Erica Williams: A Millennial Social Impact Strategist, Entrepreneur, and Speaker
Erica Williams created this website to initially promote Foolish Life which worked to help institutions and brands advance causes of equality, justice and sustainability. This site was also a platform for Williams' insightful and thoughtful 2012-2013 posts. Erica Williams Simon has a new website www.ericawilliams.com/ where you can find all the most up-to-date information about what she is doing in media and leadership development, her work as a contributing columnist at TIME.com and as an editor at Upworthy.com. If you want to contact her about her individual or group workshops that help people find their voices by empowering them with confidence, go to her new website.
I admit, I am a fan of Erica Williams Simon.
Recently I discovered that this old domain was available, I bought it with the goal of recreating as much of its original content as possible from its archived pages. I did not want someone else to purchase the domain and re-purpose the site for something that had nothing in common with the original website.
The more people who discover Erica Williams Simon and the message she is spreading, the better our world will be. Please be indulgent, if this version of ericawilliamsdc.com is not exactly as you remember it. I believe that the information from the site's archived pages is still important and should be available online.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS PAGE CONTAINS SELECTED ARCHIVED CONTENT FROM THE ORIGINAL SITE.
Erica Williams Simon is a Millennial social impact strategist, entrepreneur, and speaker that helps bold change-makers of all kinds make a difference in a rapidly changing world. As a World Economic Forum Young Global Shaper, Erica’s years of experience in civic engagement, communications and cause advocacy has taken her around the globe sharing her passion to help “do gooders do better”.
She is the founder and CEO of EWS Strategies, an agency that works with businesses and NGOs to engage young audiences in creative, high impact cause campaigns. Under EWS’ Impact Academy program she also trains mission driven Millennial leaders on the hard and soft skills needed to thrive as a change-maker in today’s world.
Having worked with Coca Cola, the RED Campaign, Aspen Institute, Rock the Vote, and Children’s Defense Fund among many others, Erica is a highly sought after consultant and partner on cause communications and marketing, campaign messaging, and Gen Y outreach.
Previously Erica served as Senior Strategist and Director of Communications for Citizen Engagement Laboratory, a tech accelerator for online social change startups that engages over 1.5 million people.
Named one of Politicos Top 50 To Watch and NAACP’s 40 under 40, Erica’s work first gained national attention as the Deputy Director for Generation Progress (formerly Campus Progress), the nation’s largest Millennial advocacy organization. She later began a first of its kind research program on policy, equity and demographics at the Center for American Progress.
Erica regularly speaks at conferences, universities, and corporate events including TEDx, Davos, Clinton Global Initiative U, and is a frequent media commentator on cultural and political issues related to Gen Y and communities of color. She has appeared on MTV, BET, CNN, PBS, & HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and her work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Washington Post, Huffington Post and ESSENCE magazine.
She is an O Magazine Women Rule Award Winner and a self proclaimed church girl for life. She currently lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and Apple products.
about the company
We are a Gen Y social impact agency that helps businesses, non-profits and young changemakers achieve their goals through creative cause communications, campaign design, and personal and career development.
Erica Williams Simon was born into a family of service. As the daughter of two full time community church pastors, she knew that like them, her God-given mission was to help others realize their power and potential to create a better world.
After spending several years in the social change sector, she had been a part of historic campaigns, worked with brilliant leaders to build movements and made a name for herself as a nationally recognized advocate and speaker. But she knew she could do more.
All around she recognized well meaning people, organizations and brands struggling, trying to respond to current trends – an exploding youth population, technology, the economy, diversity – and make real impact on the issues they care about in a rapidly changing world. A lot of money, time and effort was being put into “causes” – with minimal results. She wanted to help these do gooders do better.
It was then that EWS Strategies and the Impact Academy training program was born. Erica quickly developed her passion for communications, youth engagement, technology and leadership development into a one-of-its-kind Millennial woman owned agency with a goal to help every business, NGO and individual change-maker be savvy and successful in their work to change the world.
Commentary: The Myth of Millennial Inevitability
April 21, 2014 | Posted by Erica Williams
A version of this article appeared on CNN.com
The millennial generation is big, diverse and changing the American landscape and a new infographic and book, “The Next America,” by Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center, examines the revelatory data about the change.
Taylor calls the demographic transformations “dramas in slow motion.” The Gen Y — or millennial — generation’s lack of religious affiliation, indifference to political parties and strong liberal views provide a dramatic contrast to previous generations.
