DEI Leaders of Minnesota: Yohuru Williams

Williams found a reason to stay in Minnesota with the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas
Yohuru Williams
Yohuru Williams

Provided by the University of St. Thomas

In the last few years, Minnesota has seen a number of prominent killings by police officers and has found itself at the center of national attention on racial disparities. The murder of George Floyd, in particular, caused people to examine how they fit into (or hinder) the goals of a broad social justice movement. Because tragedy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, we asked four of Minnesota’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders about how everyday work decisions and company culture can make a better future. Here, we speak with Yohuru Williams, who leads the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas.

The University of St. Thomas’s new Racial Justice Initiative (RJI) is not diversity training, according to its founding director, Yohuru Williams. “When you think about training,” he says, “it’s this idea where you’re going to break behaviors or encourage a certain level of dialogue and interaction simply based on what happens in a given afternoon, without establishing the foundations for how we got here.”

Instead, RJI is education. The difference? Education ensures that everyone understands the historical context and why it’s necessary to take action.

Only a year and a half into RJI’s existence, Williams has a clear vision for how its programming—which includes a speaker series, student opportunities, scholarships, and faculty and staff counseling—can lead to restitution.

But the program almost didn’t exist. It was the spring of 2020, and after three years as a dean at St. Thomas, Williams says he was not getting the support he needed around racial justice initiatives. With a whole research career around Black history and civil rights movements under his belt, the history professor wasn’t going to spend any longer spinning his wheels in St. Paul.

That’s when George Floyd was murdered.

“People I’d been working with for two, three years were reaching out to me, and for lack of a better way to put it, were saying, ‘I get it. Now we understand what you were talking about,’” he says. (University president Julie Sullivan had always supported his ideas, he adds.)

Williams is aware of how institutions have kept Black people in second-class positions, and over the years, he’s worked to change that while serving on boards for organizations such as the YWCA St. Paul and Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul. Through RJI, he hopes to leverage the university’s research capacity and its ability to reach out to corporate partners.

RJI’s success will come through a thousand different little things, he says. It will involve showing companies how to use their expertise to lift up marginalized communities in sustainable ways—rather than writing a check and hoping for the best. It will involve using 2022 to dive more deeply into one of RJI’s projects, a documentary on the history of Twin Cities policing from the 1960s onward. It may even mean changing RJI’s focus—but not its mission—as different root problems surge and resurge, such as housing.

“It’s not conquering just racism; it’s conquering poverty,” he says. “It’s education and access and tools and using them in a range of ways that people can’t imagine.”

Learn more about the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas here.

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