Tracy L. Williams

My day job is leading external relations, partnerships and development efforts on behalf of the division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement within UW-Madison. I serve as proxy for the chief diversity officer when it comes to creating, building and leveraging opportunities that move our diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts forward.

In addition to this role, from August 2020 to February 2021, I served as the interim assistant vice provost for DEI administration at the University. I’ve also developed an executive diversity council, which has spearheaded major projects such as the Bravebird film series, “Why I Love UW.”

Much of my current work is around bringing a broader DEI lens to the UW, but I’ve been committed to these efforts for the past 25 years and worked in a variety of roles.

One of the interesting things about my journey is that I’m not wed to any one field. Now, I’m in higher education, but I’ve worked with corporations, nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.

I’ve been responsible for fund management; I’ve served on boards and commission councils. I’ve also advised executive leaders through a DEI lens—helping them examine strategy, board composition, financials and reporting and more. Some of the large, complex organizations I’ve assisted include the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and American Family Insurance.

Over my career, I’ve learned that every organization or company starts its DEI journey at a different place. They typically know what outcome they seek, but they don’t know how to get there. It’s important to engage based on the strength of the organization and that often starts with gaining insights from data analysis, but also the voices of those who will be most impacted by improved DEI.

But it’s important to look at that data and make sure it’s really measuring what you think it is. And that it’s being interpreted correctly. Many times, outcomes are qualitative, not quantitative. Or what you’re accomplishing is best told through storytelling. But how do you measure the impact of a story? And how can you measure the impact a DEI program had on someone’s journey as a professional executive? Often, things that are off the radar are the best indicators of progress.

In order to be successful in their DEI efforts, organizations are poised to create change by starting with these three things:

  • Full Investment
  • Leadership buy-in
  • A dynamic team that will own the DEI efforts and strategy

Without these three elements in place, it’s very easy to default back to where your culture has been—that’s your comfort level. But there’s no one, prescriptive approach, because people and organizations are all so different.   

If you have a culture that isn’t diverse, that’s been built in a homogeneous way, it’s difficult to infuse a new way of looking at things. It is so important to find ways to engage with people who are different than you; you need to be in proximity. And now is the perfect time to do a better job of that with so many events and opportunities being virtual.

Research and explore—there are lots of resource pages online. Start with my department’s website, where you’ll find posts, books, panel discussions. Go to an event. Find those opportunities. As you learn more, things will catch your eye that you might not have noticed in the past. 

Some people might feel like DEI is the “hot topic,” but I’ve been doing this work for years. Becoming a more diverse, equitable and inclusive society is a journey, a lifestyle. There’s a sense of urgency because the lack of equity causes pain, but it’s something you have to keep working on. You’re never finished.

People sometimes tell me they worry about causing offense or saying the wrong thing. My advice: Do the best you can. I think it’s a mistake to go through this journey focusing on being correct vs. creating change. Authentic change is what I go for and, yes, you’ll make mistakes along the way. Keep trying and keep moving forward.

My most memorable caffeine is the tea and cookies I had with my grandmother.

She was the matriarch on my maternal side and would sit me down for tea and cookies and we would have great fellowship. My grandma lifted me up and I think I lifted her up sometimes too—now that I’m an adult, I’ve noticed how children can do that.

She embraced and helped me have a deep faith and helped me understand the importance of leading a life of love and servitude. Observing my grandma in action, even the gesture of sitting me down and having conversations about life and faith, taught me so much.

What an honor to sit down with a woman who was born during the Jim Crow era, whose father was a sharecropper in Arkansas. And who was a sharecropper herself. She migrated to Wisconsin to create opportunity for her family. When I was a child, I didn’t understand the magnitude of that. I do now.

One special thing about her: She identified talent. My grandmother would have me speak and write a lot. She chose me to write her obituary—and told me so many years before she died. We went through an exercise of her talking about her life, choosing which of the memories to share, and some of them were painful. It was an honor to do that for her.

My current caffeine of choice is a white chocolate mocha.

My favorite place for caffeine is Starbucks. I have a tradition with my daughters: I build in incentives for them to earn a trip to Starbucks. During COVID we’ve been bringing the drinks home and sitting down to talk.

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is Harriet Tubman.

I’ve watched the movie of her life about 10 times and I have a deep connection with her.

Watching the themes of her life I see her as a woman of deep faith, courage and with a passion of justice. I aspire to continue growing in these qualities.

I would love to know her and understand what she felt like going through everything she did. I have a passion for women’s leadership and her abilities as a leader certainly weren’t acknowledged at that time—she didn’t fit the profile of what society felt a leader looked like and that still happens today.

She had courage. She went against the advice of many, but no matter what she continued to persist to save her family, to help those who were underserved no matter the risk.

Some would consider Harriet Tubman a martyr. The fact that she never lost anyone she tried to help, to me means there was a definite covering over her.

What gives you that kind of courage to keep going despite your own pain and suffering? And her passion didn’t stop at helping slaves. She was part of the suffrage movement. And she created a home for the elderly on her own property.

I would love to have a conversation with her about how she kept her passion and her faith despite the struggle. She must have gotten weary, but she didn’t become cynical. She didn’t become vain. I love those qualities about her.

And I also don’t want to forget many parts of the underground railroad were racially diverse. Many white people were involved. It took a lot of heart and people to make that happen.

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: Unity. I’d like to create unity among each other. But we need proximity with others to build relationships—that’s key to addressing any issue, any problem. Those informal conversations with those who are different than us would bridge many gaps and dispel myths. Getting together and talking would allow us to break down perceived barriers and discover that many barriers didn’t actually exist in the first place.