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Washtenaw United: Angela Williams - United Way Worldwide's 1st African American president and CEO

United Way Worldwide CEO Angela Williams
United Way
United Way Worldwide CEO Angela Williams

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Named to Forbes’ 2021 List of Women 50 Over 50 Creating Social Change at Scale, and presented with a 2021 CEO Today Healthcare Award, Angela F. Williams is president and CEO of United Way Worldwide, the world’s largest privately funded non-profit.

With more than 30 years of leadership experience in the nonprofit and corporate sectors, Williams brings a long history of purpose-driven work to her role at United Way. Most recently, she was president and CEO of Easterseals, Inc. Before joining Easterseals, Williams spent 11 years as EVP, general counsel, and chief administration officer at YMCA of the USA.

Williams was raised in a military family, which influenced her decision to serve on active duty in the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) for more than six years following her graduation from the University of Texas School of Law. This experience, when few Black women served in the JAG Corps, was foundational to her commitment to service.

Her other leadership roles in government include serving on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate Judiciary Committee staff as special counsel on criminal law, prosecutor on the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s National Church Arson Task Force, and an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

In the corporate world, Williams was vice president and deputy general counsel for Sears Holdings Corp, as well as chief compliance and ethics officer after working at Bryan Cave law firm.

In 2006, directly before joining the YMCA, Williams was interfaith liaison for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, a nonprofit organization formed to provide critically needed donations to assist the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

A native of Anderson, South Carolina, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in American government from the University of Virginia, a juris doctor from the University of Texas School of Law and a master of divinity cum laude from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, Virginia Union University.

Williams resides in Chicago with her husband, the Reverend Roderick Williams. She is a volunteer pastor at Chicago Apostolic Center.


United Way Worldwide

Angela Williams

Press Release: "United Way Worldwide Names Angela F. Williams as President and CEO"


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and welcome to another Women's History Month edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and today we're going to introduce you to a true trailblazer. She was born in the South to a military family, served in the United States Air Force, and has followed in her family's tradition of being active in the ongoing civil rights movement. Angela Williams is now the first ever African-American president and CEO in the 135-year history of United Way Worldwide. Angela, thank you so much for joining us today.

Angela Williams: David, thank you for inviting me to your show.

David Fair: Your appointment took effect in October of 2021, so you haven't been on the job at United Way Worldwide all that long, but you bring to the position more than 30 years of work in the nonprofit and corporate sectors. What led you to United Way Worldwide?

Angela Williams: David, I am so excited to be a part of the United Way Worldwide family because of the great work that the organization does. When I thought about joining the organization, what drew me to it was the fact that United Way elevates communities to shape an equitable future and really understands what is going on on the ground in local communities and is the community solution. It's the one that elevates the voices of community and activates the community and motivates the community. I thought what better way to serve than to join the United Way Worldwide group.

David Fair: As we explore community to community and across the country and across the globe issues of equity and diversity, were you surprised to find out that you would be the first African-American woman in the organization's history to serve as president and CEO?

Angela Williams: Honestly, I wasn't too surprised. At a number of nonprofits, the legacy ones that have been around for 100 years, you tend to want to find leaders that have stayed in the president and CEO roles for a long period of time. There's not that much turnover. So we are now, I think in these last couple of years, really beginning to see that glass ceiling or concrete ceiling, however you want to term it, being broken. And it's not only in the nonprofit sector, but in the for-profit sector and public service sector as well.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Angela Williams, president and CEO of United Way Worldwide, continues on 89 one WEMU. Angela, you're originally from Anderson, South Carolina. It likes to call itself the friendliest city in South Carolina. Was that your personal experience?

Angela Williams:Well, I was born in Anderson, South Carolina, during the height of the civil rights movement to the pastor of Royal Baptist Church, my dad, Reverend Jesse Williams, and my mom Lisa Williams. My dad was a leader in the NAACP for the state of South Carolina, and his goal was an ecumenical goal. And that is he united with other ministers in the city of all denominations, of all races, with the goal of integrating Anderson, South Carolina. I think that speaks volumes about where the city was. There was, of course, a lot of work to be done. But then, I fast forward to 2022 and where we are now. And I must say Anderson is in fact living its motto.

David Fair: Well, that is certainly considered progress. You ended up serving in the Air Force. How did that activism--within the NAACP, within the civil rights movement, and within the church--how did that help you choose to serve in the military?

