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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Mr. Williams, thank you for doing this interview.
WILLIAMS: Well, thank you. It's an honor to be with you today.
BOND: It's our pleasure having you. I'm going to begin with something, a question which you may not be able to answer because I think you are too young
BOND: When the Brown decision occurred, did you have any family discussion or hear any people talking about it?
WILLIAMS: Oh, I was very young when the Brown decision was discussed and also because I grew up in Chicago, it wasn't something that was front and center I think in my family for quite some time, but as I got older and as I understood what my mother was doing to make sure that I had a quality education in Chicago, then I started reading and learning more and more about Brown, how important it was to our country. My mother was an incredible individual. She was determined that I was going to get the best education the Chicago public school could offer, so I went to seven elementary schools in Chicago.
WILLIAMS: Seven. Started out in Catholic school, then moved into public school and every time she thought a school wasn't performing up to her standards, she would move me to another school, so I had to memorize a lot of different addresses and a lot of different reasons for moving around the city.
BOND: That couldn't have been an easy process to move a child from school A to school B.
WILLIAMS: It was difficult and I was always introducing myself to new classmates, always had to prove myself on the playground and I was pretty skinny in those days so it was always a tough uphill battle to do that.
BOND: But you survived.
WILLIAMS: I survived it, but also my mother, I'm so grateful to her because she was determined. When she heard that there was a new school being built that had new teachers and really had a great curriculum, she said we're moving to that neighborhood, at least theoretically.
BOND: So she would have to move the family?
WILLIAMS: No, she didn't move. We just came up with theoretical ways for me to go to that school. [laughs]
BOND: So, you worked it out? It had to be address - based.
WILLIAMS: It was address - based, so we would find someone that we knew in the neighborhood and then that would become my address. I would just go and leave from there.
BOND: So you had to remember—I don't live here, I now live here.
WILLIAMS: That's right. It was something between my mother and I. That was our compact. [laughs]
BOND: Do you have any memories of what you thought the Brown decision might mean?
WILLIAMS: I think, first of all, that it meant that children in a place like Mississippi (because my father's family was from Mississippi - - my father was born and raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi) - - that children in Mississippi and the South would be able to go to integrated schools, even though actually when I first started out in public school in Chicago, the schools were not integrated.
BOND: Right. So did you ever think about it applying to you?
WILLIAMS: I didn't.
BOND: In your Chicago locale?
WILLIAMS: Not at first. Not at first.
BOND: Why not?
WILLIAMS: Because it just didn't. . . It wasn't something that was in our frame of reference in Chicago. I'm sure it was like that in other northern cities also, but as I got older and I started to understand the issues regarding education in America, it became more and more important and obviously today we know that that was a seminal decision. It was crucial.
BOND: What do you think it turned out to mean as compared to what you thought it might mean?
WILLIAMS: I think it turned out to be opening up schools to children across the county. I think it gave children in the South, primarily, at first, the opportunity to attend high quality schools that they did not have the chance to attend before. I think it opened up an opportunity for people who went to those new schools to actually become leaders in our country in the future. I think about the Little Rock Seven, people like Ernie Green who went to schools because of that.
BOND: Did it ever touch your life? Was there ever a time when you thought the Brown decision is touching me, it's having an effect on me?
WILLIAMS: Not in my early memories.
BOND: But it did happen to other people?
WILLIAMS: It did happen to other people and I met those people in the course of my life and my career.
BOND: Who are the people who had the most significance in developing you? Who made you what you are today?
WILLIAMS: Well, I have to give my mother the credit because she was determined I was going to get a good education and she also encouraged me to read. The most important thing for her is what I had to do when I was young was to get a library card and so I became a fixture in my local libraries. The librarians would save the new books that arrived for me. They called me and say, "Aaron, there's a new book coming in, science fiction or whatever it might happen to be, and we want you to read it first." I would go to the library and I'd sit down on Saturday and I'd read the book from front to back because I had this opportunity through the librarian so I became a -- you know --
BOND: You wouldn't take the books home?
WILLIAMS: I wouldn't take them home. I would sit right there and read it.
BOND: Science fiction particularly?
WILLIAMS: Science fiction, histories, biographies. I read a lot of different things. I read all the time.
BOND: You're lucky to have these librarians giving you these suggestions.
WILLIAMS: I was, I was very lucky. I spent a lot of time there, though, Julian. [laughs] They got to know me pretty well in those neighborhood libraries.
BOND: In the interview you did with Tavis Smiley, you mentioned both your mother and a teacher named Harriet Sims. What about Ms. Sims?
WILLIAMS: Well, actually, that was Harry Simmons. Harry Simmons actually is a teacher, but he's also my dearest friend. We've been friends since we were 12 years old. We've been friends since the 8th grade and so it's always good in your life I think to have good friends. Harry Simmons is a good man, a wise man, and we've been in this journey together. That's why I mentioned that in the Tavis Smiley.
BOND: How did you and he interact?
WILLIAMS: Well, Harry and I went to this special boys' school in Chicago called Tilden. It was a school, now it would be known as a magnet school, and you had to take a test to get in and my mother, of course, was the one who said I want to be sure that you'll take this test to go to Tilden and we got in, Harry and I both met there. And we were friends. We played basketball together. We dated sisters. We went to YMCA leadership camp together and we remain friends to this day. As a matter of fact, he lives in Richmond, Virginia. He's a school administrator there and our children have grown up together so it's been a wonderful friendship.
BOND: How often do you see him?
WILLIAMS: I see him at least once a month.
BOND: Wow. That's incredible.
BOND: At age 11, you joined the Boys & Girls Club in order to play ping pong.
WILLIAMS: That's right.
BOND: But what else did the club do for you besides providing ping pong?
