Developing the future

James Herbert Williams enjoys his role in creating future social workers and renewing neighborhoods in St. Louis

James Herbert Williams thought he knew where he would spend his academic career. “I’m a western-U.S. kind of guy,” he says.

Williams, Ph.D., the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity and associate dean for academic affairs in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, grew up in Magnolia, N.C., and Cleveland, but fell in love with the western U.S. during his time as a student and social worker in Washington and Colorado.

James Herbert Williams, Ph.D. (right), the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity and associate dean for academic affairs in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, talks with Kuyosh Kadirov, a first-year master of social work student and an Open Society Institute fellow from Uzbekistan.
James Herbert Williams, Ph.D. (right), the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity and associate dean for academic affairs in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, talks with Kuyosh Kadirov, a first-year master of social work student and an Open Society Institute fellow from Uzbekistan.

“I hadn’t thought of moving back to the Midwest until I happened to interview with Washington University,” Williams says. “I was very taken by GWB and Dean (Shanti K.) Khinduka.

“I had heard so many wonderful things about the school and its faculty, and when I came here to visit, I found that the culture of GWB matched its reputation, which is very unusual.”

Williams found a home in GWB and the Midwest.

“Washington University has offered me a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow in my profession,” he says. “I was happy to begin my academic career here, and I am glad to continue my career here and the life I’ve made in St. Louis.”

Williams joined GWB as a faculty member in 1995 and has become an integral part of GWB’s administration, first as assistant dean for academic affairs in 2000 and then as associate dean in 2002.

His research, scholarship and community activities focus on youth and families. Williams concentrates on the development of youth, specifically African-American populations, through the creation of innovative programs that decrease individual and contextual risk factors and enhance resiliency.

He accomplishes this through involvement in the St. Louis Family Courts, local school districts and local youth agencies.

Beyond his work as a faculty member, Williams enjoys being a part of GWB’s leadership.

“I had an interest in impacting GWB in ways other than my research and teaching,” Williams notes. “I love being able to work closely with other faculty members and students. The connection I feel with the students is wonderful.”

The GWB faculty and students continually impress Williams.

“We are a faculty that is focused on the development of great social workers and the development of great research,” he says. “The students at GWB are the best in the world. They are demanding, and I think they should be. GWB offers them a place where they can get strong instruction and a strong student life.

“GWB does not have a ‘one thought’ culture. The school is very open to diverse ideas, but there is always a common thread among the faculty and students — the mission of the school.”

Community involvement

A requirement of holding the Lee professorship is working with other academics in St. Louis to help the community.

“My professorship allows me to bring together the intellectual resources of local universities to improve the quality of life for the St. Louis community,” he says. “This ties perfectly into part of GWB’s mission to help improve the social and economic development of the metropolitan area.”

His most recent project was with the Sustainable Neighbor-hoods Initiative. Williams worked with three neighborhoods in North St. Louis — Walnut Park East, Walnut Park West and Mark Twain — to help residents take leadership in the revitalization of their communities.

“This program is for comprehensive revitalization, not just building new structures,” Williams says. “We want to help these residents plan for the development of social services, not just new businesses.

“These neighborhoods have the core to build upon. They are caring communities with strong neighborhood groups.”

Williams notes the neighborhoods are seeing some successes from the program, but budgetary concerns remain a problem.

“St. Louis has a ton of potential, but we have not done a great job leveraging the potential to do the things we need to do,” he says. “The human capital is there, and there are definitely great fiscal resources in St. Louis, but there needs to be more collaboration and coordination between the two.”

West Coast living

The delivery of human services has always been an interest of Williams’. While growing up, he saw that people on the margins of society do not see the benefit of the social services available to them.

“I have very fond memories of my childhood,” Williams says. “I lived in a very stable, working-class neighborhood, but it made me very aware that people were not taking advantage of the human services that are available to them.”

This experience pushed Williams to pursue an undergraduate degree in sociology and then master’s degrees in social work and public administration. During this time, he began working with children in the areas of public health and prevention.

While serving as a social worker for the state of Colorado, Williams worked with children who had physical and developmental issues. He also assisted children and families in the pediatric oncology department of a local hospital.

After a number of years as a practicing social worker, Williams decided to expand his social work career into academia.

“I wanted to be a part of developing scholarship and the mentoring and training of new social workers,” Williams says. “That led me to get my doctorate. Social work is one of those professions where practice can be a valuable asset to the academic component.”

Williams earned his doctorate in social welfare from the University of Washington, said goodbye to his days as an avid snow skier and headed to St. Louis.

“Dr. Williams is a great asset to Washington University and a key member of the School of Social Work,” says Khinduka, Ph.D., also the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor. “He is an effective teacher and a productive researcher. He is actively involved in a number of vital social service projects in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

“His ability to establish an easy rapport with faculty, students and staff, his flair for problem-solving and his commitment to the mission of the social work profession are admired by all members of the GWB community.”

Life in the Midwest

In addition to his busy life at GWB, Williams makes time for many activities outside of the University.

He has traded skiing for running, enjoys the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and visits local farmers markets with his partner, Jeffrey Bassin.

Williams is also rehabbing a house in University City and has filled it with his growing collection of pottery and his numerous compact discs.

“I am an opera nut, but I love all types of music,” he says.

Williams’ main passion, however, is travel. “I love to explore and be exposed to new cultures,” he says.

James Herbert Williams

Education: B.A., sociology, Grambling State University; M.S.W., Smith College; M.P.A., University of Colorado; Ph.D., social welfare, University of Washington

CDs of the moment: Wagner’s Parsifal and India.Arie’s Voyage to India

Family: Daughter, Kimberly; grandsons, Christopher, 12, and Marco, 8; partner, Jeffrey Bassin

His fondest travel memories include a 50th-birthday trip to Paris and London and a trip to Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Paris is one of my all-time favorite cities,” Williams says. “That trip was also very special because it was Jeffrey’s first time in Europe, and I loved being able to share my favorite city with him.

“My trip to Germany was delightful. It was incredible to be able to experience such a historic event.”

He also travels to see his daughter, Kimberly, who is stationed in Tokyo with the Air Force, and his grandsons, Christopher and Marco.

Williams admits that most of his time is spent at the University. “So many things that I do are involved with GWB,” he says.

But Williams will take a break from his daily life at GWB this spring when he goes on sabbatical to write a book on the lifelong development of African-American children.

He is excited about the future of GWB and his career at the University.

“Under the direction of Dean Khinduka, GWB has experienced tremendous growth and has made a major impact on the social work profession,” Williams says. “From this terrific starting point, GWB promises to have a new and exciting future.”

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