carolina N.A.A.C.P., and he’d go around and investigate lynchings and write about what was happening. So you can imagine as a child, you hear about Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights. That was my culture, the environment in which I was raised.

When I was 5, my dad was called to ministry in the United States Navy, and we moved from South Carolina to San Diego. If you were to ask my 5-year-old self, what do you want to be when you grow up, my answer was twofold. One, I wanted to be a nun. And second, I wanted to fight for justice, for the underdog. And both of those have come true. The reason I said a nun is because the only visual I had of women in the ministry was Sally Field on the TV show “The Flying Nun.”

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Moving from South Carolina to San Diego, I went from an environment that was a primarily Black community to a community that was primarily white and some Hispanics.

That singular decision by my parents made my brother and I, and then later my sister, when she was born, global citizens. It was that move that introduced us to other cultures and to then be able to be who we were and are and engage and build relationships with people that were different than ourselves.

How did moving during your childhood manifest itself in your character?

As a child, moving into new environments, new school systems, new cultures, new people, I had to learn flexibility. I also learned to stand firm and to not be bullied.

What I appreciate about the family that I grew up in was that my parents instilled in us an identity of knowing who we are, confidence, not accepting no for an answer and being willing to take risks.

My entire life, I’ve been challenged by attempts to be excluded. My senior year of high school, for example, when it came time to start applying for colleges and universities, the staff person at the career advisory center that’s supposed to help us told me I should look into going to community college. I had been in exceptional programs, advanced placement programs since elementary school. Having that self-will and determination, I dismissed what she said.

Your career has spanned myriad positions in the public and private sectors, corporate America and philanthropic organizations, and you are an ordained minister. That breadth of experience is notable. How has that influenced you as a leader?

All these different positions have been about service and have included a value system that I think is important: loyalty, honesty, respect and caring for others.

In every single job, I’ve been able to engage with people at all socioeconomic levels. It can be the down and out. It could be people living in poverty. It could be the person on the streets selling weed. And then it could be low-income families, or the single mother, all the way up to a U.S. senator or a chief executive officer at a global corporation.

This whole notion of advocacy and service is a through line. If you even look at being a federal prosecutor, one of the things that I did was to look at the whole person: Why did the person commit the crime in the first place? And what is an appropriate sentencing recommendation?

What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a woman and a woman of color in the workplace, and how does that translate into your role today as the leader of United Way Worldwide?

My experience has always been a very lonely one, because I’ve either been the first or the only. As Black female leaders, we’re not trying to break through a glass ceiling. We’re trying to break through a concrete ceiling. When I look at how much progress has been made, if you could go back and look at the numbers from the ’70s and ’80s and fast-forward to 2021, there has been incremental improvement but not wholesale improvement.

I saw as a pivotal point, an opportunity, that happened with the murder of George Floyd. That’s when you heard all sectors say, we need to do better.

Today, I want to challenge these leaders who made these commitments to make good on their promises and to execute on them in a more intentional way.

What can women bring to the table at an organization like United Way Worldwide?

Women can bring to the table a sensitivity to the needs of communities in a unique way. United Way has three pillars: health, education and financial stability. And when you think about those three areas, that impacts where we tend to be. If you are a mother, especially if you’re single, you’re looking at financial stability. As a woman, you’re looking at education, and what are the barriers that I have to overcome, and how do I prepare myself to get jobs? How do I show up as my best authentic self and be accepted and given a chance?

What are the biggest challenges or the biggest needs in the organization?

The way people engage in community, the way service is rendered, in terms of volunteerism, donations, giving of time and talent, has changed. In 2021, employees want to engage in causes that motivate them, but they are doing that through the internet.

It used to be workplace giving campaigns were a way to connect as a volunteer through the United Way Worldwide, as well as giving, but there are Facebook groups on your phone, and you can give now.

We know that people care. They want to give to causes that resonate with them. And because of that, we need to fine-tune and refine ways through technology that we reach people and connect to their passions.

What do you see as your primary role?

At this point in my life, I want to do the most that I can as a transformation agent. The world is at a critical point where we have to decide how we work together.

The pandemic is an equalizer. It doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic status is, how healthy you are, how much access to health care you have, how smart you are, what your education level is.

I have a mission to serve and to be the voice of the underserved, for those who don’t have someone to advocate for them, to be that person of inclusivity.

What’s the most important advice you would give to a young woman today who wants to take on a leadership role?

Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of no. No is just a word. Do not attach emotion to that word. When you run into an obstacle that’s in front of you, look to your right, or left, and just walk around.

Ms. Williams was the first Black president and chief executive of Easterseals; held leadership positions at the YMCA of the USA; worked for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and the Senate Judiciary Committee; and was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, a trial attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and a special counsel on criminal law for Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. She is an ordained minister and served as a lawyer for and an active-duty member of the Air Force, including during the Persian Gulf war of 1991



Interview for The New York Times by Kerry Hannon

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