WILLIAMS: You heard about that, huh? Well, I joined the Boys & Girls Club because it was a refuge in Chicago. I went to a lot of different schools and I needed a place to be able to have a quiet place to play but also a safe place and my parents both worked. Sometimes they worked two jobs each and so the Boys & Girls Club became my refuge and so I went there and I learned to play ping pong but also I learned about Chicago. They took us on tours on every important place in Chicago—The Museum of Art of Science & Industry, the Museum of Natural History. They took us to see the White Sox and the Cubs play. They took us to the aquarium, to the planetariums, so I learned a lot about Chicago because of the Boys & Girls Club.
BOND: Did you play ping pong?
WILLIAMS: I did.
BOND: Were you good?
WILLIAMS: I wasn't good. As a matter of fact, when I learned later about how good the Chinese were, I realized how bad I was. [laughs]
BOND: So you're going to a different school every so often. You had this single place that becomes sort of your rock.
WILLIAMS: That's right, the Boys & Girls Club, that's correct.
BOND: That's incredible.
WILLIAMS: And they had a lot of wonderful strong black men there who were role models and would talk to you about doing the right thing and getting a job and taking care of your family. That was important.
BOND: How about service to others?
WILLIAMS: And service to others. That was implicit, but they never really talked about that. They talked about just being a good strong man, though, but obviously as I reflect on that, service to others was important to them.
BOND: And so it took with you?
WILLIAMS: It did.
BOND: Now, at the University of Wisconsin you earned an MBA. You remember meeting Isadore Fine.
WILLIAMS: I do.
BOND: And Lewis Ritcherson. Tell me about them.
WILLIAMS: Well, they meant everything to me. Isadore Fine was my advisor in my MBA program and he's the one who opened up lots of doors for me in terms of internships during the summer. He gave me great guidance in terms of the courses I was going to take and he was a great motivator. Les Ritcherson had a very distinguished career at the University of Wisconsin. He was one of the first black football coaches in the Big Ten and so when I arrived there, he was then Vice Chancellor for Affirmative Action, so I went to see him because I needed a part - time job to supplement my fellowship and we became good friends. He became a mentor and he remains my dear friend to this day.
BOND: Really? I wondered when I was doing the reading in advance because he was a football coach that you were a football player?
WILLIAMS: No, I wasn't. No. But his son played quarterback at the University of Wisconsin in those early years.
BOND: Now, what about Sargent Shriver, John Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, people you admired a great deal. Shriver, particularly?
WILLIAMS: Well, Sargent Shriver—I had the great fortune, the great privilege and the great honor to walk in his footsteps. As you know, Sargent Shriver created the Peace Corps and today, we still follow, and I still say "we" sometimes with the Peace Corps, we at the Peace Corps still follow the tremendous vision that he put in place to promote world peace and friendship. He was a man who understood why it was important for Americans to interact. He had been involved with something called the Experiment for International Living before World War II and had led groups of students to Germany as an experiment and he understood why the world, why we were interconnected and why we needed to understand each other and to learn more about each other and so that's the vision that he brought to the Peace Corps.
BOND: How did he come into your consciousness first?
WILLIAMS: Well, interesting, I think I had heard some of John Kennedy's speeches about the Peace Corps and I heard Sargent Shriver speak in Chicago because as you know, he lived in Chicago, and I said wouldn't this be interesting, I could go to another country to learn a foreign language, I could learn about other cultures, I could explore the greater world outside of Chicago because I'd never really traveled much outside of Chicago and so it inspired me to take on this challenge of joining the Peace Corps.
BOND: So from that you did join the Peace Corps?
WILLIAMS: I joined the Peace Corps and the Peace Corps was a transformative experience. It changed everything in my life. Everything that I am today, everything I do today, my family, my profession, I can draw a straight line back to the Peace Corps and the decision I made to join the Peace Corps.
BOND: Before we go there, let me go back earlier to your life. What did your parents do?
WILLIAMS: My father was a lifetime worker at the post office. He became a supervisor at the post office. My mother did a lot of different things. She was a dental assistant. She was what we now would call a telecommuter. She was a secretary and worked at home, did a lot of work for large corporations in Chicago. She managed a dry cleaners. She did a lot of different things. She was a creative woman who really had a great vision about what you needed to do in the world of work.
BOND: What kind of values did they impugn to you, did they insist you adopt?
WILLIAMS: Hard work.
BOND: Was that the main one?
WILLIAMS: They expected me to work hard, although it was interesting. My mother was always worried about me having part - time jobs that would detract from my education. And so she was always very suspicious of that.
BOND: So how did she balance this conflict?
WILLIAMS: Well, that was the one source of tension between us because I wanted a part - time job to have some extra money and she wanted me to focus only on the books so we worked out a compromise. It worked out.
BOND: How did you work that out?
WILLIAMS: Well, I was determined and so was she. [laughs]
BOND: I see. What kind of neighborhood did you live in?
WILLIAMS: I lived in a working class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago and people around us worked in the steel mills and the auto factories. They were policemen, firemen, teachers.
BOND: These multiple schools you went to, what were they like? How did they differ, one from another?
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, they tended to be new schools with new faculty. We had new buildings and my mother just thought new building, new faculty, this has to be good for my son. And then finally --
BOND: Was that always true?
WILLIAMS: It was always true. Every school I moved to was an improvement from the school I'd been in before, without a doubt. My mother was very canny about this and then finally at the last, I guess, four or five years of my elementary school, they became integrated schools.
BOND: Were there specific teachers in elementary and high school who encouraged you, somebody who stands out in your memory, somebody who affected you more than others?
