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Easterseals CEO: 'Just because someone is different, it does not mean they are deficient'

Angela Williams recently chatted with NBC’s Know Your Value about her career path, the best advice she ever received, diversity and inclusion in the workplace and more.
Angela Williams, president and CEO of the Easterseals.
Angela Williams, president and CEO of the Easterseals.Courtesy of Easterseals.

As the first woman and first African-American to lead Easterseals, Angela Williams’ background and experience gives her a unique perspective when it comes to leading the nonprofit organization that provides services and advocacy for people with disabilities, along with veterans and seniors.

“It means that as a leader, I bring to every position an outlook on life where diversity is valued, inclusivity is a must, and equity is what it’s all about,” Williams recently told NBC News’ Know Your Value.

”We are all at a moment in time that we’ve never experienced before, yet all of us are being impacted differently. For people with disabilities, it is twice as difficult,” added Williams, whose organization celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. “For a child on the autism spectrum, routine is important. For a senior with dementia, engagement is important. For the parent of a severely disabled child, having someone come into the home to assist them is important. As I advocate for our participants and our staff, I do so from a place of empathy – knowing that sometimes one must shout from the rooftops to be heard.”

Williams touched on a number of issues, including how companies can make diversity and inclusion a priority, her career path, the Black Lives Matter protests and more. Here’s what she said:

On diversity and inclusion:

“I am grateful to have a platform from which I can state unequivocally that just because someone is different, it doesn’t mean they are deficient. Our unconscious biases limit being open and welcoming to people that are not like us, our parents, siblings or close circle of friends. I often encourage people to try new things, experience other cultures and volunteer with organizations that cause them to interact with people different than themselves. Most importantly, it is about offering someone different than yourself a seat at your table of influence, welcoming their voice and engaging in non-judgmental listening. By doing this, the walls of division are torn down.”

“As human beings, we have more in common than not. Yet, the numbers do not reflect equal leadership or equal access. So then, there must be acknowledgement of the root cause of the dismal numbers and lack of substantial progress – no motivation to change the status quo. Over the course of this country’s history, significant change has come through legislation and the courts, which eventually leads to new and more inclusive behavior. It was passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that acknowledged Black people as being equal. It was passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act that acknowledged people with disabilities as being equal. In the corporate sector, we see movement when the bottom line of a company is threatened or the specter of reputational harm due to bad publicity is in play. Inclusion is about allowing other voices to be heard, appreciated and respected. The time is now to be motivated from a simple values lens – activating corporate values in meaningful, tangible and measurable ways. The ideas are plentiful, but here are just a few: having a diverse boardroom, a diverse leadership team, and pathways for recruitment, retention and promotion of diverse employees.”

On how her graduate degrees in both law and divinity informed her career path:

“People are often curious when they discover that I am both a lawyer and a minister. Immediately prior to working for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, I was an Assistant United States Attorney and Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division attorney. As his special counsel on criminal law, Senator Kennedy loved to introduce me in this manner, 'This is Angela. She puts them away in the daytime and prays for them at night!' He had a great sense of humor. I have always seen both degrees as different aspects of my life’s purpose – advocacy and bringing hope. As a child of the Civil Rights Movement, I saw religious leaders like my parents leading the charge for equal treatment under the law for Blacks. The notion of “separate but equal” was the law until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Thirty-eight years later, we find ourselves still wrestling with systems that do not recognize all men and women as having been created equal; no matter what you measure, whether it is educational, financial, health and wellbeing, etc., there is still significant inequality. The same is true for people with disabilities. It is time for a revival – for us to wake up from the slumber of status quo. I am an advocate for reviving the soul of a nation and its citizens such that righteousness and justice are equally accessed and applied to all.”

On the Black Lives Matter protests:

“… Protesters across the country are expressing their pain and anguish over the senseless killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and so many others. There are pivotal moments in history where people from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds are abruptly shaken and swept into a movement that demands action. 2020 has created many such moments, and we cannot lose the opportunity to develop solutions for broken systems that perpetuate inequality.”

On ageism and mid-life women in the workplace:

“As a woman in her 50s, I am experiencing the best years of my life. What an exciting time to be leading change and to have open dialogue about barriers that must be torn down. By the time we reach 50 years old, we’ve explored in-depth the questions of identity and purpose. A woman who knows who she is, has a voice and is unwavering in her values walks with confidence as a gamechanger. She is clear about her purpose and doesn’t waste time on things that detract from that purpose.”

On the best career advice she has ever received:

“The best career advice I ever received was to be my authentic self, because people resonate with you the individual, not just the things you bring to the table.”