Some activists arrive at meetings in a flurry of nervous energy, cell phones glued to their ears, with a gaggle of followers and a sense of such manic urgency that it is tempting to believe the fate of humanity depends on what happens in the next five minutes. No one can say that longtime community activist Tammie Williams lacks urgency or energy. But those qualities are tempered by a sense of depth, of human bedrock that transcends the news cycle.
Williams is here for the long haul, and her commitment goes beyond last week’s press event or next week’s school board meeting. She embodies the slogan “Think globally, act locally.” She has been a community activist for years — as a library trustee, as an advocate for special-needs children and as a mentor for young women. For all these reasons and more, the Herald is proud to name Williams its 2017 Person of the Year.
The roots of her activism
“People can lose their voices in so many ways,” Williams said in a recent discussion, “and it’s hard to get out and make your voice heard when you’re working two jobs and trying to care for a family.” She knows the territory. She works full-time and is the mother of a special-needs child. But “I’ve never been one to sit passively in the back,” she said.
Her roots as an activist are deep. “I started asking questions in sixth grade,” as a student at P.S. 140 in Jamaica, Queens, she recalled. “David Dinkins had just lost” his bid for a second term as mayor of New York in 1993. “I wanted to know why, and I wanted to know why nobody else was talking about it. My teacher stressed the importance of being informed — of activism,” Williams aid.
Later, as a high school senior, she challenged her teachers to explain the inequity in the way the women’s movement was presented. “I wanted to know why no one looked like me,” she said. “One of my male classmates stated that no woman could become president. He said they couldn’t be as effective,” a position with which she flatly disagreed.
After high school, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in community and human services from Empire State College, in Brooklyn, and a master’s in social work from the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.
In 2003, her son C.J. was born. During a routine post-natal screening, he was diagnosed with sickle-beta thalassemia, a disease of the red blood cells. Along with that diagnosis, Williams and her mother began to notice developmental deficits.
In 2010, C.J. was diagnosed with autism. Not one to wait on events, Williams decided to go back to school to learn how she could help both her son and other families with special-needs children. As an advocate for families like hers, she became a member of the PTA in her district for parents of children with unusual needs. In addition, she served for several years as a mentor and program director of Project PRIDE (Providing Resources for Improvement Dignity and Empowerment), a program to encourage girls and young women to develop self-confidence. “Girls and women have a critical need for positive female role models,” she said. Williams has also given 26 years of service to the Girl Scouts and Police Explorer Scouts.
Williams on the issues
As the trajectory of her life makes clear, “My passion is for social justice,” she said. One of the issues that has engaged Williams in recent years is redistricting in Nassau County, particularly since 2013. “The reapportionment of 2013 left us with one of the most segregated counties in the U.S.,” she said. “We’re segregated racially and economically and educationally.”
Reapportionment takes place after every decennial census, and the party in the majority has traditionally used that power to create as many safe districts as possible. But “we were seeing a kind of red-mapping,” what one source called “gerrymandering on steroids,” where Nassau’s communities of interest were cut off from one another, Williams said.
“Almost as soon as people began having a voice, their district was on the chopping block, and the people who supported their elected officials” started finding themselves in other districts from those officials, she noted. “I started studying the community and noticed the similarities between where I lived and downtown Brooklyn.”
Williams had returned to Brooklyn to finish her college degree. “Thirteen years after I left, neighborhoods were boarded up and people had lost their homes” to developers, she said. “People who could afford to hold on to their property did very well, but some lost their property to eminent domain” or were pressured to sell.
She saw the same in Elmont. “People lose their collective voice” when gerrymandering takes place, Williams said, and when they lose their collective voice, “that leaves neighborhoods vulnerable to takeover from outside interests and to gentrification. Property taxes go up, and suddenly people can’t afford to live in the neighborhood where they’ve invested not only their money, but their lives.”
Williams described her mother’s move from Queens as typical. “Families move further east to find neighborhoods that are safer and with better educational opportunities,” she said. “They sign on the dotted line and make that 30-year commitment. Then, suddenly they’re being told they’re undesirable. I’m talking about communities of color in Elmont, Freeport, Roosevelt. They’re called ‘politically undesirable,’ and because they’re politically undesirable, it’s acceptable for them to become invisible,” to be ignored.
“So people move out to these communities and spend 60 percent of their property taxes on education, which is fine,” Williams said. When they come back to the community, “they want to find good jobs and affordable housing,” and that’s where her current hot-button issue trips up lower-income people of every stripe.
“I live three blocks from there,” Williams said, referring to the area that will be built up as part of the New York Islanders’ stadium development at Belmont Park. At first, she said, “I didn’t even know it was happening.” Williams got to work, and now carries a large binder full of requests for proposals, correspondences between agencies, and letters back and forth between legislators and various community interest groups. She knows it’s happening now, make no mistake.
Echoing others in the community, Williams emphasized the hard work that people have put into their community, but she doesn’t turn away from the hard work that is yet to be done. “When we push for smart growth, we’re told that people in the community don’t have the education for high-tech jobs,” she said. But this is not only an issue of race or economics.
“People aren’t opposed to real development,” she said. “They want to be heard, and they want their needs to drive the process. They want the integrity of their community to be maintained, and they want the life they’ve made for themselves and their families to be sustainable.”