WILLIAMS: Well, I have to thank two people that stand out. No. 1—Sister Mary Agnes when I was in Catholic school. She was a real stickler for you had to read and you had to read properly and you had to understand what you were reading and that, of course, fit very well in terms of what my mother was telling me at home and when I had this predilection to do myself and then the other person I think was my high school geometry teacher, Mr. Caldwell. Mr. Caldwell at Tilden told me, he says, "you know what, you have a real aptitude for math and science and you need to develop that." I'd never really thought that I had an aptitude for math and science and I thought I was a pretty good student, but he said "you are a special student, you need to study hard, push yourself as hard as you can," and that was inspirational to me.
BOND: And so you did that.
WILLIAMS: I did that.
BOND: . . . Do you have siblings?
WILLIAMS: I do. I have a brother and sister. My youngest sister is a teacher. She just retired from the Chicago Public School System after 30 years there. I'm really proud of her. She's also the possessors of two master's degrees so she's our shining light. My younger brother has been an insurance underwriter for many many years and he's now starting to teach in the Chicago Public School System also as a kind of a second career. But they were about 10 years younger than me, so a big difference in age.
BOND: Did you participate in school activities of any kind?
WILLIAMS: I did.
BOND: Student government or anything like that?
WILLIAMS: I was involved in student government briefly. I was involved in intramural basketball, softball, but a lot of my activities actually were outside of school, in the YMCA and the Boys' Club. That's where I spent a lot of time on teams there.
WILLIAMS: Sports, yeah.
BOND: Because you're tall I guess basketball was --
WILLIAMS: Basketball was my favorite, yes. But I couldn't make the Chicago Bulls for some reason. I can't quite understand why that was. [laughs]
BOND: Anything you participated in school or any of these other activities that you think helped you develop leadership skills?
WILLIAMS: Probably debate club, I would think. I was in debate club briefly while I was in high school.
BOND: Any clubs that you rose to a leadership position?
WILLIAMS: Not in high school. No, not in high school nor in undergrad.
BOND: You wanted to be a high school teacher?
WILLIAMS: I did. Mr. Caldwell was inspirational to me and so I decided that anyone who could inspire me the way he did, this is the person I want to emulate and I wanted to be a high school teacher.
BOND: And so what happened to frustrate that?
WILLIAMS: Well, actually what came along was the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps was such an extraordinary opportunity in my view at that point in time that I decided that I wanted to take on that challenge and interestingly enough, my mother and Harry Simmons were the only two people in my circle of family and friends who thought that was a good idea.
BOND: Only these two?
WILLIAMS: Everybody else said this is a bad idea. You've just graduated from college. You've got a good life ahead of you. Settle down and teach high school.
BOND: So they thought this would be an interruption. Did they think it was something you would do for life and therefore not get back to your --
WILLIAMS: People didn't understand it. The Peace Corps was still a pretty new concept. It had only been in existence for about six or seven years by that time, and it just seemed strange to run off to some foreign country when you had a perfectly good job waiting for you in the Chicago Public School System, so why would you leave?
BOND: Let me ask you this question—how did you decide that you would leave home, leave the country, go to a foreign land. It seems to me it's a challenge for any young person to do. Obviously, people did it and you did it. How did you come to that?
WILLIAMS: I think, first of all, I was inspired by what I heard from Sargent Shriver and Kennedy's idea—ask not and all of that. I think also because I had read so much I knew a lot about the world. Also, I studied geography in college and so geography took me around the world and I was curious. I wanted to know more about the outside world and I thought this maybe might be my only opportunity through the Peace Corps—well structured, planned activity and opportunity to do that, so I decided to do that but it was tough because everybody said this is a big mistake. You don't know what you're going to run into over there. You've given up a great job in Chicago and thank God my mother, and this is really interesting to me, my mother who had never traveled anywhere before, she had this vision, she thought this was a good idea. She said this is a great idea, you do this.
BOND: Really? And it turned out, I guess, as you imagined.
WILLIAMS: It turned out even more than I could've imagined. It turned out to be a marvelous experience. The people I met in the Peace Corps, the things I did in the Peace Corps, have been part and parcel of my life until right now.
BOND: I don't think we understand today how challenging it could've been there. I read something that you reminded me of—no cell phones, you had one telephone call per year with your family.
WILLIAMS: That's right. It was really quite a stretch. I was in a small town about 2,000 people, north of the capital of Santo Domingo. I would go to the post office and they would ring me through to Santo Domingo. Then they would ring me through AT&T long lines to Miami, then patch me on to Chicago and then I would've sent my mother a letter a month before saying, "I'm going to call you, Mom, on July 15th. Please be home to take my call." And so she'd be there. She'd answer the phone so I'd say, "can you hear me? Did you hear what I said? Did you get my letter? I can't talk long. This is very expensive. I can only talk about five minutes," and it was quite an ordeal. But it was amazing when we think back to those days and how easy it is today.
BOND: I can imagine today's Peace Corps volunteers with Skype and sitting before the computer talking to their mothers, their fathers, their friends and so on. You had none of that.
WILLIAMS: We didn't have any of that.
BOND: Now, going through your training, did you have any Spanish?
WILLIAMS: I didn't have any. I studied German in Chicago in high school, in elementary and high school.
BOND: And the Peace Corps gave you Spanish?
WILLIAMS: Spanish. Wonderful training. Wonderful instructors from the countries where we were going to serve and when you think about it, sometimes I think back to the time when I didn't speak Spanish and I can't remember actually it's been so long now. I've been speaking Spanish such a long period of time now.
BOND: Wow. What did you do in the Peace Corps?
WILLIAMS: I was a teacher.
BOND: Teaching what?
