Novella Williams, revered as an educator, mentor, historian, and civil rights activist, is the founder of “Citizens for Progress”, a civic group in Philadelphia, PA. Ms. Williams’ journey is a long one, having worked many years to bring about diversity and equal opportunity in institutions, not only in Philadelphia, but across our nation. Novella Williams attended Washington High School in Atlanta, GA. She continued her studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University School of Communication in Philadelphia, PA., and it was through her work and association at the University of PA that fueled her mission to empower and ignite a zeal for education and knowledge in her local community. Ms. Williams was part of the charge to bring the first charter school in the African American community, providing youth the necessary skills that would position them for gainful employment in the workforce.
The fundamental premise for the establishment of Citizens for Progress was due to ineffective and inefficient means by which children were being educated in her local community. Ms. Williams felt there was a complete disparity between educations rendered in the African American communities versus those offered in other parts of the city. Citizens for Progress sought to bridge the gap by challenging the school system, and local principals to raise their consciousness in providing the same level of quality education to all children, no matter their geography. Ms. Williams’ motto has always been, “Power comes from knowledge”, and through Citizens for Progress, Ms. Williams fostered a means by which individuals were made aware and granted access to programs and services that were part of their residential right but were completely unaware.
“We care and we worked to save lives, through education, empowerment, good affordable healthcare, housing, and equal opportunity employment” says Ms. Williams on the mission of the organization.
Ms. Novella Williams never ran from challenge or adversity, but rather embraced it as an opportunity to make a difference in the world. At the time of Dr. Martin Luther Kings’ death, Ms. Novella Williams was granted an audience with the United Nations and spoke on behalf of African American community and gave testimony on the impact Dr. King’s death had on her people. It was through this audience that Ms. Williams was appointed to the NGO body of the United Nations and was asked to address the United States Congress on what action steps needed to happen within the walls of the UN and was also asked to speak to Congress on the topic of equality and social reform.
In the late 70’s, Ms. Williams led the charge, petitioning President Jimmy Carter, for equality amongst Amtrak Workers. Through her efforts, $500 million dollars were earmarked throughout the nation to commission equal opportunity employment. Ms. Williams also challenged organizations and establishments such as Conrail and The Port Authority to provide fair and equal pay and advancement opportunities to minorities. Ms. Williams was responsible for the rebuilding of the YMCA, now called the Lucien Blackwell Library, which provided youth services to thousands of young people. In her quest for equality, Ms. Williams successfully petitioned CEO’s of major corporations to build a new YMCA, instead of renovating the old one. She was also the catalyst for change on the 52nd Street Business Corridor in bringing minority owned business to the corridor since the majority of the patrons were African American residents. Novella Williams also sought to get the first African American female elected to Philadelphia council and was the driving force in the African American community adoption and re-election of Mayor Frank Rizzo. Through her diligence and tireless efforts in her community, Ms. Williams was granted direct access to Major Rizzo, even an office within the walls of City Hall, and was instrumental in bringing social reform to her community during his regime.
In her quest for human rights, Ms. Williams was the only individual who gave testimony on the tragic events that occurred in 1985 against the MOVE organization. Ms. Williams was one of the few individuals permitted to enter the MOVE compound and heroically entered the grounds in an attempt to bring about peaceful resolution. It is through her heroic efforts and continued push for reform in education, housing, healthcare and equal opportunity employment that Ms. Williams entertained such individuals like Rosalyn Carter (former 1st Lady of the United States), in the privacy of her home so that people like Mrs. Carter could meet and get a real sense of the people whom she served.
Ms. Williams walked amongst giants such as Rev. Leon Sullivan and attended the African Summit with Rev. Sullivan, Dick Gregory and Reverend Al Sharpton. It was through this visit that Ms. Williams raised her awareness that she had a people and she had a land. It was there that she witnessed young people, with no education, carving wood to perfection, and her overarching thought, which became her mission in life was, “What would that young man do if he had access to education?” This looming question fueled her quest even more for higher education amongst her people, not just the ability to do the work, but being able to profit from it. Ms. Williams returned from Africa with an acute awareness and commitment of, “Knowledge is a must, for knowledge is Power”.
Ms. Williams’ mentoring arm stretched far and long, providing mentorship to young men like Gene Banks, helping them understand that they are valuable and they have the same rights as all other American citizens, while also instilling in them the importance of values and making good choices that would impact their lives for years to come.
Still today, Ms. Novella Williams, now in her mid-80s’, leads the charge in fostering a better brighter future through community awareness, empowerment, and economic change.