Posted 7:05 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022
UWL’s Antoiwana Williams receives 2022 MLK Leadership Award
The importance of community service was drilled into Antoiwana Williams for as long as she can remember.
Growing up in inner-city Milwaukee, Williams often accompanied her mother to food shelters or the Ronald McDonald House, where the family would give their time to serve those less fortunate.
“She reminded us to never forget where you come from,” remembers Williams, ’00 &’04, now the director of the Office of Multicultural Student Services (OMSS) at UW-La Crosse. “No matter your degree attainment, your career aspirations or whether you become a millionaire, she told us that we all have a responsibility to make the world a better place.”
Williams has carried that lesson into her work on campus and in the community, where she has played a key role in countless diversity, inclusion and social justice efforts over the past 20 years.
On Monday, Jan. 17, Williams was recognized as this year’s recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award, highlighted by the La Crosse-area Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration at Viterbo University.
It’s an honor, Williams says, she never expected.
“Folks who know me know that my intent behind doing what I do is not for public accolades. I do it because I have a responsibility as a citizen of this country,” she notes. “This really is a community effort. It’s not an award just for Antoiwana Williams. It’s also an award for all the family, friends and community leaders who have helped mold me into the person I am today.”
To Williams, being a leader doesn’t mean being the loudest or most authoritative person in the room. She believes each situation calls for a unique approach.
“Sometimes, I have to put my servant leadership hat on. Sometimes, I have to be more transactional. Sometimes, I have to be more transformative. And sometimes, I have to be a good listener, which can be hard for me because I always have thoughts and opinions about things,” Williams explains. “Leadership is never one-size-fits-all. You have to be willing to adapt your style to the situation and the group of people you’re trying to serve.”
The UWL community knows Williams through her work with OMSS, but she has also given her time to many community organizations.
Like her mother did before her, Williams often brings her children.
“My family has been so supportive of all my ideas when it comes to the giving of my time,” she says. “They’ve really given me the time and space to be my authentic self.”
Reflecting on her time at UWL, Williams says she is proud of institutional changes such as the creation of the Office of Campus Climate (now the Center for Transformative Justice) and a reorganization of OMMS that made it easier for staff to advance in their careers.
She also says she owes a debt of gratitude to many people — Barbara Stewart, Thomas Harris, James Parker, Ron and Jana Rada and others — who inspired her while she was a student or just beginning her career.
While there is much more work to be done, Williams says she is perhaps most proud of the continued partnerships between the campus and the community, and the fact that so many people share her passion for social justice.
“In small regional cities, sometimes there’s this disconnect between the campus and the community,” she says. “But here, it’s not about helping the campus or the community — it’s about helping the campus and the community. We’re doing a lot of transformative things that I hope we’ll be able to build on.”
About the award
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award honors the extraordinary contributions of La Crosse community members who demonstrate King’s legacy of creating positive change from one generation to the next.
In addition to Williams’ recognition, Thomas Harris, retired assistant director of OMSS, was honored for his longtime service on the La Crosse Community Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration committee.