WILLIAMS: I taught everything. I was in a program, a teacher - training program, a really marvelous program. In those days, in the Dominican Republic, rural school teachers only had about a 6th grade education. They were barely ahead of the students they were teaching, so the government gave them an opportunity, also funded by the U.S. government, to get a high school diploma and improve their teaching techniques and also the opportunity to get a raise and a chance to be positioned to take a new job in an urban district which would improve their quality of life, so the teachers that I worked with gave up their summers for two years and all of their weekends to come to a central place where a group of Peace Corps volunteers taught them and we taught everything—language arts, math, science, chemistry. We taught geography and all this had to be done in Spanish so your Spanish had to get up to speed real fast.
BOND: Now, back to geography, why was geography interesting to you?
WILLIAMS: I guess because of what I had read when I was a young boy and I wanted to know more about the world outside of Chicago, outside of the United States and so geography. And then I learned quite fortuitously in my first year of college that there was a scarcity of geography teachers in Chicago, so I said, well, this is job security. [laughs]
BOND: Did you become a geography teacher?
WILLIAMS: I did, yeah. I studied geography.
BOND: Was there any particular part of the world that particularly drew your attention?
WILLIAMS: I would have to say Africa and Latin America in those days.
BOND: Now, the Peace Corps, you can't choose where you're going to go. You can suggest where you want to go.
WILLIAMS: You can suggest.
BOND: So, how'd you end up in the Dominican Republic?
WILLIAMS: Well, just sheer blind luck, I guess. [laughs] I was in training and actually I was on my way to Honduras. I was in a group of a hundred people who were going to Honduras and El Salvador and I had studied Honduras extensively. I'd studied the town I was going to be in. My roommate and I had picked out where we were going to live and then this incredible woman, Victoria Sanchez from the Dominican Republic came. She was a Deputy Administrator of Education and she said, "I want to ask you to change your mind. I need ten certified teachers to come to the Dominican Republic." She said, "you'll love it there. The people are wonderful. We have a great relationship with America. We want these teachers to change education in our country," and so I said, "you know, why not roll the dice. Let's try the Dominican Republic," and so I raised my hand. I volunteered again to go to the Dominican Republic.
BOND: I hate to keep skipping back and forth, but you're the first person in your family to go to college.
WILLIAMS: First person.
BOND: Was that hard?
WILLIAMS: Well, it wasn't hard because my mother always wanted me to -- She wanted me to get a college degree. That's why she didn't want me to have these part - time jobs, right? She thought that would detract from my getting my college degree and I worked my way through school, but it was always an important goal for me.
BOND: Why'd you choose Chicago State?
WILLIAMS: Because Chicago State was a direct track to the Chicago public school system. So in those days, if you had a degree from Chicago State—in those days it was called Chicago Teachers' College—you automatically once you graduated, you were going to become a certified teacher, so I thought this was, again, great job security and also being a high school teacher in Chicago was a great job in those days.
BOND: While you were at Chicago State, it became a state school. It had been a private school before.
WILLIAMS: No, it was always public.
BOND: But it became a state - controlled school.
WILLIAMS: That's right.
BOND: How, if any way, did that affect you?
WILLIAMS: It didn't have any effect as far as I can remember on the students. We still were a direct track into the Chicago public school system then and a large percentage of teachers in Chicago were graduates of Chicago Teachers College.
BOND: So it didn't really change anything in your life.
WILLIAMS: It didn't really change anything, not really. It didn't change anything.
BOND: We've heard a lot about your mother. What about your father? What effect did he have on you?
WILLIAMS: Well, my father was a World War II vet and as so many of the veterans of that great generation, he never really talked much about the war. He served in the Pacific. He fought in Burma and he was in India, Australia, and he was a strong, determined man who worked hard and he thought that as long as he was the breadwinner for the family, that was what he needed to do and so the person who really interacted with me outside of school was my mother. I wanted to share with you something that was very traumatic and have been very important in terms of my Peace Corps service. When I was in the Peace Corps, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated and I lost my faith in my country to solve the great social problems of the time and I wanted to come home. And so I told my mother and father. I wrote my mother and father a letter, couldn't call them, of course, in those days, and told them I was coming home. My father who had never written me a letter in his entire life wrote me a letter and in his letter he said, do not come home. He says, what you're doing now is very important. You're giving people an opportunity to learn about Americans, you're learning about the people there. He says you're doing things I never even expected you to do. It's more important that you stay there. You can come home and then you can be of service when you get back. That was the first time and only time my father ever wrote me a letter and it convinced me to stay in the Peace Corps at that moment in time.
BOND: Did you talk to him about that in later years?
WILLIAMS: I did. I still have the letter to this day.
BOND: I would think you would.
BOND: Do you remember specific events, historical or personal, that you view as critical to your development or your understanding of American society? Things from the civil rights movement? Things that you read in newspapers? Did you read The Defender?
WILLIAMS: I did. I read the Chicago Defender all the time. Everybody did.
BOND: Yes, I'm sure. Do you remember things you read in the paper or even in the other Chicago papers that impacted on you or you said, gee, these things are going on in these other parts of the country?
WILLIAMS: Well, the thing that I remember distinctly was the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. I remember that because my father and his family, they were from Mississippi and we always had this image of if we were to go south, things that could happen to you in Chicago and I think also that really brought the civil rights movement front and center for so many of us in Chicago.
BOND: Did it make the South a fearful place for you?
WILLIAMS: It did, at first.
BOND: I remember being terrified. He was one year older than I was. I remember being terrified and my family wanted to move us to Georgia from Pennsylvania and I said, no, I don't want to go, that something like this would happen to me.
WILLIAMS: It was a shocking thing for all of us, I think. And especially in the black community. The other thing was Martin Luther King, the Reverend King's work in civil rights. That became, of course, more and more important across the country.
BOND: Of course, Till would be more personal because he was young and from Chicago.
WILLIAMS: And from Chicago. He was from the southside. He had gone down to visit his grandparents and his family in a town not too far away from where I had gone. I had been in the South to visit my relatives.
BOND: Oh, really?
