While earning her graduate degree in American culture studies from University College in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Terri Williams learned about the East St. Louis race riots of 1917, the forgotten history of the predominantly African-American Washington Park Cemetery in north St. Louis County and how research, photography and video can shine a light on the past.
And so did her 10-year-old twin daughters.
Every lesson Williams learned on campus she shared with her girls, even bringing them to campus performances and lectures, like last year’s standing-room-only event with activist Angela Davis.
“Afterwards, they said, ‘Mom, we need to meet her,’” said Williams, who graduated in December. “It made me proud these extremely woke little girls wanted to hear new ideas. I’ve always taught them to question why the world is the way it is.”
Williams’ passion for inspiring and educating young people did not start and does not end with her daughters. Back when she was a teenager, Williams worked with children at the University City Recreation Complex.
“It was a rite of passage for a lot of students to work there, but it became something more to me over time,” said Williams, whose parents and stepfather are former educators. “I realized they responded to me differently than the grown-ups because I treated them differently — with respect.”
One day, a neighbor complained that boys were roughhousing outside the complex. Williams knew the boys were just playing, but she told them to settle down all the same. In our society, she warned them, people are all too willing to misinterpret the harmless actions of black boys.
“And sure enough, the police arrived and started patting them down and harassing them,” Williams said. “I was so angry. I think that moment has motivated me to find ways to support kids and to call others in our community to have compassion for our kids.”
That’s exactly what she has achieved at her business and her work. At Total Image Barber and Beauty in University City, the family-friendly barbershop Williams opened with her husband, Chris, her young clients gather to watch the news, watch a film or debate issues like the ones Williams studied in class.
“Sure, sometimes basketball is on, but it’s really a hub for people who are interested in thought-provoking and challenging conversation,” said Williams, who is also a licensed barber. “Anywhere can be a place to learn. Even the barbershop.”
Williams also supports children through her work at Unleashing Potential, where she serves as a development manager. Formerly known as Neighborhood Houses, the nonprofit offers early education and after-school programs and enrichment camps. It also runs Magnificent Creations, a social enterprise that provides job skills and fair wages to local teenagers.
Only three weeks on the job, Williams helped usher the organization’s successful campaign for Give STL Day, an annual online fundraiser for local nonprofits. Unleashing Potential raised $5,300 — $1,300 more than its goal — to send teenagers to visit Tennessee State University and Fisk University, two top historically black colleges.
“I was asking one girl why she so was excited for the trip, and she said, ‘I’m just so excited to see some place other than here,’ ” Williams said. “That’s what I love about this work — we’re showing students what’s possible and opening their worlds.
“Their path may be different than mine, but the goal is the same — to never stop learning.”