Season 2, Episode 8 - Kidada Williams

Host Annmarie Caño speaks with academic leaders at Wayne State University to learn how they have developed their careers while empowering themselves and others.

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Kidada Williams is an expert in African American history and an associate professor of history in Wayne State University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She sits down with EmpowerED to Lead to reveal how learning the past can help leaders understand the present — and make a big impact on the future.

Kidada Williams in front of a microphone wearing headphones, black shirt and yellow scarf

About Kidada Williams

Kidada Williams is a nationally recognized expert in African American history, particularly with regard to racist violence. She is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me and the co-editor of Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence. Williams has contributed to The New York Times, slate.com, PBS and a variety of podcasts.

Transcript

Annmarie Caño :
Welcome to Empowered to Lead, a Wayne State University podcast for academic leaders who are committed to empowering their community to succeed. I'm your host, Annmarie Cano, Associate Provost for Faculty Development and Faculty Success at Wayne State.

In this podcast, we'll explore the personal journeys of academic leaders, both current and emerging to learn more about how they've developed their careers. We'll speak with faculty and staff about their work and how they have empowered themselves and others along the way. By doing this, we hope to empower listeners like you as you continue on your leadership path.

Today we're speaking with Kidada Williams. Kidada E. Williams is a nationally recognized expert on African American history, particularly their experiences of racist violence. She is the author of, They Left Great Marks on Me and co-editor of Charleston Syllabus, a book on the 2015 Charleston massacre.

Dr. William's understanding of the politics surrounding the study and teaching of African American history informs her commitment to sharing her knowledge with broad audiences. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, slate.com and she has been a contributor to the Henry Louis Gates PBS documentary on reconstruction and various podcasts.

Welcome to this podcast Kidada.

Kidada Williams:
Thank you so much for having me.

Annmarie Caño:
Great. What do you love most about your role as a professor?

Kidada Williams:
I love a lot actually. I think I would rank my two biggest loves are research and teaching. I really, really love research and writing and sharing my findings with the larger audience. To give you an example of that, I really like pursuing answers to historical questions to figure out what happened, why and how and to whom. And so for me it just becomes this all incumbency sort of passion to get to the answer to that question and then communicate it to a larger audience. I can give you an example of that.

I wanted to understand if there was a longer history and context behind the discovery of the more than 11,000 untested rape kits in Detroit. And so that answer or pursuing the answer to that question took me into spending the first nine months of this year combing through almost 60 years of newspaper reports in the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. It was just sort of all-encompassing. Each day I discovered a new component of the research that took me in a direction that I hadn't even thought it would. The project has legs. It's grown bigger and more comprehensive and more complex than I actually thought it was, and I'm really passionate about pursuing all of the leads that I discovered in that first nine months of research.

As I said, it becomes kind of all-encompassing, like I love it. I want to spend most of my time doing that kind of work. I'm really passionate about doing the research and then writing. I really love writing in a way that I didn't think that I would when I was a graduate student and then sharing that with as large of an audience as possible.

I think my second passion is teaching. Teaching students the sort of thinking historically, understanding the past to understand the present or learning about the past, to understand the present, getting a sense of how individuals shaped the world and also teaching them how to do historical research is something I really care very deeply about. For me it's not just about the sort of content that we teach, it's about thinking historically, thinking about how to understand the world and how the world that we currently live in was created and how we as individuals can shape the future. That's another part of the work that I really enjoy doing as a professor.

Annmarie Caño:
Yeah, and how important it is to teach students about their role in shaping the future. That you don't have to live in the past or ... I mean the past shapes us too, but that's not the end of it. Right?

Kidada Williams:
Exactly. And individuals make events happen. Individuals shape history. History isn't something that ... events don't just happen. People take action. And so teaching in my specific case about histories of enslavement and the after lives of slavery, which includes lynching, Jim Crow, voter disfranchisement, all of those other things, what we see in that history is the agency of individuals in groups and how their decisions to act to sort of use their power and their sense of their possibility to shape the world in which they live, which then plays a role in shaping the world that we currently live in.

I think that that kind of teaching, that kind of historical inquiry does give students a sense of their own capacity to play a role in shaping the world they currently live in. That's something that I think we need more of. I think that they can, at least what I see in my students is that they are inspired by the actions of people, by the decisions that people, they wouldn't normally believe have agency or have a sense of their agency ... our historical subjects [inaudible 00:05:37] very clear understanding of the world in which they live in and their willingness to take risks in order to try to shape their own future, I think that can be really inspiring to students. That's part of what I love about teaching.