WILLIAMS: I'd been down there.
BOND: Yes, he was in Money. I was there this summer.
WILLIAMS: You were?
BOND: Yeah, visited the store where he allegedly whistled at this woman. Anyway, it was chilling.
WILLIAMS: It was. But that was the first thing I remember as a young man, that really struck me. I think the other thing was the Cuban Missile Crisis. That, of course, was important to me because I was looking at the outside world. I didn't understand much about it. Of course, I was just terrified like everybody else in America in those days.
BOND: I don't think we now recall how terrifying that was.
WILLIAMS: It was.
BOND: Awfully scary.
WILLIAMS: It was.
BOND: You thought that the missiles and bombs would soon be coming --
WILLIAMS: Any minute.
BOND: Wherever you were, they were coming to you.
WILLIAMS: That's right. I remember a great sense of relief when people said this is over. Pretty amazing times.
BOND: It was.
BOND: Tell us about Martin Luther King and how he came in your life or how he came into your consciousness.
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, this was a man who was different from everybody else in many ways, at least from a distance. I didn't know much about him because he was in the South and I was in the North, and he was like Gandhi. He was prepared to stand up for his principles, but he wouldn't fight back. He turned the other cheek. He believed in passive resistance. It was hard to swallow, especially in Chicago. Chicago is a tough town. People like to think of themselves as being tough, you know, growing up in Chicago and so you always want to think, well, I wouldn't stand up for that, I would fight back, but he was showing that he could use a different tactic and actually bring people, all people—white, black, Latinos, everybody—to his side. That was a powerful thing to see and to observe. Then he came to Chicago, of course. He led marches in Chicago to try to break through segregated housing.
BOND: Yes, I remember reading that Dr. King moved into a slum in Chicago and the landlord cleaned it up and people said, well, all we got to do is get him to move into the slums. We'll all be cleaned up in a short while.
WILLIAMS: That's right. [laughs]
BOND: So you leave the Peace Corps but you come back to work for the Peace Corps on minority recruitment. Why that focus?
WILLIAMS: Well, also, there's one other thing that's really important. I met my wife in the Peace Corps. [laughs]
BOND: Oh, that's right, you did.
WILLIAMS: That's right. She was from the Dominican Republic and I met her and we've been married now for 40 years.
BOND: Very good. Congratulations.
WILLIAMS: Thank you. So we came back together and started our new life and so, again, the Peace Corps, I came back and I was in Washington for about 48 hours and I got offered a job by the Peace Corps to recruit and they said you can recruit in any city you want in the Midwest so I said, well, I think I'll go to Chicago. That's my hometown, right? And so I ended up going to Chicago. Also, I thought in terms of minority recruitment, it was important to try to encourage other minorities to join the Peace Corps. It had been such a positive, important experience for me. I thought that I should do everything I could and in my power to try to encourage other minorities to at least consider the Peace Corps and so the Peace Corps had a minority recruiting program and so I came back and I got involved in that.
BOND: It's remarkable, because I run into Peace Corps volunteers all the time and they stand out. They truly do.
BOND: You grow up largely in the segregated world going to segregated schools. Then you enter the Peace Corps, not immediately after that, but you enter the Peace Corps and it's overwhelmingly white. What was this transition like for you?
WILLIAMS: Well, actually I think the Chicago Teachers College was actually very integrated in those days. I would say it was probably maybe 50/50, so I had already been for four years in really integrated classrooms and I had many friends, many white friends, students, who were my friends, so it wasn't that big a departure but I was the only African American in my group of a hundred people in the Peace Corps in training and so I flew out to San Diego. The first time I'd ever been on an airplane and I fly out to San Diego to San Diego State College and there we are in the dormitory, all one hundred of us, and we're trying to figure everybody out—why did you decide to do this, where are you from, and the great thing about the Peace Corps is that you run into people from all walks of life, children from great wealth, children from working class families. There we are all there with a common mission, so I was uncertain about whether or not this had been the right choice. Again, I had it ringing in my ears this message from home that this was a big mistake—why are you doing this, but I have to tell you something, Julian, it was really interesting. After about a week, I was a hundred percent certain that I had made the right decision. These were people who cared about making the world a better place. They listened to each other. We were determined to bond and learn more about each other and how we could help each other. It was a positive environment. People were optimistic and I thought to myself, how I could be in a better group of people. I'm surrounded by this positive energy and this force. This was the right decision.
BOND: Wonder how many of them were older than you are. I remember Jimmy Carter's mother was a Peace Corps volunteer. Was there anybody in your cohort older than you, much older than you?
WILLIAMS: In my group, there were only a handful of people who were maybe in their 40s or 50s, just a couple and, of course, we respected them greatly because they had had careers and we thought this was brilliant that they were doing this, but I was also one of the youngest. I think I was the youngest actually in my group.
BOND: What parts of your education do you think, back to the college particularly, helped you develop these leadership skills?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think without a doubt my MBA. Wisconsin was an outstanding university and I had a chance to -- And also it was interesting because by that time there were a lot of veterans coming back from Vietnam and these were very determined, very experienced people, really impressive people, and for some reason I was coming back from the Peace Corps and we always used to joke, you were in the Peace Corps, I was over in Vietnam, but I became friends with a lot of Vietnam War vets and so it was kind of a crucible of leadership training. We pushed each other very hard. Our professors pushed us hard and we took on lots of interesting projects and assignments. It was also a great time to be getting an MBA degree because the economy was opening up to MBAs and so it was a good time. I think that's where I started thinking about becoming a leader.
BOND: Did you start thinking about yourself as leader, I am a leader? How did that consciousness come over you?