Additionally, a great deal of the “next” in “The Next America” has to do with racial and ethnic identity. Immigration, intermarriage and the growing percentages of people who identify as mixed race are drastically recoloring the nation’s racial tapestry.
Today, just a half-century after interracial marriages were illegal in one-third of the states, nearly 1 in 6 newlywedsmarry across racial lines. Immigrants and their children are projected to make up about 37% of America’s population by mid-century, the highest share in our history.
But what does this all mean?
Often a focus on data highlighting the size and diversity of the millennial generation allows for a c common conclusion: it is inevitable that our values will soon take over.
But research shows other factors are equally important in the determination of a potential takeover: Our generation’s economic insecurity, dependence on our parents and most notably, the unprecedented size of the older generation. And with that, I want to challenge the notion of inevitability – that just because we are more diverse, liberal and “huge,” millennials will soon win the culture wars and easily transform our society to reflect our values.
In my early 20s, as a Gen Y proselytizer and a person of color, I thought I knew exactly what the demographic changes meant: Millennials, in all of our black, brown and liberal glory, were taking over politically.
I spent the early part of my career working on progressive policies and cause campaigns geared toward youth and diverse communities. I even founded a program that applied a racial equity lens to public policy development in part because of the country’s changing demographics. The unspoken premise was this: Political elites had better “get hip” and start authentically working toward equity. Otherwise, they would be left in the change-making millennial dust.
This premise was grounded in what I now call the myth of inevitability. Although I worked hard to increase civic engagement, activism and community involvement amongst my peers, deep down inside, I believed that the odds were forever in our favor.
We would inevitably win the culture wars because of our sheer size and diversity. I believed that increasing our involvement and voice would make the difference of when the United States would be transformed socio-politically to reflect our values, not if. I was not alone. Others deeply believed this to be true, too.
But there are a few important factors that we forgot to consider.
First, the country isn’t just young and diverse. It is also getting old very quickly. The second major demographic “drama” detailed by Pew is one of older Americans living longer than ever before. Ten thousand baby boomers will turn 65 every single day between now and 2030. For the first time, by 2060, there will be almost as many Americans older than 85 as younger than 5. Thus the joke about “waiting for the older generation to die off” to see our political and social goals realized isn’t just crass: It not a realistic path to social change.
And that’s not all. There are other cultural realities standing in the way of an “inevitable” political takeover.
Millennials are economically insecure, politically unaffiliated and, according to Pew, not at all interested in generational warfare. Unlike previous generations, we actually like our parents and grandparents — perhaps because we’re still living with them. Suddenly, revolution doesn’t look as inevitable as it once did.
But it is still possible.
I propose that the value wars that play out on issues such as immigration, women’s rights, equality, criminal justice and America’s treatment of the poor will be determined by three factors: participation, leadership and systems innovation.
Participation in the political process is key. In the research from Pew, it confirms that millennial voting has actually been remarkably solid, increasing and staying strong in presidential elections since 2004. If this continues, adequate political representation should follow. But leading and participating in the system is not enough when the systems are broken, such as the impending doom around Social Security and other programs if left as is. The only way to fix them is to innovate and create them anew.
Innovation can come from first learning the ins and outs of the current system, applying creativity and technological prowess to the problems and third, taking the risk to experiment and start enterprises that challenge the status quo if and when necessary.
As it stands, the data about the country’s race and age transformation is clear. But millennials will only make a transformational political impact when we take the reins, lead and recreate the United States from the inside out.
Now that will be a demographic drama worth watching.
Fear and Time: Why Making a Big Move NOW May Be Just What You Need.
April 10, 2014 | Posted by Erica Williams
If God has called you to the deep water, the most unsafe place you can be is the shore. – Elder Charles Blake II
This week I said goodbye to my favorite people on the planet. I said goodbye to 30 years of love and laughter and tears. I said goodbye to home and said hello to Los Angeles, CA. It felt unsafe for a girl whose early career revolved around politics, whose access to power players and the White House was so commonplace as to be taken for granted and whose media relationships were all in DC/NYC to move to a land of mountains and beaches and “beautiful people” 2,668 miles away. But God was calling me to the deep water. Which meant that staying in my comfort zone was actually more dangerous than sitting still.
I have friends who have uprooted their lives more times than I can count, sometimes for work, other times for love, other times simply for wanderlust. Moving for some people is no big deal.
For me, it was. I won’t get into all the reasons why, but suffice it to say that I was rooted and grounded in my city and my family like a thousand year oak tree. Yet it was time to go. There were so many things pushing and pulling me towards this city – my husband, my work, my spirit, my health. New projects and exciting opportunities were dropping out of the sky like raindrops.