Annmarie Caño:
I never really thought about this, but teaching history in terms of the students' capacity to lead really. So how do you lead that change or you have value and importance and you can be one of those actors who changes things even if at the moment you don't feel that way.

Kidada Williams:
Right. I think that what history, at least teaching the kinds of history that I teach, what that enables us to do is look at ordinary people, people we may not normally associate with leadership roles because they're not in elected positions, they're not appointed positions, they're not in organizations, sometimes they are, but other times they're not. But their decision to do things like in the case of enslaved people, to take advantage of the chaos of the Civil War, to run, to try to escape bondage that will play a role in reshaping even the federal government and the US military's response to the war.

And so I think with my students, they see ordinary people, again, people they wouldn't normally associate with leadership roles, take a leadership position and shape their future. I think that for a lot of our students that can be really inspiring. They can see that even if they're not in an elected position, even if they're not in a specific organization, that they can play a role in shaping the world they live in.

Annmarie Caño:
Yeah. So you're teaching leadership and before the recording started, you weren't quite sure if this was the podcast for you because it's about leadership, but you are modeling leadership for your students. I think there's a lot of other faculty and instructors and academic staff who are listeners who also don't see themselves as leaders, but they're enacting leadership in daily life in the way that you're talking about.

Kidada Williams:
Right. I think that it helps if we recognize that in ourselves and other times we have people around us who recognize that and can maybe point that out to us if we're not cognizant of it and encourage us and give us the resources we need to find our voice and to have a greater impact on the world we live in.

Annmarie Caño:
One question I have from what you're describing, earlier when you were saying going through all of those rape kits and tracking down all the leads, you were acting as a detective, but it also sounds all-encompassing. There must be a time where you need to disconnect yourself a little bit from that just to stay healthy because these are lots of individual stories that are heartbreaking as well. How do you manage that work/life balance?

Kidada Williams:
I think that one of the things that I've learned is how important it is for me to take breaks, to take time off. This isn't my first research project that deals with difficult subject matter. I studied lynching and Ku Klux Klan attacks after the Civil War. What that research taught me was that I do need to take a break and go do other things just to decompress, to rejuvenate. And a lot of what that means is doing something that's completely not related to work. It is spending time with friends and family. It is reading a novel. It is going to a play. It's doing any number of things that just sort of take my mind off of that for a moment. But it still remains a passion to get to the bottom of that story.

I am able to disconnect and then come back to it anew, but I think that passion for research, that drive to get to the root of what actually happened, it's still something that on the one hand it can be frustrating and disappointing. It's both inspiring and informative, because what I also see there is a history that I wasn't aware of started to take shape the more I did research. And that was related to leadership and a larger, longer richer history of women's very active roles in trying to get redressed for victims of rape in the city. And it's a history that a lot of us don't know about.

I think that even survivors of the kits today and people who are trying to get them a degree of justice today, can be informed and inspired by the work that women doing this work in the 1970s and 1980s actually did and what they were able to achieve.

Annmarie Caño:
Yeah. And so you're bringing to light that work and it gives you energy and at the same time you can kind of rejuvenate that energy or recharge the energy, so it's not like I did this work and now I need to turn my back on it. It's more of the what you're doing outside is helping you be more effective at the work.

Kidada Williams:
Exactly. And to see the complexity of the story in a way that I don't think that I was aware of, and I'm certain that the larger public and even activists working today may not be aware of unless they were actually involved in that work in the 1970s and the 1980s. It's a little bit of all of the above.

Annmarie Caño: 
Yeah, yeah. Another question, given the subject matter that you study and that you're studying for justice also, to bring light to justice and bring light to the ordinary people who've been able to work for justice and for what is right, academia itself has an interesting historical context and we are really, in some ways we're special or different. We work under certain kinds of assumptions, but we are nested within the broader society. And in the United States, that means a society that has a legacy in slavery and oppression and colonialism.

I'm wondering if you have thoughts about that and how that gets translated into the Academy and especially for people who want to lead from a place of justice. What are some of the issues that they may need to think about in that perspective?

Kidada Williams:
Right. Well, I think one of the things to sort of keep in mind is the fact that academia wasn't built for people who are necessarily pursuing justice on behalf of people who are marginalized by race, gender, or class or sexuality or even religion. And so that plays a significant role in establishing the climate in which we work. And so we can do that work advocating for justice, but we often have to do it within a larger framework that is not necessarily always welcoming of that work on behalf of justice. And sometimes I think academia advocates or sort of engages in the performance of supporting things like diversity, equity and inclusion, more so outside of the Academy than they do inside of it.