WILLIAMS: I think, as you know, in graduate school there's a lot of teamwork. You form teams to take on certain projects and I found myself being in a leadership position more and more and I also had become a leader in the Peace Corps within my group. I had stayed on for my third year. I was kind of a volunteer leader. I'd taken on a totally different assignment teaching at a university in the Dominican Republic so I had already started learning how to build teams, how to lead teams, and so it was a pretty natural thing for me.
BOND: I was going to ask you—it seemed natural to you to do this?
WILLIAMS: It did, by that time which was quite a revelation to me because I had never thought about myself that way when I left Chicago at all.
BOND: Do you know why you not had not thought of yourself that way?
WILLIAMS: Because I had never been into contact with people who considered themselves to be leaders, I think, and so you have to be exposed to leadership and exposed to individuals who talk to you about what it means to be a leader and how you can go about being a leader I think, which I try to do in all of my work with the young people that I work with.
BOND: How do you begin these talks about how you become a leader?
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, I always start -- I think in America most people think they should be a leader. It's part of our society, our culture, our ethos.
BOND: It's how we grow up.
WILLIAMS: As we grow up, we should be leaders, and so I always start. I did this a lot in the Peace Corps. I always start off by saying, well, what do you think a leader does. Why do you think this is a something that you would choose to do? And I think -- and I talk about the fact that leadership is a responsibility. When you're the leader of an organization, of a group that seems to take on a lot of responsibility, you had to be prepared to accept that responsibility and it's 24/7 responsibility. It's not just something you turn on and off on 9:00 to 5:00 basis. Secondly, you need to study what the objectives of the enterprise would be, whether it's a company, whether it's a non - profit, whether it's a business, or a foundation, and understand what you're trying to achieve and how you can lead people to work together in a collective sense to achieve that.
BOND: Tell us something about your mentoring of other people as you've moved along in your career path?
WILLIAMS: Well, because I've always enjoyed great mentors from Mr. Caldwell in high school all the way through people like Ambassador Johnnie Carson who just stepped down from being Assistant Secretary for Africa who was a great leader. James Joseph who was my ambassador in South Africa. I'm sure you must know him. He's an outstanding outstanding mentor and leader. Ambassador James Michael who was my boss when I was in USAID who was the one who picked me for my first major leadership position at USAID. All of these men were important to me and so I've always made it a point to reach out and try to identify talented young people who I thought should be supported and allowed to have the opportunity to gain insights into the wonderful careers, whether it's in government or business or in the non - profit world. Certainly I try to do that here at RTI. I think it's important to encourage your talented people to really take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them and to structure pathways for them to become leaders.
BOND: Let me ask you a question, what you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style. Can you describe the interaction between these three—vision, philosophy and style?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think vision, to me, in my view, is something that you create in terms of where you want to go in the world, what you want to achieve. We like to say at the Research Triangle Institute that our mission and our vision is to improve the human condition. It's one of the reason why I work at RTI International because I feel like since I went into the Peace Corps my life has been all about trying to improve the human condition and so then the question is what strategies can you create to try to achieve that vision and you sit down and you figure in our case it's working in education or working in health, working in governance around the world trying to improve the lives of people in developing countries.
BOND: So what about philosophy and style? Are those the means by which or the umbrella under which you carry out this work?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think any leader has to have a personal philosophy. I think that's helpful to have that. I think it's part of being a leader. My philosophy is that, no. 1, I want to help the people on my team in my enterprise, in my organization, achieve their goals within our vision.
BOND: And it strikes me that might be a common philosophy that others would adopt. Are there different philosophies that could be equally as successful?
WILLIAMS: Probably. I think that's right. I mean I've always tried to lead my life by the Golden Rule—do unto others, and I always assume that there is good in people and I like to try to bring that to the table.
BOND: Now, what about style?
WILLIAMS: Style—I think -- Style. That's always an interesting question, isn't it? People always wonder, what exactly is a leader's style? I think in my case I like to believe that I'm a person who listens. I think listening is a very important skill set to have as a leader. It's important because you can learn a lot about the people who work with you, you can learn a lot about the challenges that you have to take on, and you can empower people by letting them know that what they tell you, what they believe is important, is going to help shape your philosophy and your approach to solving problems within your organization.
BOND: Now, over your lifetime, has your vision changed? Is it different now that it would've been, say, 20 years ago?
WILLIAMS: Actually since the time I've joined the Peace Corps, my vision has not changed. I've been very privileged, very fortunate to work in organizations, whether it's with the Peace Corps, with the International Youth Foundation, with RTI International—now, I'm back again the second time with the Peace Corps certainly -- that I've worked for organizations that cared about improving the human condition, organizations that contributed to making the world a better place. I've been really fortunate in that.
BOND: Now, some people characterize the making of leaders in three ways: (a) great people cause great events; (b) movements make leaders; or (c) the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these, if any, do you fit in?
WILLIAMS: I don't think I fit in any of those three categories, actually, because I've gone to work for organizations that have given me a wide avenue and the means to achieve my goals while working under a vision of trying to improve the world, so I haven't had to wait for any of those three conditions to exist for me to be able to become a leader.
BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
WILLIAMS: I think it's both. I think it depends on the challenge. It depends on where you are in the life cycle of an organization I think in many ways. And one of the things that I believe in building, I believe in building good, strong teams. I think in any organization you're going to face challenges and many of those challenges are beyond the horizon. You don't know what they're going to be. They could be financial. They could be social. They could be political, so the no. 1 thing that one has to have is a good team. You've got to recruit the smartest people you can to be on your team. I'm a firm believer that you can never have too many smart people in the room with you. I hope they're smarter than I am and if you listen to them and if they know that you are working together as a team, it can make all the difference in the world and I believe with that kind of a team, with that kind of ability to work together, you can solve just about any problem because there will be problems in any human enterprise.
BOND: I've always told people that they should hire people smarter than themselves. Some people are afraid of that.