But that didn’t stop the fear. I travel far and often, speak in front of big audiences, challenge institutions, fight injustice and inequality every day. I do each of those things fearlessly – because they don’t frighten me. Leaving my people did. But in the footsteps of Anais Nin, the risk to blossom seemed to be the better option. So I moved.
The move in my life was literal. But what about you?
We all have “moves” that we should make that frighten us. I talk a lot about how overcoming fear is central to transforming the world. As change makers we take that to mean professional fear. Some big social ill that we need to tackle. But in order to be who you are created to be and thus advance the principles that will make this broken and beautiful world better, it’s our own personal fear that we must overcome. If you feel led and compelled to go someplace, or to do something new, no matter how scary it may seem, it is likely safer for your soul and spirit (not to mention your work, your relationships and your goals) to take the risk than to stay put.
According to Seth Godin, that fear isn’t just a sign of something that you should eventually get around to doing. Its timing is usually very powerful:
By the time the fear subsides, it will be too late. By the time you’re not afraid of what you were planning to start/say/do, someone else will have already done it, it will already be said or it will be irrelevant. The reason you’re afraid is that there’s leverage here, something that might happen. Which is exactly the signal you’re looking for.
- What is the conversation that you are afraid to have?
- What is the place that you are afraid to go?
- What is the tie that you are afraid to cut?
- The bridge that you are afraid to burn?
- The value that you are afraid to practice in your daily life?
- The thing that you are afraid to build? or to tear down?
- What is the move that you are afraid to make?
Whatever that big move is for you, there’s something on the other side of it, waiting to gloriously explode in your life. So do it. And do it now. Your Los Angeles awaits.
Moving from Analysis to Action: The Aftermath of Jordan Davis
February 20, 2014 | Posted by Erica Williams
Originally posted on Medium
Tragedy, outrage and public displays of injustice always bring out the most beautiful writing. The essays that are written when racism decides to take center stage in popular culture are unfailingly lyrical, deep and, when done properly, put words to our pain in a way that tweets and sound bites never could. And my Lord, I have read and shared some phenomenal think pieces in the days since the Michael Dunn verdict.
The words of journalists like Ta’Nehisi Coates, Jamilah Lemieux and my all time favorite writer since the Author of the Bible, Kiese Laymon, consistently provide insight into moments like these. Their work analyzes everything from the facts of the case to the state of America to, at their best, the overall human condition.
But I wondered aloud yesterday whether if in this culture of content consumption, social media sharing and think pieces, many of us are doing too much thinking and not nearly enough acting.
Let me be clear — I am not saying that these writers aren’t activists in their own right (they often are). Or that the writing itself isn’t a powerful tool (it absolutely is). What I’m saying is that more often that not our response as readers is to read it, go about our business as usual and feel as if we’ve done something important by sharing it.
In fact, I’m tempted to believe that all of our reading and “thinking” does more to pacify than to galvanize us. Why? Because in moments of collective outrage, when our emotions are high and our heart lows, many of us turn to our favorite writers and pundits as a child would a pacificer, to suck on and calm down, to be nurtured in some self-indulgent way and be able to function at work tomorrow with a new philosophical framwork for what happened.
But what if we’d be better served by not having the perfect words and the perfect analysis, but instead the perfect plan? Or steps to turn our messy complaints and our fresh tears swiftly into wind for the already growing movements of our time?
What if we shared pieces that take our raw heartbreak and rage and rather than explain it, show us exactly where and how to direct it?
Well these thoughts are my humble offering. Three incredibly simple suggestions of what to do in the aftermath of Jordan Davis’ killing and Michael Dunn’s frustrating verdict. Don’t call it a think piece. Call it a dopiece. Add your own brilliant suggestions to this list below and share them a thousand times like you would a beautiful New Yorker essay. And then, for God’s sake, get up, stop thinking and do.
