Cynthia Williams: Four Decades of Success at the Brown School, More to Come

Alumni; Community Engagement; Social Work

Cynthia Williams, assistant dean for Community Partnerships

During a recent presentation on a Brown School partnership with St. Louis City to discuss the opportunities for social workers and public health professionals to be employed in public safety roles, moderator Cynthia D. Williams had a pointed question for the panelists:

“How will we know if this initiative is successful?”

Success for the Brown School and its work to improve life for residents of St. Louis has been a recurring theme for Williams, the assistant dean for Community Partnerships. Her career at the school spans 41 years, three deans, and a myriad of roles working with faculty, students, staff and civic leaders.

“I’ve always seen WashU and the Brown School as an institution that could make a significant difference in the lives of residents in the region through education and training, influence and outreach,” she said. Williams has significantly influenced those efforts, including her work as the assistant dean for Field Education, before being appointed to her current position. She currently leads the school’s strategic goal to bolster local efforts that focus on systemic injustice and community concerns.

“Cynthia Williams is the embodiment of servant leadership and has reflected this in every role she has ever held at the Brown School,” said Interim Co-Dean Tonya Edmond. “She is a mentor and a champion for those she works with across campus and within the community. Cynthia is a person of great integrity who is always guided by her faith and the values of the social work profession. Her life-long commitment to anti-racism and social justice are present in everything that she undertakes. She has been a transformational presence in our school.”

Gary Parker, associate dean of External Affairs, noted that Williams plays a vital role in the school’s long-range strategic plan in her new position. “We are extremely fortunate to have Cynthia’s broad community and academic experience to draw from as we move forward with our key strategic goal of reaching out to improve our community,” he said.

Of all the positions she’s had at the Brown School, her current job – she’s the first to hold it – is already her favorite. In part a response to the death of Michael Brown in 2014, it created an additional door for bi-directional engagement with community and community leaders with the Brown School. She also thrives in her role as a co-moderator and producer for the school’s Open Classroom initiative, which provides a platform for faculty- and community-led classes open to all.

Raised in St. Louis, Williams applied and was accepted at Washington University upon graduating from high school – but the lure of California beckoned and she moved to San Diego instead. Her stay was brief. “It was apparent to me quickly that I was a Midwestern girl with Midwestern values,” she said.

After her return to St. Louis, she joined the Brown School in 1980 in a secretarial role. Williams eventually moved to field education and the school’s PhD program before being named director of Field Education, and most recently to assistant dean. Her educational journey mirrored her professional one, and she completed her MSW at the Brown School in 1996 while working full-time and raising a family. “That was a challenge,” she said. Williams was named to the National Deans List and chosen as the MSW Student Marshall of her class.

Williams achieved success in each of her roles. As assistant dean for Field Education, she went through the accreditation process for the school and developed training for field instructors as part of a collaboration with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and Fontbonne University. Along with former Dean Mary McKay, she developed the school’s plan for celebrating Black History Month.

Her success is no surprise to Jack Kirkland, associate professor and internationally known scholar who writes on social and economic development (SED) and the African American family. “In my extensive knowledge and relationship with Cynthia, which I have experienced and enjoyed over a few decades, I have been most impressed with her initiation and imagination,” he said. “I have come to know her as a person with excellent poise and judgment, balanced with capable execution of duties and responsibilities.”

She is proud to be a life-long resident of St. Louis and a long-term member of the Brown School community. She is most proud to have been part of the school’s expansion from one building to an impressive, three-building complex and its continuing commitment to social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Williams’ dedication to St. Louis is reflected in her volunteer roles outside of work. The Society of Black Student Social Workers established the name-sake Cynthia D. Williams Service and Outstanding Leadership Award in acknowledgment of her achievements.

“Service is not just something that Cynthia does; it is deeply ingrained into every facet of her life,” said former Brown School Dean Edward Lawlor. Lawlor nominated Williams for the Civic and Community Engagement Award from the Gephardt Institute, which she received. “Even in a field where compassion and commitment to social justice are the norms, Cynthia is extraordinary.”

Those who have worked closely with her agree. Williams was given the Outstanding Brown School Staff Award (2013).

“Cynthia and I have worked at Brown School for four decades and have been friends the whole time,” said Michael Sherraden, George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor at the Brown School. “Her partnership and community skills are outstanding. She is invaluable for our school.”

Siomari Collazo Colon, associate dean for administration, has worked for nearly 12 years with Williams. “The thing that really sets her apart is how she cares about others, her dedication to serve the community and her colleagues,” she said. “Cynthia has shown me her appreciation, respect and empathy. We bond through our faith, and I am grateful for her prayers.”

Williams has worked for more than a decade with Darryl Grimes, the new CEO of Better Family Life (BFL). The community development corporation provides services to build strong families and communities through work in housing & asset development, cultural arts, youth, family and clinical, community engagement and workforce development. The Brown School has a longstanding partnership with the organization. “Cynthia has made a huge impact with Better Family Life,” Grimes said, in helping to create and support the collaboration. She’s also helped him move into his new role as CEO. “When called upon, she always responds, he said. “She has been invaluable in helping me get acclimated. When I need someone who’s well-respected in the community, all I have to do is speak her name. She’s a mentor and a friend.”

Maxine Clark, CEO of the Clark-Fox Family Foundation and founder of the Build-A-Bear Workshop, has worked closely with Williams on the Delmar DivINe initiative. “Cynthia is a pragmatic person; she sees things from many sides,” Clark said. “A devout St. Louisan, she wants our city to thrive—ALL of our city. She has been a great sounding board for me for the Delmar DivINe project, and she has helped me see what could lie ahead and how to manage through it. I value her life experience, her candor and her willingness to listen.”

For her part, William returns the compliments to the Brown School, where she plans to continue her unique contribution for years to come. “My work is rewarding and invigorating. And, I get to do it with the nicest people on earth,” she said. “It’s a very transformative environment personally and professionally. I am blessed above measure.”