WILLIAMS: First of all, I think that's a mistake to be afraid. I couldn't agree more with your philosophy and I think that -- But in order to do that, you have to be very self - centered. You have to be very confident of where you are in the realm and circle of things and be prepared to take that on. It's certainly paid off for me in my career. I've always been fortunate to have people like that on my team.
BOND: I think I read something you said . . . In the institutions you've worked in, the Peace Corps, here at RTI, is there a difference in those institutions? I read something I think you said that the Peace Corps is one of the few government agencies that follows the same goals now as it did when it began.
WILLIAMS: That's right.
BOND: But is that also true here at RTI?
WILLIAMS: I think RTI is also very similar. The Research Triangle Institute is similar in that; for 50 years, we've been trying to improve the human condition and whether you're scientist, a social scientist or a research scientist, whether you're an epidemiologist or a statistician, you're dedicated to trying to improve the human condition, and so I think that we've been pretty much focused on that for our 50 - year history and as we have grown, it's paid off. That's one of the reasons why I decided to come back to RTI.
BOND: Now, when you became director of the Peace Corps, you had to immediately deal with the murder in 2009 of this volunteer Kate Puzey in Benin. You were able to put into place reforms that strengthened health and safety measures and able to work with the Congress to do so. How were you able to sustain yourself during this crisis? This had to be an awful time for you and for the Peace Corps.
WILLIAMS: Well, Kate Puzey who was an outstanding volunteer, she died before I became director. She died a few months before I became director, and it was a real shock to me to find out about this. It was also quite apparent that safety and security of our volunteers was something that had to be at the top of my agenda and so I turned my attention to that. We put in place a series of reforms and policies and programs and training that I think made the Peace Corps a stronger place sometimes out of adversity you become stronger. I think when you face this kind of a challenge, no. 1, you have to have a good family and I have a great family. I have my wife, Rosa, who's been my rock for 40 years. I have my two sons who are outstanding young men who have grown up overseas in the Foreign Services because I've been a Foreign Service officer for 22 years and so they were a great source of strength to me. My friend Harry Simmons was a great source of strength, but the other thing which is crucial and this in terms of day - to - day work, my team. I had a fine, outstanding team of smart people who were dedicated, who were dedicated to the Peace Corps mission, who were dedicated to our volunteers and so that's what sustained me during that period of time.
BOND: Let me switch to the topic black leadership. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? Is there a difference? Is there such a thing a race - transcending leader, somebody who transcends race? It's a lot of questions.
WILLIAMS: Well, let me answer the last part first. I think President Barack Obama transcends race. I think that's the real important aspect of his presidency for our country. I think he gave Americans a chance to really feel good about themselves in the 21st century and now he's an outstanding leader. It really was a privilege for me to serve in his administration.
BOND: Do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race, or all white? Are you different with each of these groups?
WILLIAMS: Well, I like to think not. I like to think that I treat everybody equally in terms of how I interact with them. I believe that you should try to find the good in people and that you should try to empower them and give them the opportunity to pursue their goals and ambitions and so I like to think that my style is the same. I like to believe that everybody should be treated equally.
BOND: At the same time, if I'm speaking to all - black group, I find my cadences shift, my rhythm is different. If I'm speaking to an all - white group or a majority white group, I'm a little different. Does that happen to you?
WILLIAMS: I think all people of our generation grew up in an America, there's some of that. Sure. I think that's right. But I think as more of just adapting to your audience.
WILLIAMS: I mean, if I speak to a group of leaders in Latin America, I have a different style of speaking in a way than I would if I spoke to a group of leaders in Asia, so I think you adapt to your audience.
BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen who writes of a danger in continually thinking in terms of race or gender. He says, "until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces us all we're going to continue to harm this country." Is there danger or a further divisiveness when we focus on the concept of black leadership? Is black leadership the wrong way to talk about leadership generally?
WILLIAMS: Well, I want to arrive at an America, my vision of America, where we don't have to worry about black or white leadership or Latino leadership. We're talking about American leadership and American leadership to empower all people and give them opportunity to enjoy this great country of ours and so I think it's time to turn the page.
BOND: And a great many people thought when President Obama was elected the first time that racial problems would just vanish like this and, of course, that didn't happen.
WILLIAMS: Of course, you and I didn't believe that. [laughs]
BOND: No, but so many people did and it was a hopeful thing for them, a nice thing for them to think about and believe in, but it didn't happen. No, it didn't happen. Do you feel that black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans? Is there a point at which that obligation ends and one can pursue his or her own ambitions?
WILLIAMS: I think that to use a phrase that Ron Brown used to use quite a bit, it's important to drop the ladder down below and pull people up. I think that's important also and I firmly believe in that, but also I believe in doing that for all people who have aspirations and dreams in my work. I've had lots of different mentors and people who have assisted me in my career and they've been from all parts of this diverse country—white, Latino, black. I've really benefited from that. I've worked in an integrated community, whether it's overseas or here in the United States, and so I'm a firm believer in trying to reach out and help people no matter where they're from, what their backgrounds are.
BOND: Now, you served on the Obama/Biden Transition Team. How did that happen?
WILLIAMS: Well, I'd been in the Foreign Service for 22 years. I'd been at AID in senior positions and I knew quite a few people who were involved in the Obama campaign and so when they were starting to put together the transition team, I was one of the names that came up. I had a lot of experience in international affairs so I was lucky enough to be selected for that team.
BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader?
WILLIAMS: The ability to take advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to me and to excel. I like to think that I've excelled in business, in government, in the non - profit world, that I have been able to be a good leader. I've been a responsible leader and I've tried to do the very best I can because I think we stand on the shoulders of so many people who sacrificed everything for us. And for us not to avail ourselves of this opportunity to excel whenever we can is an absolute must. It's an essential thing. It's something that's in my inner core. It's something that I have tried to pass on to my sons and everyone who I mentor.