3 Things to Do In the Aftermath of Jordan Davis:
1. Find out about the work. In times like these, the most common refrain I hear from people behind closed doors, in gas stations, waiting rooms and grocery store lines is some variation of “This problem is so big. Can it really be solved?”. Well guess what? There are already people one step ahead of you. They don’t have all the answers, but by God, they’ve spent a lot of time looking and in the meantime have built programs and communities grounded in really smart theories of change. They are chipping away at the problems of injustice and inequaltiy every. single. day. Do you know who they are? Do you know about their work? By now you’ve probably heard of the ever amazing ColorofChange.org. But what about Charlene Carruthers and the BYP100? Decker Ngongang and theBlack Male Achievement Fellowship? Phillip Agnew and the Dream Defenders? Erica Ford and LIFE Camp? Biko Baker and the League of Young Voters? Carmen Perez and The Gathering for Justice? Daniel Maree and the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice? Some of these organizations are national, others are local and trust me — there are thousands more, in Detroit, Miami, DC, New York, Oakland, and cities all across this country. Get hip. Get familiar. Get informed.
2. Support the work. Support is kind of a vague word isn’t it? We use it to mean everything from “tweet about” to “tune in when the executive director is on MSNBC” to “donate, donate, donate”. In this instance I mean “all of the above”. But especially giving. The mainstream narrative that nothing can solve our problems is a myth dependent on a lack of attention and resources for the work that actually can. As a church girl, one concept has been instilled in me since the time that I could talk: You show your commitment by giving. Clap and sing and shout all service long if you want. But you better have something to put in that offering basket. Why?Because faith should cost you something and money, the thing that often matters most to us if we’re honest, represents what we’re willing to sacrifice for our belief and the divine work that will make us whole. Do you believe that social justice work is important? That our babies lives are worth saving? Well put your money where your mouth is. Our freedom wasn’t free and our modern revolution won’t be either. So please, no matter how young or broke you are, if you have a single dollar (or ten or a hundred) to give, do.
3. Do the work. One of my pet peeves with the industry that has been built up around “social change” in this country is that it can sometimes feel very exclusive. If you’re not in the inner circle of activists/journalists/ academics/politicos who live social justice work 24/7 than you may feel underqualified, unworthy, or unfit to deeply participate. You may feel that the most that you can do is click on the petition you received in your email or change your facebook profile picture because that is what your favorite organization said to do. Well that is a lie. The truth is that you are a necessary part of the movement. You are one the world has been waiting for. In fact, the secret that you might not know as your favorite leader or activist is trotting off to White House meetings and TV appearances is that they would actually trade it all to have you — yes you, student, teacher, artist, coder, mom, dancer, mechanic, marketer, human — feel empowered and invested enough to join them in the fight to save the next Jordan Davis. So please do. Join campaigns. Host discussion groups. Show up at city council meetings. Create art that matters. RUN campaigns. Show up and show out. Teach and mentor and, most of all, love. Love actively. Love unreasonably. Love out loud and proud like never before.
These are my three commitments. And I make them every single day. Rinse and repeat. What are yours?
Why the Best Thing About the State of the Union Wasn’t the Speech
January 29, 2014 | Posted by Erica Williams
Last night’s State of the Union address by the President was pretty good as State of the Union addresses go. There was the usual cocktail of 1. Things we wanted him to say, powerfully said exactly how we wanted him to say them 2. Things we wanted him to say said much weaker than we thought they should have been said 3. Things we didn’t want him to say that he said anyway (likely due to political pressure) and 4. Things we desperately needed him to say that he didn’t say at all. It was the expected political mix, with highs and lows and a few laugh lines thrown in for good measure. Depending on what you were hoping for, everyone left with a little sour and a little sweet.
Unfortunately, I didn’t care. At all.
Let me pause here and say that my ambivalence towards his speech has absolutely nothing to do with my feelings for the President himself. If he called tomorrow and invited me to a speech at the White House, I’d make a hair appointment, call my mama, and sleep outside the security gate in anticipation. So suffice it to say that this is not about a dislike for our Commander in Chief.
The reality is that I’m completely unmoved by the State of the Union address because of my feelings on the actual state of our Union.
I look around every day and see the crumbling schools, crumbling neighborhoods and sometimes crumbling spirits of those working hard just to get by. I see the way women’s bodies are violated and dissected while brown bodies are broken and caged as poor bodies are overworked and underfed— all being treated as worthless property of the state. Bullets fly everywhere with lightening speed, outpaced only by the hate speech that gives them wings. Rights — to choose, to privacy and to vote just to name a few — are being recklessly stripped from the descendants of those who sacrificed their lives to secure them.
his madness and so much more has been legislated and orchestrated by the very people who grace our TV screens one Tuesday evening every January; those working in a system that if left alone will slowly destroy us all. For that reason, no speech from anyone in that same system right now can impress me. Maybe I’ll feel differently tomorrow, but as of today, not even someone with a good plan, better intentions and the best wife in the land (#bowdown) can inspire me with a speech given inside the walls of our woefully damned structure of privilege, punishment and unchecked power.
