March 14, 2008
DIRECT ACTION HERO
Cylar awardee Williams
From the 27 day walk from New York to Washington, D.C., to kick off the Campaign to End AIDS to—count 'em—nine arrests, there has hardly been an advocacy event at Housing Works during the last 14 years that Diane Williams didn't play a part in. From the moment Williams became a Housing Works client in 1994, she was passionate about advocating for herself and fellow people with HIV/AIDS.
"I want to be an advocate for my brothers and sisters in Mexico and Africa and here in the United States and show AIDS is not a death sentence," Williams said. "We need equal medication everywhere, comprehensive sex education in schools. There's just so much to be done." For her committment to activism, Williams, who currently serves as an administrative assistant to Housing Works Senior Vice President Andrew Coamey, will be awarded the 2008 Keith D. Cylar Housing Works AIDS Activist Award at the Times Center on April 17. For more information about the gala, or to purchase tickets, go to cylarawards.com.
"Diane is dealing with significant struggles as a mother, grandmother and a person living with HIV and working full-time, yet she is always one of the first people to volunteer for a direct action," said Housing Works President and CEO Charles King.
Activism has come naturally to the soft-spoken Williams, who most recently participated in a direct action demonstration to demand federal intervention in the Puerto Rico AIDS crisis as part of the "Broadway 12," and credits Housing Works co-founder Keith Cylar as a mentor. "When I first joined Housing Works I remember seeing Keith Cylar on the podium talking about equal rights," Williams said. "He talked to me and suggested the right things I should do. He told me, 'Speak up and go for it.'"
One activism experience Williams most takes pride in was taking over the Family Research Council, a conservative group that preaches abstinence-only education. "Abstinence is important, but it doesn't work for everyone," Williams said. Even though Williams said getting arrested is "always scary" she does it because "people might change their minds because they hear about what we're doing."
Williams has passed on this spirit to her daughter Nikita, 21, and son Reggie, 20. Reggie in particular has thrown himself full-force into activism, participating in the Youth Action Institute. Reggie is now a student at Columbia University, where he participated in the campus's World AIDS Day events. "I didn't think I'd live to see my kids graduate high school, and now I'm living to see my children grow up into these wonderful people. They are so proud of me, and I'm so proud of them." Williams also has a young granddaughter.
'Housing Works offered a refuge'
In 1994 Williams was devastated by the death of her two-year old daughter who died of AIDS four years earlier. While Williams' family provided support, she felt alone and didn't know many other women who were HIV-positive. "I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and I needed emotional support," Williams said. "Housing Works offered a refuge." Williams through herself into parenting classes, case management, and activism trips in Albany and D.C.
And while being an activist was an easy decision for Williams, deciding to go back to work was harder. "I thought I wasn't worthy to go back to work, and I was scared of leaving my benefits," she said. "But my caseworker helped me realize I had the potential, and I wanted my children to see that just because I'm HIV-positive, the virus isn't running me, I'm running the virus." So in 2003 Williams entered the Housing Works Job Training Program and has worked for Housing Works ever since.
She receive high praise from Coamey, who said that Williams' has learned how to balance her life, so that her work in advocacy enhances her commitment to her job and her family. "She understands her role in the Housing Works community as a role model and takes that job very seriously, mentoring both clients and former clients who come on staff," Coamey said. "Diane also has this uncanny ability to see the light at the end of a tunnel. When things are bad, she spends a good time convincing us that it's going to get better, which has a profound impact on me, her boss."
With the $5,000 Keith Cylar Award, Williams plans to go back to school and take classes in business administration. "I keep striving for more," Williams said. "Never say never because your dreams will come true. When I came to Housing Works I felt stuck, and didn't believe that at all. Now I keep striving for more."
For more information about Williams and the other Cylar awardees, go to cylarawards.com. Keep reading the Update for more profiles on the 2008 Cylar awardees.