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United Voices: An Interview with Board Member Dennis Williams

By Taylor Mabrey, Content Manager

United Voices is a series of interviews with community leaders sharing their expertise, passion and involvement across the greater Charlotte region. 

This month, I sat down with United Way of Greater Charlotte board member, Dennis Williams, to talk about his background, his current role in the community and his close connection to United Way.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Williams: I grew up in a little place called Elizabethtown, North Carolina. My parents were educators; my dad was a long-term educator, Superintendent, assistant superintendent and he was the first African American principal of an integrated middle school when I was growing up. My mother was a first grade teacher, the type of first grade teacher that everybody in that community wanted to make sure that their child was in her class. They had a strong background in education and there was no question about high expectations for us, for everybody in our family. I’m the only one out of five sons that went into education like my parents. By the grace of God, I quickly matriculated through being a teacher, assistant principal to principal, and came to Charlotte in 1992, as a senior high school principal. After three years there, I became chief administrative officer, and eventually interim superintendent in 1996. Right at the peak of my educational career, the Lord reminded me of a vision he gave me when I was just in middle school: that I would become an educator and a preacher. After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill, being on the national faculty for Yale, and attending the Superintendents Program at Harvard, I’m here at the apex of my career. I’m in Charlotte holding a top position and was considered to be an ‘up and comer.’ But then the Lord reminded me of this vision. So I transitioned out of education, to become a minister. I’ve been doing that for over 25 years now and I’m excited about being where I am in the church.

Have you always wanted to help others?

Williams: I always wanted to be of help to everybody, it was just in my DNA, and especially those who, you know, are falling through the cracks. My dad was the type of guy who always fought hard for the underdog. And my mom taught me to fight hard for the underdog, but only follow the top dog. And she always encouraged me to be around people who can stretch my vision, who could cause me to want to be better than I am today.

I’m now doing what’s in my heart to do. I’ve always wanted to be an influencer in the community for good. The men in my life – my father, my father-in-law – were all community-minded and if anything was going on in the community that needed to be straightened out or worked on, it was up to these men. They took charge, they presented themselves as leaders, and they worked to make situations better. My work now in the ministry is all about community development. And here in the Lakeview community, we started an association, Lakeview Neighborhood Alliance, and we raised up residents who live in the community to lead the charge. It’s just been amazing to see the church, the community, my influence in education and just loving people and wanting to be about something positive, and to make change but also to speak truth in love. It’s just come full circle. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be doing what I’m supposed to do. I know I’m in my fourth quarter of life, so I want to do all the good for as long as I can to make life better for people in our community.

What was it like when Lakeview Neighborhood Alliance became a Community Quarterback with United Neighborhoods?

Williams: So, I am the chairman of the board for the Lakeview Neighborhood Alliance. I remember when we were being considered for being a Community Quarterback, and the joy that the board had in accepting that responsibility. We felt good about having a place at the table to help influence how that would play out, in terms of residents having some input about which nonprofits would be funded to do work consistent with our vision.

Jamaal Kinard was a godsend to the Lakeview community. He was an answer to our prayers. The association had been in the community for a number of years, and overall did some good things, but we were not successful at the hard work of taking the local residents and raising them up to own the direction for our community, so we were struggling. Jamaal moved into the community, he joined that board, and quickly I saw his talent, his gift, his passion for bringing about authentic, lasting change to this community. So we got busy and we hired him as our first executive director and he’s been our only executive director. We have established policies that work for this community. For example, we wanted the executive director to be a resident of the Lakeview community, we wanted our board to be made up of at least 51% of people who live in the community and we’re committed to raising up leaders to make sure that we own our future in this community. So Jamaal came as a poster child from Communities in Schools and quickly developed into a poster child for United Neighborhoods.  

I have always been known as a visionary, one who can stretch people to believe things and get things done that seem impossible at first. But I’ll tell you, Jamaal stretches my vision capacity and it’s good to have him here in the community leading the charge.

What led you to joining United Way’s Board of Directors?

Williams: I’ve always had the utmost respect for the work that’s been done by United Way. When I came to Charlotte, I’d already had experience with United Way in Durham County. And United Way was the standard for nonprofits; United Way was the standard for how to make a difference in the community. So being a community-minded person, and a person who always wanted to be about excellence, I always had my eye on United Way. I see United Way as an agent for change for good in the community for all citizens, by focusing on those who need a helping hand to be successful in life. That’s why I’m drawn to United Way. I really believe that it will go on and solve the problems that we have in Charlotte, around education, around upward mobility for all. It has to be done the united way. I believe the United Way is really the only way to solve our problems. I’m excited to be a part of the leadership within United Way. I have the utmost respect for all of the board members and I really believe we have a lot to offer.

I’m really humbled to be able to work with Laura Yates Clark, her staff, and those very gifted and talented board members who are giving back to the community in a way that’s really making a difference. I want to do what I can to beat the drum in this community, to get others to join this effort, because it can only be done when we all unite and focus on the same goals. United Way is the vehicle to make that happen in Charlotte. 

Why is it important to give back to your community?

Williams: I mean, it’s kind of like, why does a fish swim? It’s because of who they are. I was raised with this heart to love my neighbor, to speak truth, to ask tough questions, to be about hard work and to be persistent at working to make life better for others. In doing so, all of your needs are taken care of, if you focus on other people’s needs, and help them achieve what they want to achieve. But I just really believe I was born for what I’m doing. It’s natural. And I love it. 

Meet the rest of United Way’s Board of Directors or learn more about United Way’s United Neighborhoods initiative.