Still, as dismissive of rhetoric as that opinion sounds, I say this just as confidently: I have not lost my faith in the power of words and I haven’t lost hope in what words can achieve.
But like with the horizon, where my hope comes from just beyond the still, stagnant waters in the form of a sun rising up in the distance, so too does my hope for this nation come from beyond the political spectacle in the form of a bright, beautiful people waking up to shine their light. I find hope in the words of those so close to the bottom that only they are able to tear up the foundation of the status quo, brick by brick.
Last night, those very voices were rising up all over the country. And anyone who wanted to hear them had a VIP ticket and a front row seat — online.
It was there that I watched a video of Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders talk passionately in his State of the Youth address about a growing movement of young people fighting for their lives.
It was there that I was moved by thousands of people participating in the #baracktalk and #fem2 chats on twitter, discussing everything from immigration reform and criminal justice to fair pay and reproductive justice.
It was there that I saw pictures from local residents dialoguing together at a watch party hosted by the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles.
I could go on and on, sharing the social media highlights that made the night so exciting, but here is the point: For me, the best part of the speech wasn’t the speech itself. It was being a part of the anointed and appointed moment when people from all walks of life come around the virtual campfire and share their reactions to the President, mixed in with their own dreams and plans to save our nation.
This isn’t an ode to social media. It’s an ode to the people who use it. We aren’t just tweeting about Mackelmore and Justin Beiber. We are engaging with our democracy in a transformative, communal way. The President began his speech talking about the hard work of everyday Americans. Well it was those people — the ones doing the work of creating a better future — who gathered online to collectively vent, laugh, make memes and share.
On phones and laptops they spoke words of rage and heartbreak, humor and intention. Those words, when pieced together, told the true state of our Union and made the most beautiful speech of all.
I hope someone gives everyone seated on Capitol Hill last night — including the President — a copy.
An End to Changing the World: How to Add Greater Purpose to Your Life and Work.
January 24, 2014 | Posted by Erica Williams
(reposted from Medium)
Change the world. It’s a mantra, a slogan, and a universal post graduation goal. It’s written on every coffee mug, t-shirt and young idealistic soul across this great land. The tagline to a thousand books, the description for a thousand twitter profiles. The goal of every single business/technology/political/artistic endeavor. A task for which everyone and everything is somehow inherently wired but for which no measurable metrics exist. Who is doing it? How do we know? And what does it even mean?
Seven years ago when I graduated college, I didn’t know the answers to any of those questions, but it didn’t stop me from aiming for the highest of world-changing stars anyway. As the daughter of two small church pastors, born into an extended family complete with veterans, public school teachers and nurses, I knew from the moment that I could talk that I was meant to make the world a better place and that, as Shirely Chisolm said, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” I was determined to pay a really high rent, so long as it meant that I could leave the world better — more just, kind, equitable and safe — than when I arrived.
I was blessed to have gotten the first job that I applied for after graduating at a large national non-profit that worked for civil and human rights. It took me about 2 months to rev my engines, learn the lingo, and get the lay of the activism/advocacy land, and then I was off like a bat out of hell (or revolutionary heaven) — shooting through professional milestone after professional milestone, tackling the non-profit world with a Wolf of Wall Street-esque tenacity.
By 28 I had racked up an impressive list of accomplishments, accolades and victories working side by side with some of the most inspired/inspiring activists of our generation. I’d been all over the world helping young people pick up causes and win victories for social justice and that humble, low paying work had somehow taken me to the loftiest of places. I worked with my colleagues and the communities we believed in to fight racism, sexism, and classism, and protect people’s rights and freedoms. While that kind of work is tireless and never-ending, it comes complete with tangible metrics and outcomes. Was I changing the world? Heck yeah. My donors told me so every quarter.
Still, at 29 I grew restless and tired of the advocacy sector. For a whole host of reasons, I wanted to pursue my long held passions in the culture, tech and media space. So with the same overall goal of “changing the world” in place, I jumped head first into a new industry, determined to connect the dots between creative content and social change.
But with my day-to-day no longer defined by campaign goals, political victories or other “traditional” social change milestones, I wondered how I would measure my impact as a newly minted cultural agent and entrepreneur. In the non-profit sector, changing the world came equipped with easily understood metrics:
Did a policy change? Did the little guy win?
