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Lisa G. Williams

she/her
Executive Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI),  Alumni Relations and Development (ARD)
Photo of Lisa Williams

While significant progress has been made since the civil rights era, we are nowhere near the finish line. Without sustained support, we will regress, jeopardizing the hard-fought advancements against oppression and prejudice. The commitment to living up to our national values of liberty and justice for all demands collective vigilance and action.¬†¬†”

Lisa has been affiliated with Northwestern University since September 21, 2021, assuming the inaugural role of Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at Alumni Relations and Development (ARD).  Effective October 2, 2023, she was promoted to Executive Director of DEI. 

How did you become interested in the field of DEI?

Before Northwestern, I spent 16 years with the State of Illinois. I started my career as a civil rights attorney and in 2004 I entered public service through the Illinois Attorney General’s Office as an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Bureau. In this capacity, I litigated claims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation on behalf of the people of the State of Illinois in areas encompassing employment, housing, access to financial credit, and places of public accommodation.  

Even though I was doing what I thought was my dream job, I felt unfulfilled. I yearned for a more hands-on experience that allowed for proactive change before complaints arose and began to involve lawyers. So, in 2010 I shifted to DEI work and dedicated the next decade to launching DEI programs in various agencies. Back in 2010, the landscape of DEI looked markedly different, with diversity discussions in their infancy (equity wasn’t talked about at all) and a dearth of professional resources. There were no degrees in DEI, there weren’t a lot of dedicated DEI workers, and guidance was scarce. My journey involved navigating challenges alone and emphasized the significance of cultivating allies to support and advance this work. I encountered the substantial resistance that DEI work often receives and, in particular, that pelts the DEI person delivering the message. I groped and guessed and failed and explored. Ultimately, despite the difficulties, sweat, and tears, I discovered that I had indeed truly found my dream job.  

My contributions to DEI have received recognition through multiple awards. I was honored with three awards (2013-2015) by the State of Illinois for work on behalf of people with disabilities, an award for Outstanding Employment Outreach by the African-American Contractors Association (2013), and was named a “Woman of Excellence” by the Chicago Defender (2014).  

And my expertise has been acknowledged in national publications, including Crain’s Chicago Business, and I have had the privilege of presenting webinars hosted by prominent entities such as the San Francisco Giants, the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions, and the Center for Elder and Disability Law. 

 What are your responsibilities as the Executive Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

In my role, I collaborate with ARD staff across all organizational levels on a holistic three-pillar diversity plan that is designed to broaden access to and through the department, optimize the work environment, and comprehensively and seamlessly integrate DEI principles into our business practices.  

What excited you about working in higher education, specifically in ARD?

The most exciting part of working in higher education is the room to explore. State government, by contrast, is constrained due to the very real and high risk of bad publicity and accusations of dishonoring our fiduciary duty to the taxpayers, which stifles innovation. My experience at ARD has been marked by a remarkably lower level of resistance than I’ve ever received and there is a palpable eagerness for this work that I have never before experienced.  

Currently, we are on an organization-wide DEI Hackathon journey. Last fall, renowned Northwestern Professor Al Tillery expertly facilitated a DEI Hackathon workshop for us, building upon intense brainstorming sessions we conducted internally to search for ways to make our business practices more inclusive. We emerged from Phase I with hundreds of potential ideas for how to improve equity in all that we do – from engaging alumni, to diversifying our donor base and alumni boards, to making our communications more relatable and accessible, to holding staff accountable for DEI work in our budgets, and more. 

ard-dei-hackathon1.jpgEmbarking on Phase II, we are forming dedicated work groups which will be guided by Northwestern’s Executive Learning and Organizational Change (ELOC) unit, part of the School of Social and Educational Policy. Upon completion of these sessions, our workgroup members will be awarded certificates from ELOC, signifying their preparedness to present solid recommendations for change to ARD leadership.  

We anticipate that Phase III will focus on the crucial implementation of these recommendations, marking a pivotal step toward our goal of evolving into a fully realized DEI organization. 

 

How can the Northwestern community (faculty, staff, students, and/or alumni) support ARD in DEI efforts? 

In the current socio-political climate, DEI initiatives face considerable and frightening challenges, both nationally and within educational institutions. Legislation is being introduced and enacted that threatens the funding of DEI programs, impacting the education of students on our nation’s true history, and silencing those who champion equity. Equally concerning is the elimination of support for departments dedicated to ensuring nondiscriminatory hiring and promotion practices and the fair distribution of benefits. Some college campuses are taking the unprecedented step of closing DEI offices and terminating individuals who work on behalf of DEI.  

To counter these challenges, it is imperative for our stakeholders – faculty, staff, students, administrators, and alumni – to actively support DEI and challenge efforts to suppress equity. While significant progress has been made since the civil rights era, we are nowhere near the finish line. Without sustained support, we will regress, jeopardizing the hard-fought advancements against oppression and prejudice. The commitment to living up to our national values of liberty and justice for all demands collective vigilance and action.  

Anything else you’d like to share? 

I am fortunate and grateful to work within Alumni Relations and Development. ARD’s success with DEI can be attributed to the visible and active involvement of leadership and collaborative partnerships established with ARD’s passionate and talented staff.