Angela Williams: Well, when I was four, my dad accepted the calling to join the Navy as a chaplain, and he was the fifth Black chaplain in the history of the United States Navy. And my parents moved our family at that time, my brother and I from South Carolina to San Diego, California. That singular decision really made a difference in the lives of my brother and sister and I to become global citizens. And both my parents have this ethic of service, and this ethic of service goes back generations. And that's what they instilled in us as a value system. And so, when you think about how do I serve, what is my obligation to serve, then that translated also into me wanting to serve on active duty in the United States Air Force. And it was just a natural part of the journey to go on active duty myself. And my brother behind me joined. And so, both my dad, my brother, and I were in active duty during Desert Storm. My dad was on a U.S. Navy ship in the Mediterranean. I was on active duty in the Air Force, stationed in South Korea. My brother, who was a Marine Corps officer, was on the ground in Kuwait. So that's of the ultimate service when the family is involved.

David Fair: And there is a fight for freedom. And then you wanted to fight for something else and you earned a law degree and works on the Department of Justice's National Church Arson Task Force and earned an appointment to investigate that rash of Black churches being burned across the country. Did that particular job further your insights and what it is to be Black in America?

Angela Williams: Yes. It was so interesting when the news started coming out about the Black churches being burned around the country that the Department of Justice was being activated to start doing an investigation to find out if this was a concerted effort and conspiracy nationally or if these were local copycats. But when I saw this, this opportunity for me being active in church and also being a lawyer and a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice that, wow, all of who I am, my passion, my mission, and my purpose could come together and work on the job with DOJ. So, I was one of the few federal prosecutors that were brought to Washington, D.C., to work alongside FBI and ATF agents to begin to really investigate and understand what was going on with these Black church burnings and to also bring the arsonists to prosecution and to to really address this notion of hate crimes. So, I always see how moments in life happen, where I can raise my hand and I can lend all of who I am--my background, my experience and my skills--to help make things better. And that's really what motivates me.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. We continue our celebration of Women's History Month with today's Washtenaw United conversation with Angela Williams. Angela is the first African-American president and CEO of United Way Worldwide. We talk about how you got to where you are today. The work that lay ahead can be daunting as efforts to create equity for Black and Brown people, for those experiencing gender and orientation bias, and for low income people of all walks of life, education, service and advocacy--those have been hallmarks in your life and career. What role do you see United Way Worldwide playing in designing the path forward toward better equity and perhaps one day equality?

Angela Williams: That's such a wonderful question, and what I'm so excited about is how United Way Worldwide is so uniquely poised because of the fact that we are located in 96 percent of communities in the United States and that we are in more than 40 countries. I think that there are three things that we can do and are doing, and we will continue to do even more. And the first of this that we are positioned to elevate community driven solutions. We are committed to empowering local solutions to longstanding problems. The second thing that I'm so excited about is that we do believe in shaping equitable futures. We want to ensure equal access to financial stability, educational opportunities, and good health. And the third thing is to build community resilience. We are able to create sustainable ecosystems of giving that maximize impact and that can grow over time. So that's what I'm really excited about as we forge our vision and align our tactics and operations to imagine a United Way Worldwide for its second century of service.

David Fair: As we mark Women's History Month, I know you recognize the many shoulders that you stand upon today. You are among a great number of women now who continue to lead by example. Still, we do not have equal pay for women, and gender roles and too many facets of life remain unequal. In looking forward, how would you like your journey to empower those who are to follow?

Angela Williams: I want women and girls to see the achievements that I've made as something that they too can achieve and that they can aspire to, but more importantly, than just a job title. What I want for women and girls to do is to define success for themselves, to find their identity and their purpose, so that they can walk in who they are fully without labels, without barriers being thrown up, without the door slammed in their face. So, I want people to know that this is the time for women and girls to be all that they can be. And women like me, we can in fact serve as mentors. We can engage in one-on-one conversations, and we can just do things like we're doing today, David, and having conversations that will hopefully will reach various audiences, so that they know "I can do that" or "I can do something differently." But most importantly, "I see what it means to live a life that is thriving and a good life."

David Fair: Thank you for your words. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your service. And thank you for your time today, Angela.

Angela Williams: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure spending time with you.

David Fair: That is Angela Williams, she is the first African-American president of United Way Worldwide in the organization's 135-year history. She is our third Washtenaw United guest for Women's History Month. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. For more information on our guest and topic today, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is 891 WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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