But here, in this new open frontier, I found myself in a twilight zone of aimless do- gooders. People at tech conferences and social entrepreneurship and media events and cultural festivals all using the same language that my old friends from the activist world did with little to no explanation of what that really meant. I noticed world changing being advertised as an outcome for online marketing courses and self help books and new apps and, well, pretty much everything.
I started to become a little uncomfortable. And then a little irritated. And then a little embarrassed for us all. Here we are, a generation of ambitious, creative people, shooting our bullets at a blurry target. The phrase “change the world” had begun to mean little more than “We want to do cool stuff and have people notice” which really ended up meaning “I’m not really sure what I want but I need to say something that adds some grandeur and morality to my latest endeavor”. And, p.s., “I’m a super nice person.” It was a selfless, heavy phrase that had somewhere along the way become unbelieably selfish and empty.
And the more I thought on it, the more I understood the simple reason why.
Do we say that we want to make the sun rise or set? Do we set ambitions to make stars shine and rain fall? Nope. Why? Because these things just happen. They are acts of God and nature and are as inevitable as the passing of time. As beautiful and inspirational as these natural processes may be, that’s just it: they are naturally occuring processes. Neither you nor I nor anything that we create has any impact on them happening. So they would be rather silly life goals right?
Well here’s the harsh reality that they forget to tell you in the commencement speeches and entrepreneurship magazines: The world changes — with or without you. People are born and die. Things move and grow and evolve. Changing the world is essentially a meaningless goal because it requires nothing of you. And I think that’s why we say it. It makes us feel good and special without actually demanding that we do anything worth doing.
I know. I sound like Debbie Downer. But the preacher’s girl in me knows that there is always a gospel — a good news to share. And here it is:
While changing the world is a meaningless goal, what is in our power to determine is the pace and the direction of that change. It just requires some specificity; an actual theory of change. And that means, getting a clear vision and mission for yourself:
“How do you want the world changed and how exactly do you want to change it?”
These are the questions that every student, every entrepreneur, every artist should ask themselves as they leap wide eyed and hopeful into the world of work and creation. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t readily able to answer them.
Because changing the world is the 5 hour energy of purposes. It gives you an instant surge of energy but no true sustenance for the long haul. After a while, the high ends and you are back to the reality of just how tired and fuzzy you — and your dreams — really are.
To truly put some strength behind your passions, ask yourself the hard questions. What do you want the world to look like as a result of your dream and your work?
The answer may not be short and sweet. It may not fit onto a bumper sticker or iphone case. It will likely require some learning and some time — maybe a few jobs, projects and failures — to figure out. But that’s the only way you can really Be the Change. You have to know what the change actually looks like.
As someone who has built a career helping people do the work, I can promise you this: Figuring it out is a worthwhile endeavor that will go a long way to clarify your path, measure your impact and maybe, just maybe, really make the world a better place.
MUST WATCH: “The Square” and the Reality of Revolution
January 22, 2014 | Posted by Erica Williams
Remember all of the excitement that swept across the world a few years ago in celebration of what became known as the Arab Spring? People everywhere were inspired by watching a real revolution happening in real time. For many of us of a certain age here in the U.S., it was the closest we’d ever come in our lifetimes to seeing radical revolt. We’d read about it in history books, adopted the language of revolution every chance we could and fantasized about what “people power” really meant. And as the magic unfolded in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, we watched through the lens of CNN and the BBC and the New York Times as a generation of people rose up and demanded justice, dignity and democracy. It felt electric. And it gave people everywhere hope.
But that was all from a distance. We had no idea what revolution really looked like outside of our rose colored, Obama campaign, “Yes We Can” glasses. We didn’t really understand what we were seeing. Or what it meant. Or how it happened. Or what it felt like. Or what came next. Until now.
The Square, a new Academy Award nominated documentary by filmmaker Jehane Noujaim is the powerful, messy reality of revolution up close and personal through the lens of powerful, messy revolutionaries. It is raw, elegant storytelling at its best and a reminder of the power of the camera to explain what words never could.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Jehane several times (she is a friend of a friend) and remember seeing emails flood my inbox from our circle of colleagues and acquaintances when she was detained in Egypt back in 2012. We were worried for her safety and many of us wondered, what could be so important that it was pulling her to be in Egypt at such a volatile time. Well, now we know.
She risked so much to create this film but the characters who she followed in the film – some of the most passionate, compelling people you’ll ever see – risked so much more to live it. If you think you understand what it means for our generation to fight for justice, to put it all on the line, to want nothing so much as freedom – get a Netflix account and watch this film. Today. You won’t be disappointed.
