Washington People: Renee Cunningham-Williams

Brown School associate dean finds family, community, work-life balance key to success

Renee Cunningham-Williams is an associate professor and the associate dean for doctoral education at the Brown School of Washington University in St. Louis. (Credit: James Byard/Washington University)

Renee Cunningham-Williams’ office in Goldfarb Hall is a warm, welcoming place: books, cushions, a couch, plants, artwork and sunlight – all the accents that make a dean accessible to students at the Brown School, a place she calls “a fertile training ground for doing big things.”

Cunningham-Williams, associate professor in social work and associate dean for doctoral education at the Brown School, has had a career of “big things,” nurtured first in a loving family environment and second in a sound academic upbringing.

Her office, on the Danforth Campus at Washington University in St. Louis, is about 5 miles from where she grew up: the Arthur Blumeyer Housing Project in midtown St. Louis, one of the last remaining public-housing projects in the city before being demolished in 2006.

But this isn’t a story about a young woman escaping the mean streets of St. Louis. Instead, Cunningham-Williams’ story is one of family, community and work/life balance, and how strengthening all of those is ultimately the best social experiment out there.

“I didn’t know Blumeyer was considered impoverished until I went to Howard University,” Cunningham-Williams said. “Growing up, I never felt a sense of deprivation. I came from a loving home and had supportive community members and teachers, so I never felt that where we lived was considered impoverished until I went to college, where I saw a great disparity in social class.”

So how Cunningham-Williams got from Channing Avenue, just east of Cook and Grand avenues in north St. Louis, to Skinker and Forsyth — via stops in Washington, D.C., and the Washington University School of Medicine — is a bit of serendipity and a lot of hard work, nurtured at every step by mentors, family and friends.

Critical transitions

Risk-taking behaviors, the kind that kids engage in during the critical transition from adolescence to young adulthood, are at the core of Cunningham-Williams’ research.

One of the country’s foremost experts on problem gambling, she has devoted her career to studying risk-behaviors associated with emerging adulthood, including addictions. Her research has been disseminated nationally and internationally; appeared in high-impact academic journals; and been recognized with numerous awards and honors.

Cunningham-Williams’ own transition to adulthood was largely characterized by her development as a scholar. Before age 30, she earned four academic degrees, including two master’s degrees, in social work and psychiatric epidemiology, a doctorate and post-doctoral training.

But perhaps her most important life transition was the decision to marry Benjamin E. Williams Jr. Together, the couple has provided a loving, supportive and spiritual home for their son, Ben III, and daughter, Courtney.

Yet seeing that such transitions are not always so smooth has pushed Cunningham-Williams to continue researching adulthood’s arrival and all that goes with it — including problem gambling, addictions and other risky behaviors.

“The latest estimate is that 98 percent of Americans gamble without any severe problems at all,” Cunningham-Williams said. “But that two percent are individuals who are vulnerable — individuals who can least afford it.

“The rates are higher for kids — my kids’ ages — who are risk-taking and experimenting in a number of different behaviors,” she added.

“In our home, we talk openly about risk behaviors,” she said, “including substance use and problem gambling and the challenges and pressures young people face growing up in our world today. Because that’s the work that I do.”

Catching the wave

It was at Howard University, which she attended after graduating from Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School in St. Louis in 1984, that Cunningham-Williams first became involved in a National Institutes of Health program called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). The career-training program aims to increase the number of under-represented minorities in research.

It was also where Cunningham-Williams met the first of what she calls her “academic mentor moms,” Fariyal Ross-Sheriff,  who administered the program at Howard. That was a key first step for her: finding a familiar face to help shepherd her studies.

“I think I was Howard’s first MARC trainee in social work,” she said. “It allowed me to get a taste of the life of a researcher and, potentially, a professor.”

From there, she experienced what she calls a series of serendipitous events:

  • She was seeking a top graduate social work program; there was one in her hometown.
  • She was dating Ben, a recent law school graduate at the time, whom she met on a blind date through mutual friends — connections made stronger upon realization of their shared St. Louis Catholic upbringing. They dated for nearly 10 years before marrying in 1996.
  • Cunningham-Williams completed her doctoral studies at the Brown School under the tutelage of Arlene R. Stiffman, professor emeritus, a woman she’d come to call her second “academic mentor mom.” Stiffman needed students to work on her research project involving risk-behaviors among urban adolescents.

Cunningham-Williams called it good fortune to work with Stiffman. Stiffman called it old-fashioned hard work. “Her work was very steady and consistent,” Stiffman said, “and she always did a good job with the task or project at hand. She has an excellent sense of balance between the work and her personal life — just a brilliant, delightful human being.”

After earning her doctorate, Cunningham-Williams took another uncommon path for a social worker: post-doctoral training at the School of Medicine in psychiatric epidemiology and biostatistics. There, she began a research project on epidemiology and comorbidity of problem and pathological gambling just as the issue was coming to the forefront.

“There’s the saying about ‘catching the wave’ in research and looking for an area where there’s a great need,” she said. “Where there are needs, there are also potential funding opportunities, and problem gambling fit the criteria for me.”

After a two-year post-doc, Cunningham-Williams was hired as a research faculty member at the School of Medicine (Psychiatry) — at a time such hires were rare. After nearly 12 years in psychiatry, she returned to the Brown School.

Teaching by example

All this time, Cunningham-Williams balanced her work and family life, staying active in church and community and keeping her family circle tight. Seven weeks after Ben was born, the Williams family and her parents were chosen to greet Pope John Paul II on his visit to St. Louis in January 1999.

Meeting Pope John Paul II during his 1999 visit to St. Louis was a ‘life-changing’ encounter for Cunningham-Williams and her family. (Courtesy Photo)

Serendiptious? “Life-changing,” she said.

Still, she keeps both her home and spiritual life close to the vest.

“My spiritual life, my personal life, family life — it’s part of who I am,” she said. “I bring it into the classroom only when it’s relevant to the work or when I want to use it as an example for students.”

And she never has forgotten how important it is to balance family and work, teaching her students by example.

“I tell people growing up in my neighborhood, graduating from high school and especially college — that was a big deal,” she said. “But in my family, you were expected to try your best despite obstacles and life challenges. The notion of ‘be the best you can be’ came from my parents.”

A full circle

And now, Cunningham-Williams has come full circle at the Brown School, where she heads a NIH postdoctoral training program in addictions, a legacy of training first begun by Stiffman in 2002.

She continues problem gambling risk studies, focusing specifically on emerging adults and other vulnerable populations. She serves on the university’s Faculty Senate Council and teaches courses in program evaluation and research methods for master’s and doctoral students. She also conducts a doctoral professional development series, where the topics include career development, socialization into academic life and career-work-life balance.

All the while, Cunningham-Williams keeps it light, warm and welcoming, becoming an “academic mentor mom” to many as Ross-Sheriff, Stiffman and others did for her.

“Walking into our school, and realizing that I have the privilege of working with students who are hungry to make a difference, that gets me excited and motivated,” she said.

“Our playground is the world,” Cunningham-Williams said of the Brown School. “We get to play in the research we do, and have fun doing it with really cool, smart people who are nice. There’s a larger sense of purpose and that’s why it fits.”