Troy Williams

My day job is being a Ph.D. student in Civil Society & Community Research in the UW School of Human Ecology.

When I first started working on my Ph.D., my advisor recommended I develop a specific skill set as a way to make myself more marketable in the future. I opted to become a program evaluator.

Prior to beginning graduate school, I had a non-profit, The Crime Resistance Institute, and I was very familiar with the role of program evaluation. This is basically like having an audit conducted on your program. When you apply for funding or receive a large grant, you’re often required to have an external evaluator come in and analyze your program, determine if the claims you’re making are true and provide a report for you to give to your funder.

When I first came to Madison, I set a goal for myself to find an internship as quickly as possible and immediately set to work looking for a program evaluation internship. A woman named Erin Bailey gave a presentation in one of my classes and during it she told us that being a connector was her passion and that she’d love to help us in anyway. I sent her an email while she was still talking!

Erin met with me and started connecting me with people she knew. Within a few months I became the lead qualitative evaluator for the Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families, through the Population Health Institute. One of the program’s major goals was to address black infant mortality in five area counties. I interviewed people and wrote a report that got a lot of traction. After that, I volunteered at the evaluation clinic in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

At present, my main focus is my dissertation, which is analyzing why Dane County is one of the few counties in the U.S. where Black people are overdosing on opioids at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Throughout the U.S., opioids have been framed as a white, rural issue, but that’s not true in Dane County. Dane County has one of the highest rates of overdoses and hospital encounters for this population in the entire state.

I’m part of a team that’s working with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to figure out why this is happening. One of our preliminary findings was that there’s a huge lack of social infrastructure in black communities. Our interviewees stated that because of this, they often found themselves in their homes, alone, and using drugs to cope with trauma that they have experienced in their life.

As I’ve become more engaged in projects throughout Madison, I’ve had the chance to meet some local leaders including Aaron Perry and Joshua Wright. Aaron started the very first men’s health centers in a barber shop. He decided to do this because of a negative interaction he had with the medical community.

A few years back, Aaron learned he had diabetes. When he found out, he told the doctor he was going to do an Ironman—which the doctor laughed at and told him that it wasn’t possible as an insulin-dependent diabetic. But Aaron did it.

And because his interaction with his doctor had been so fraught and so stressful, he wanted to find a way for Black men to talk to medical providers that was low stress, one where they didn’t feel berated or harassed. He worked with JP Hair Design to create a men’s health center right in their space and to date they’ve served over 4,000 men.

They both are very engaged in their community, they facilitate programs, organize activities, and distribute resources that ensure that their community is mentally and physically healthy.  Watching Aaron and Joshua’s commitment to the Black community in Madison has been extremely formative to my academic and professional identity. I feel privileged to be able to call  them my friends, my mentors, my center, and my community. I really appreciate them both.

I’ve got about a year and a half left in my Ph.D. program and long term I’d like to be involved with the social corporate responsibility division of a company. I plan to put my evaluation skills to work to understand how their programs fit into the larger world—for instance, if we’re giving out backpacks to school kids, but their school doesn’t have books for them, I want to be part of solving those bigger issues.

One of the things I love most about program evaluation work is that you have a chance to see the impact that’s being made and, potentially, help an organization redirect their efforts if necessary. I love the idea of helping move people forward.

My most memorable caffeine was the combo of Red Bulls and cappuccinos I’d purchase at the gas station to stay awake during the period I was putting in 96-hour work weeks before I started college. I used to have four jobs, typically loading and unloading 18-wheelers, and spent a lot of time depending on caffeine. I quit both and it’s been a long time since I’ve had coffee.

My current caffeine of choice is green tea.

My favorite place for caffeine is Colectivo. It was actually the tipping point of why I chose Madison for my Ph.D. I had been recruited by a number of schools and my visit to Madison was the beginning of March—and I was living in California at the time. It was 13 degrees, there was snow everywhere. My advisor met me at the Colectivo on State St. I remember liking how unique it looked and the ambience was just great. I loved seeing all the people having conversations, sitting at the table and playing games. It was just really cool and I made the decision to choose the UW.

The people I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with are Berry Gordy and my great-uncle, John Wesley Cox.

Berry was the founder of Motown Records. What he did was just phenomenal. I’d love to see how he put these things together to make some of the best music in the history of the world. It would be mind-blowing to sit down and have a conversation. I’m sure he encountered racism throughout his life. I’d like to hear his stories and how he overcame racism and made such an impact on the world with his music.

My great uncle was very involved in civil rights and was a  founding board member of The King Center. He went to Morehouse College with Dr. King and was the first black corporate executive at Delta Airlines—he was their vice president of community affairs.

He died when I was just 17, before I could appreciate him. He’d drop a lot of jewels and tell me things that went in one ear and out the other. I was a kid, living in Atlanta, where it was hard to see the systemic racism because I was living in an all-black environment. My uncle would point things out, talk about them, challenge people.

He was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. It often feels like I’m re-blazing trails that my family and ancestors already faced. I wish I could talk with him about how he dealt with everything I’m currently facing.

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: Right now, my dissertation! But in general I wish there were Black third spaces—places outside work and home where people could come together and congregate and problem solve. Especially around opioids and how we can address this as a community.

With the right amount of caffeine, the right individuals and the right stories being told, I think we could do it.