WHOLE CHANGE #1: It’s Okay To Not Know It All. Life’s Better That Way.
January 8, 2014 | Posted by Erica Williams
(This is part 1 in our new weekly Whole Change series, key lessons to help you grow and live a happy, whole life while changing the world. Checkout the intro to the series here.)
Have you ever stood at a crossroads and not known which way to go? Well that was me in January 2013. I had quit my job over the holidays and knew that I wanted to change direction – but I wasn’t sure how or what my new vision was. I was blessed to have a lot of opportunities and a lot of options. I just didn’t have any clarity to go with them. So I needed to take some time to figure it all out. Sounds reasonable right? Well it didn’t feel reasonable. In fact it was terrifying. So much so, that I couldn’t even tell anyone.
I was afraid to admit that I was in a stage of search and discovery. How would that make me look? Would I lose ground professionally? Would I disappoint people who thought they knew what I should be doing and where I should be going? There were so many fears circling around my soul but one of the biggest was the fear of not knowing everything.
See, professionally (and to a certain extent socially) I exist in a world of “Know-It-Alls”. Sound familiar? People who make a living solving – or attempting to solve – or at the very least talking about how someone else should solve – the world’s problems. My twitter feed, inbox and contact list are filled with journalists, culture critics, entrepreneurs, policy analysts, activists, commentators, artists, ministers, health and fitness gurus, relationship experts…all spending hours a day telling me and the rest of the world what they know; what they are certain about regarding, well, everything – why a policy is bad, why a strategy is good, why a tv show is stupid, why a sin is deadly, why a hairstyle is bad – you name it, my friends/colleagues “know” it.
Or maybe for you it’s even closer to home – parents and significant others, cousins and play cousins, church members and neighbors who always think they know what’s best – for everyone.
Whether it’s professional Know-It-Alls or Amateur-Know-It-Alls, we’ve all found ourselves at one time or another surrounded by people who pride themselves on being an expert in all things. And maybe you’ve even been that person yourself. Don’t feel bad. You aren’t alone.
Unfortunately, many of us change makers have adopted this attitude. We know exactly what is wrong in the world and we know how to fix it. And we always know exactly what we should be doing for our own lives in that equation. Today’s culture of success and doing good is rooted in certainty. From big issues like, racism, sexism, homophobia and environmentalism to reality television and Kanye West all the way to our own religion, relationships and careers – we are all sure that we can make the world better doing exactly what we think is best, because we have the answers. And we think that our certainty and wisdom makes us righteous.
But it doesn’t. It makes us arrogant and busy. It limits our vision and leaves no space for reflection. And in a situation where we really don’t know the answers (which, if we’re honest with ourselves happens way more than we care to admit), the facade of omniscience keeps us fearful and paralyzed. In short, it stops progress – in the world and in our own lives.
So exhale and let it go. You don’t have time to pretend! You don’t have time to make up answers! You don’t have time to keep up the facade! You don’t have time to waste.
It wasn’t until I admitted that I didn’t know what my next move should be that I opened myself up to the possibility of exploring wherever my heart wanted me to go. I was able to hear from others, experiment, look in unusual places and find a new path that I never would have discovered had I not humbled myself and silenced my inner expert.
And now, while I may not know everything about everything, this I do believe:
The world will be saved by those who recognize its mystery and live a life driven more by questions than by answers.
Hear what I’m saying. It’s the questions that keep us searching and striving and growing. And its humility that will allow us to innovate and be awed by the beauty of real social transformation when we see it, however it comes.
So stop pressuring yourself to know it all. Your destiny will thank you.
Whole Change: What to Expect When You’re Expecting
Happy new year beautiful people! No, I’m not pregnant. If you are, congrats. But yeah…no. I’m expecting something only slight less major: a big, full new chapter of life. I am so excited for 2014 and all that it holds and I hope that you are too. A lot of changes have already been set in motion this year – new projects, new work, new places, new habits. I hate when people give too many specifics before things happen so I’ll just say that I can’t wait to share everything that I’m cooking up for you guys in the days, weeks and months to come.
One of the reasons for the excitement is that I’m (beyond) ready to put into action all that I learned in 2013. From what I can tell, last year was a meaningful one for a lot of you. I’ve heard your stories about big life changes, loss, confusion, disappointment and also new adventures, risks, and experiences that you will never forget (but perhaps are eager to move above and beyond). In an essay that I shared on my writing blog, I talked about how last year was quite the doozy for me too:
“…2013 was the unsettling of everything. I laid low to discover who I thought I was, who I thought I had to be, and the possibility of who I could become. And in the end, I became a woman, jointly owned by only God and me, now as certain about who I am and what I want as I am about life’s uncertainty.”
