By Gloria Delgadillo
Meet Steering Committee Member and Executive Director Oliver Williams
When he was a kid growing up, Dr. Oliver J. Williams, executive director of IDVAAC, was aware that domestic violence existed in his family and community. But it really got his attention during college when he observed dating violence among his peers. There weren’t any services to address the issue during the early-mid ‘70s.
In graduate school, he became so interested in domestic violence that he began investigating the research on the topic. He recalls that there weren’t a lot of sources on the topic at the time. One of the first research articles was written by one of Williams’ professors, Dr. John Flynn at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo; the article was based on one of the area’s first battered women’s shelters at the YWCA in Kalamazoo, Mich.
After graduate school, Williams worked at what is now Safe House, a local battered women’s shelter in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then with men who batter. “There were few shelters then and fewer programs to work with men who battered. And the programs that did exist were not court-mandated,” he said.
He has worked throughout his career as both a practitioner and as an academic. In addition to a master’s degree in social work, Williams has a master’s degree in public health and a Ph.D. in social work from the University of Pittsburgh.
His work in the field triggered an interest in how to affect policy and how to reach practitioners with the research that did exist. It seemed like a logical move to get his Ph.D. Between 1985-86, Williams began teaching at Illinois State University and West Virginia University, but he never gave up working with social services programs. He started one of the first programs for men who batter in the late ‘80s in Illinois.
The move to Minnesota
In the early 1990s, he was attracted to Minnesota by a combination of academic and practical resources. Dr. Jeff Edleson at the University of Minnesota had written extensively about men who batter. And Phyllis Wheatley, a social services provider in Minneapolis, offered a domestic violence program that was designed specifically for African Americans. “There weren’t a lot of people of color served by domestic violence programs until they were courtmandated,” says Williams. “Then it was a challenge to figure out how to serve them well.”
He became a full professor with the University of Minnesota School of Social Work last year. Ten years ago, while teaching at the U of M, he began working on the creation of IDVAAC. The Institute was inspired by Williams and other IDVAAC Steering Committee members who attended a conference in 1993 with Bill Reilly, federal project officer for the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. African-Americans attending the conference pointed out that delivering services in a culturally sensitive manner plays an important role in program effectiveness. Other attendees argued that it was irrelevant.
Antonia Vann, the founder of Asha Family Services in Milwaukee, Wis. told attendees at that conference that cultural sensitivity in service delivery is absolutely important. It was hard to argue with her many years of working in this arena with people of color.
After the conference, Vann, Williams, Sheliah Hankins, an IDVAAC Steering Committee member, and some of the African- American practitioners attending the conference got together with Reilly to discuss the possibility of creating a resource on domestic violence for African Americans. Such programs for Asians and Hispanics already were operating successfully.
Looking backward and forward
On the 10-year anniversary of IDVAAC, Williams says the organization has a lot to be proud of and some challenges ahead. “I’m pleased we’ve been able to connect people of all races who are thoughtful about domestic violence and African Americans. It’s an important issue: Domestic violence reduces a community’s capacity to care for itself.
“I believe we’ve broken the isolation of people who work in this area throughout the country, and that we’ve created groundbreaking knowledge through our web site, special reports, newsletters, conference proceedings and other products.
“We’ve talked about things that haven’t been talked about before: the intersections between African Americans and domestic violence, substance abuse, fatherhood, as well as the role of faith-based groups. Our work speaks to real people, who we’ve tried to inform not only through traditional means, but through their usual communications channels: radio, video, plays, music and dance.”
“Our biggest challenge has been to get this issue on the radar screens of social services providers, policy and community leaders and to obtain funds to maintain our programs,” reports Williams. “Another is that some members of our own community don’t want to acknowledge that domestic violence is an issue for African Americans. And the last is that program heads don’t always want to devote meager resources to cultural sensitivity.”
Future goals include: maintaining IDVAAC’s focus on knowledgebuilding activities and finding new ways to engage with different age groups, including seniors and youth. Williams says the IDVAAC Steering Committee has played an integral role in the organization’s success and in the personal and professional development of its members.
“We confront, explore, challenge and expand each other’s thoughts.” The committee includes a variety of experts in specific subsets of domestic violence, who are able to combine knowledge in ways that would be impossible if everyone came from the same vantage point. “There is incredible efficiency that comes from this opportunity to work together,” says Williams.