BOND: As you look back at your life, are there opportunities you didn't take advantage of and you regret it now?
WILLIAMS: I don't believe in looking back but also I think I've been very lucky, Julian. I think that I started down a road that very few people have walked down from my community by joining the Peace Corps. I received very positive reinforcement from that and I was successful in a career in foreign affairs, in the Foreign Service working for USAID and so I've really enjoyed my career. It's been good for my family. It's been good for me professionally. It's led me to be able to work at outstanding organizations like RTI at this stage in my career so actually as I look back, it's been really a marvelous career. The only thing you could say is as I was an MBA, I probably could've gone into business and made a lot of money but I had the kind of enrichment that we have enjoyed as a family and what I've enjoyed in terms of my personal attainment has been very satisfactory to me.
BOND: In his book Race Matters, Cornel West writes, "the crisis of leadership is a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle." Do you see a crisis of leadership in black communities today and if you do, what makes this happen?
WILLIAMS: I don't know if I would say there's a crisis of leadership. I think there could be an absence of great leaders. I think that it's hard to be a leader in the world we live in today. It's a very complicated world more than ever before. You have to deal with the 24/7 news cycle. Everything you do is analyzed and dissected before it can even move forward in terms of carrying out an action plan. I think it makes it very very complicated to be a leader these days. I think that we have the opportunity to take on the challenges in America. I think there's a need to reinvest in our schools, in our communities. I think the president is trying to do that through his administration. I just think that we have opportunities but it's going to be a long, hard battle.
BOND: What kinds of leaders does contemporary society demand? How will future problems demand different leadership styles?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think the no. 1 overriding thing and this, of course, is based on my own personal experience—leaders in the future will have to be global in their perspective. We're too inter - connected now. What happens in China, in Russia, in South Africa, in El Salvador, have a bearing on what goes on in the United States so I think leaders to be effective in the future will have to be global in their perspective.
BOND: Now, clearly your career shows that you are global and you've exercised opportunities to become a global person, but many people don't. How can you foster this?
WILLIAMS: I think, first of all, you need to start at a very early age and one of the things that I learned early on in my career in the Foreign Service is that if you look at the Nordic countries, the Scandinavian countries, they start teaching about the rest of the world very early in their primary schools, through what's so - called development education, so young Swedes, Norwegians, grow up knowing about Africa, Asia. They probably work on projects with those countries. They send money there. They do fundraising, etcetera. We need to do more in our society to inculcate and to make our communities aware of the outside world and then we need to build people - to - people relationships. We need to engage our civil societies from Africa, Asia, Latin America with the United States in broad ways and that can be faith based. It can be through government programs. It can be through non - governmental programs. We need to build up this rapport and knowledge of each other worldwide.
BOND: You mentioned opportunities, people in Norway and Sweden, young people in Norway and Sweden, have to study foreign affairs in their world.
WILLIAMS: At an early age.
BOND: Very early on and I was thinking about issues in the United States that seem to be with us forever. Have you seen in these foreign countries, both that you've served in and you've been to, things they do that we could learn from and, if so, why don't we learn from them?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think certainly we can always learn from just about any society. I learned a number of amazing things in South Africa when I worked there during President Mandela's administration, the way the ANC pulled together their communities and whether we're talking about an association of taxi cab drivers, parent teachers associations, association of nurses and doctors, the African National Congress was able under Nelson Mandela to reach out and bring them together to really coalesce around important ideas regarding the future of that country. I think that's something that we can use in this country without a doubt, that kind of mobilization.
BOND: Of course, we do have associations of taxi drivers in the United States but I don't think of them as being social engineers.
WILLIAMS: That's right.
BOND: How can we translate them from thinking about taxi driver issues to other issues? How can we make them take this step?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think, first of all, people are interested when there's compelling concerns and I think there's enough compelling issues that we could organize people. We could interact with them and reach out to their leadership. I think it's -- Sometimes we all are very comfortable in our own narrow cells, in our stovepipes and we don't think about reaching out beyond that, but I think that's something I certainly learned in South Africa about this sense of community and why community can cross lots of different organizational lines. I think the way we go about taking care of children and mothers and their health care, we could certainly learn a lot about in this country. There's no doubt about that. There's lot of interesting examples.
BOND: Can you think of a different domestic form of the Peace Corps? We have agencies here that do in the United States what the Peace Corps does overseas? How can we inculcate this kind of service to the larger community?
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, let me just tell you from a philosophical standpoint—I believe that we need universal service in America. I'm a great proponent of that. I think when an American young person turns 18 they should be given the opportunity to serve, whether it's in the military or in civilian walks of life. I think it would develop a stronger sense of community. It would give you a chance to interact with people outside of your comfort zone and it would lead to a stronger nation, so I think that's important. I would love to see universal service in this country, civilian or military.
BOND: In your vision, would it be compulsory?
WILLIAMS: It would be compulsory. It would be.
BOND: What about RTI?
WILLIAMS: Well, I can't speak for the leadership of RTI, but I would think that certainly given that our mission is to improve the human condition, we would certainly be interested in trying to support something that would be a contribution to American society as we always do.
BOND: What about reinstating the draft? I've always thought it was a big mistake for us to get rid of the draft. It separates Americans from our military. Most of us don't know anybody who's in the Army or the Navy or the Marine Corps. We used to always know somebody. We don't do that now. What about a compulsory draft?
WILLIAMS: Well, I'm not sure about a compulsory draft but I'm certainly -- I would feel very confident about compulsory service, so I would like, instead of a draft, I'd like to give young people the opportunity to choose which type of service they would prefer to take on.
BOND: They could choose one or the other.
WILLIAMS: They would, yes.