I go on to describe a year of amazingly painful, beautiful growth. I posted that essay on Facebook and in between all of the “likes” and comments, got dozens of versions of this message over and over again in response: “That’s awesome! What did you learn? HOW did you grow? Please share!”
Ask and you shall receive. I’m introducing a new series here on the blog called WHOLE CHANGE. Every week this year, I’m going to share a lesson that I learned in 2013 that helped me grow into a more powerful, brave, free and whole person on my journey to “change the world”.
“Why share here?” you may be asking. “Isn’t this website all about your communications, media and social change work?” Well here’s the thing. One of the lessons that I learned that I’ll share more about later is the harm we do to ourselves, our mission and our dreams when we segment ourselves into multiple people – artistic and creative Erica, religious Erica, political Erica, media Erica, motivational Erica. Multiple personalities aren’t cute. Or healthy.
Of course there are still practical reasons, professional and otherwise, to have more than one platform or online persona. For example, on my writing blog I’ll be sharing essays and poems and thoughts that may be in a completely different style than readers of ericawilliams.com enjoy. And of course I will continue to publish content about communications, culture and social issues here as well.
But “Being the Change” is about actually being; finding your truth and letting that shine through all you do because your cause and your community needs you. The whole you, in its many splendored glory. You can’t effectively change the world and be unchanged yourself. Your personal, spiritual and mental growth is a key part of your social change strategy. And since I’m really committed to helping you do gooders do better, I’ve got to share tips for that part of your life’s work as well.
I titled this blog “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” first because I wanted to share with you what you should expect on this blog this year. But even more importantly, I want you to expect to grow and change a lot in order to take your life by the horns and make it count.
Let’s all expect the best of each other and this powerful new year!
Remembering Mandela: The Power of Words (How Communications Can Change the World)
December 10, 2013 | Posted by Erica Williams
In the days since Nelson Mandela’s death, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TV and every other platform known to man has been flooded with pictures, video clips, articles honoring the great Madiba the best way that we know how: by sharing his words.
“ 1. It always seems impossible until it’s done. 2. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. 3. The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. 4. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
And on and on and on. The man had a way with words. They seep into your soul and make you want to be better and do better.”
But in the sharing of these words there are of course those who criticize: “Kids today don’t even know what his speeches mean.” “Sharing quotes on Instagram is so cliche” “Don’t focus on what he said, focus on what he did.” I’ve seen these reprimands floating through my social media feed just as much as I’ve seen the quotes themselves.
How wrong those naysayers are.
Seeing Madiba’s words, the moments through which he shared his story and his message with the world, is a moving reminder of the beauty of language and the power of words – when uttered from the lips of passionate, inspired people – to change the world.
Speaking and rhetoric often gets a bad rap when it comes to real change. Obama’s skills as an orator have often backfired as all polish and fluff, no substance. How many times have you heard “I’m tired of him giving speeches. I want him to do something.”?
But words have the power to lift the imagination, to explain the complex and break down walls of time and space. Good rhetoric doesn’t just inspire movement in the moment. It creates a long lasting ripple effect that reverberates throughout history, inspiring generations to come.
Words are powerful in that even without their full context they can create change. That’s some powerful stuff. But when they are coupled with the weight of history and a true understanding of their meaning – the who, what, when, where, why that inspired them – they can transform societies and the world.
Unlike many of the great speakers we admire here in the U.S., Mandela doesn’t sound like a black baptist preacher. His words didn’t move me into call and response. They weren’t melodic and soaring. Instead they were measured, deliberate, singular. Thoughtful. And strong.
His words weren’t always pretty. They were controversial. They were sharp. They were cutting. As the Bible says about the word of the Lord, it is “sharper than any two-edged sword, dividing bone and marrow”. Those too were Madiba’s.
Nelson Mandela was an iconic leader. Not just a good one. Not even just a great one. But an iconic one. That is undoubtedly due to a perfect storm of factors – his story, his vision, his heart, his timing, his fearlessness. But all of those were captured when he said things like:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
When Madiba’s words are placed in the context of a fearless, bold oppositional life draped in the cloak of peace and reconciliation, they become even more larger than life.
Today, as many remember the the activist, the prisoner, the president, I remember the speaker of truth. A man whose words changed the world – and when swallowed whole, can do the same again and again and again.