So I think that if you are aware of those issues, then that gives you a framework for understanding what's possible, what may or may not be possible and trying to find the allies that you need to give you the assistance and the resources to pursue justice within the Academy to make it more welcoming, to make it more inclusive, not only for academics, but I believe that when academia does that work, embraces justice, embraces in meaningful ways, diversity, equity, and inclusion, that it shapes the larger community.

So for those of us here at Wayne State, when we actually do that work, that work shapes not just the larger society in an abstract way, but it could have a significant impact on the city of Detroit, the greater Metro area, the State of Michigan, and then the world beyond it. But I think the challenge for a lot of faculty is understanding the barriers that are already in place and trying to figure out ways to push through them in meaningful ways and to be sustained or find a way to remain hopeful and to get the resources that you need to try to continue to push through. Because a lot of the factors in society that we see that enable or facilitate injustice and oppression also exist within the Academy.

Kidada Williams:
So in some respects, part of our problems that we see ourselves as different and special and unique and actually we're not. And that is reflected in the larger climate within academia with respect to race, gender, and class.

Annmarie Caño:
So how we recognize people, reward people, advance people, how the courses are taught, the material that's taught, I mean it's really all throughout the system. I think what you said about allies is really important, but also not enough, right? So you need the systemic change, but also if we think that we can fix everything in the Academy, but there's also nothing being done at the societal levels that also is a mismatch because like you're saying where we're part of it and we're influenced by it and we also influence the greater society so it's all together. But that doesn't mean that we don't work on the work.

Kidada Williams:
Right, exactly. Yeah. The other thing, even in mentioning allies, I think part of the challenge that we have is that there are, in academia as in society, what you have are people who may not believe that this is quote-unquote their cause or they don't need to necessarily step up and play an active leadership role on this issue. And what they're not acknowledging is the fact that the privileges that they enjoy and society actually give them more power to play a more active leadership role. But if they think that this issue doesn't affect them, if they think that they shouldn't play a role in leading the charge, if they prefer to see themselves as allies in the cause as opposed to taking up the cause themselves, then they unintentionally maintain the systems of injustice within this sort of space.

Annmarie Caño:
So we can't be silent allies but active allies. Or not even allies.

Kidada Williams:
Not even allies. If you believe in a just society, then this is your cause. You being an ally sort of puts you in a secondary position as opposed to a leadership position. And I say that specifically on issues with respect to race. As an African American, if African Americans had the power to magically destroy racist systems, then we would have already done it, and we wouldn't even necessarily need allies for the cause. It would be something that would be done because in this case, we didn't start this fire. We don't keep it going.

Even if we address issues of gender oppression within the Academy, women have some role and some say in the work that needs to be done, but they don't necessarily maintain the systems of gender oppression. The people who are actually in a better position to take a leadership role are men, men who believe in gender equality. But if they believe that this isn't their cause then that means that they sit on the sidelines and they don't use their powers for good.

And so I would say that you see that in terms of race, gender, and class, and in a number of other areas, but I'll just stick with those three.

Annmarie Caño:
​​​​​​​Sure, sure. I like the flip of the language because it really is more powerful to say that we can all be leaders in this cause and especially if you have the privilege or the power to do something about that, be a leader. Don't just be an ally; be a leader.

Kidada Williams:
Right. Exactly. Because again, if African Americans had the power to destroy racism, it would be gone. It would not be an issue for us to deal with. And even those issues within the Academy, if we could create a more just diverse and inclusive academic space on our own, it would already be in place because that's what we want, that's what we thrive in, and not just African Americans, but other people of color too.

But the problem is that if we're being honest, we don't necessarily have the resources or the power or the privilege to establish the sort of space that we believe what enable not only us to thrive but everyone to thrive. And so in this case, as I said, we didn't start the fire. We don't have the resources to put it out. And sometimes people who do, if they don't have their foot on the water hose that could put the fire out, then they're just sort of sitting there watching the water be directed somewhere else.

Annmarie Caño:
​​​​​​​Right, right. It sounds like you embody leadership and all the work that you're doing is leadership training, whether you see it or not, in terms of your students and empowering them to be able to see that they have a role to play and to be inspired by other people in the past who had roles to play. And then in your work to share your knowledge with the wider public that that's something that is kind of a newer development in academia or there's a new appreciation for it, let me say that, in terms of being able to share knowledge and scholarship more broadly.

What advice do you have for people, whether they're faculty or staff or students, who want to reach more people or to grow in their leadership in this way? What advice would you have for them?

