Protest isn't the opposite of peace for Rhonda Williams, but a means to that end.
“I’m energized when people speak out. I’m energized when people are engaged in protest,” Dr. Rhonda says. She's Dr. Rhonda to her students, colleagues and compatriots...really just about everybody.
And her practice? Case Western Reserve University's Social Justice Institute.
“I’m always focused on how people can voice. And getting those voices on the table, in the mix, and in the conversation, that are often ignored, or not taken seriously, or obscured or not taken seriously or hidden or marginalized or exploited,” she said. “I’ve been able to kind of do that since I’ve been [at Case].
“My parents always taught me the importance of the humanity of people. They didn’t use those words necessarily, but they always taught me that through their actions and the kinds of things I had interest in,” she said.
“It was always, ‘You can do it daughter. But realize not everybody has the same opportunities and even people who struggle as hard as you do, might not get there.’”
“You always have to claim the space to voice. And I’ve had to do that. As an African-American woman, I’ve had to do that.”
Home will always be Baltimore. But in Cleveland, Dr. Rhonda's voice carries. She was one of the Cleveland 8 – a group of pastors, academics and activists that joined forces to push the city for charges in the death of Tamir Rice.
She’s the author of Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (2015) and the award-winning The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality.
“Race has never disappeared in this country. Racism has never disappeared in this country. But there's more discussion of it openly now in good ways and in really rabid and ugly ways,” she says, of the police-involved shootings and protests we’ve seen around the country.
She’s working on Cleveland’s Community Police Commission – the consent decree’s citizen voice to understand and enforce change for everyone. Does she see it happening?
“I have to be a realistic optimist. I have to be an optimistic realist. I am in wait and see mode. I am in wait-and-see mode and wait-and-see mode comes with work for me,” she says.
She encourages everyone to take a role in the world they see before them: “Start with what motivates you, what you’re passionate about, and where you think you can enter. It can be really small…wherever they are in their life, right? Just try. Everybody can do something. And the more of us who are doing something, the less work it is for each of us to do. And the more collective potential creative good we do with what we’re doing.”
She finds power in words, like these, favorites from Audre Lorde.
“’To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give up,’” says Dr. Rhonda, quoting Lorde. “I’m not giving up. I might have to take a break every now and then. I’m supposed to get some self-care in, but I’m not giving up. I’m not giving up. I don’t know how to do that.”
On how she came to Cleveland
“I was looking for a job and I saw this place called Case Western Reserve University, and I said, ‘what is that? A military academy?’ I said I’ll try it. I’ll test the market...[that was 20 years ago.] “It’s because of my colleagues that I think I’ve had such longevity here.”
“I’m from Baltimore, Maryland. That’s where I’m born and bred. That’s still home. That’s where my family is: mom, dad, brother, niece, nephews, now I’m a great aunt. I say call me ‘A2.’”
Why history excites her
“History is relevant on its own. People say, ‘If you don’t know the past, you’re doomed to repeat it.’ We also know history doesn’t always duplicate itself exactly, but it does give us guideposts and benchmarks for understanding what has happened, what has not changed, what does need to change, and what are the continuous battles that we need to fight? And there are also moments of joy. Moments of ‘Wow, we did something here.’ And that’s what keeps you going.”
What keeps her up at night
“Wondering if I’m doing enough. Wondering if I’m doing enough. How can I do more? Lamenting that I just can’t do more. How can I figure out how to motivate other people to do more? Always trying to figure out how to bring about a more just society. That’s what keeps me up at night. And maybe a late movie, Murder She Wrote, or something like that.”
When she finds free-time
“Free time is figuring out how I’m going to have free time. How do I get chocolate? And ice cream? And go visit my family in Baltimore? Or take a trip up to Detroit where I also have family? Or just sit? Just sit. Just sit. And not say a word.”