Kidada Williams:
I think I would say that it is really important to recognize the fact that we can do both as academics. We can have a conversation solely with other academics and we can branch out into those more public spaces and where we have a larger audience and where I think we can make a much bigger impact. And so I think for a lot of people there's the concern that it is dumbing down the work, and so that discourages a lot of people from doing that work. Academia's slowly shifting, but it's sort of like a huge boat; it takes a long time to get significant movement.

There aren't a lot of rewards built into the system to reward people for doing work that has a much bigger impact. In fact, what a lot of people encounter are a lot of gatekeepers and a lot of resistance to that work or refusal to recognize and acknowledge it.

And so what I would say to people who may be interested in doing both or to branching out to that larger public is to recognize that they probably will need to do both if they're going to be successful within academia.

What I would also say is that if it is something that you personally value, I would encourage you to pursue that regardless of what the Academy rewards or doesn't. For me, it is just as rewarding personally that I can help the larger public understand the larger context behind the 2015 Charleston massacre. It is just as important for me to do that work as it is for me to be recognized by having an article or a book published.

And so for me, I am personally fulfilled by that work and I would recommend to others if you are personally fulfilled by that work, that you should absolutely pursue it. Academia can be unforgiving. Some of our practices aren't always healthy, healthy for the individual in particular. And so I think that finding the things that sustain you personally are really important. That doesn't mean that you have to turn your back on academia or academic work or your scholarship, your conversations with other scholars; it just means that you can do both or that you have to be aware that you can do both and some of the trade-offs that you might need to make in order to do both and to remain a whole and healthy person.

Annmarie Caño:
​​​​​​​So values are really important, that we should not forget what our values are and what enlivens us or gives our life meaning.

Kidada Williams:
Exactly. And especially if you come from marginalized communities. Especially if you come from a community that doesn't have a deep or rich history within academia, sometimes what happens is that there's a sort of herd mentality that forces people to sort of turn away from the communities from which they came to focus solely on their academic work. And that does kind of distance us from our values and from our people.

And so for me, me being committed to that work to remaining in contact with my larger community, really actively involved in helping them understand the world we live in and how we got here, doing that work as part of my values, it's part of my value system and my own belief in what I am here to do. But I have to be honest that that's not necessarily welcomed or rewarded throughout academia. And so for me, what I've had to rustle with is understanding that that was something that mattered to me and that it was something I found value in and that I needed to figure out a way to be successful and be successful at both, to find a balance between the two but not give it up, not lose sight of it, but deal with the consequences.

And I think that's something that we need to have more open and honest conversations about. That there can be sometimes some negative consequences to you doing that work because you can't do it all. And so sometimes when you may want to do that more public-facing work or that work that reaches a more diverse audience, you may not have the time or energy to do some of the academic work that you really need to do in order to thrive in the Academy.

It's about balance. But I also think that if you're going to be a whole person and a healthy person, that you need to have that sort of sense of perspective and you need to think about those kinds of things.

Annmarie Caño:
​​​​​​​We conclude all of our podcasts with the question what does it mean to empower someone to lead. What does that mean to you?

Kidada Williams:
I think that empowering someone to lead is recognizing in them their capacity to play a role in shaping the future and shaping the present and shaping the future and helping them find themselves and their way and their voice so they can go out there and do that work, but also encouraging them to think about and think through ways that they should empower others. I think that that's really important because of some of the things I referred to earlier within academia.

In terms of the ways that academics work and we operate, it can be highly competitive. We can have a zero-sum mindset, which can discourage us from actually helping other people find their way and find their voice and lead in ways that makes sense to them.

I also think that empowering people to lead means helping them understand that there are a variety of fronts on which they can lead, that we need all hands on deck, that there are a lot of roles that people can play as leaders, and leadership doesn't have to only look like one specific thing, and then encouraging them to find whatever path that they have or whatever path that they need to sustain them and to achieve their objectives.

Annmarie Caño:
​​​​​​​Great. Thanks so much for sharing your insights today Kidada.

Kidada Williams:
Thank you so much for having me.

Annmarie Caño:
​​​​​​​Where can our listeners find you online?

Kidada Williams:
They can find me mostly on Twitter at Kidada E. Williams.

Annmarie Caño:
​​​​​​​Okay, great.

We're glad to have you listening to Empowered to Lead. To learn more about our podcast, follow us on Twitter at WSU FAC Success.

Additional resources

Follow Kidada Williams on Twitter @kidadaewilliams

Follow EmpowerED to Lead on Twitter @WSUFacSuccess.