WATERLOO — Yolanda Williams is a passionate advocate for young people.
She founded the North Omaha (Neb.) Youth Art and Culture Program and later served in several roles at the Partnership 4 Kids, which does group mentoring work with Omaha public school students.
Williams arrived in the Cedar Valley last year to lead another mentoring organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Iowa. But after 15 months, she is moving on to become director of Classic Upward Bound at the University of Northern Iowa Center for Urban Education. She will start in the position July 13.
Upward Bound is a federally-funded college preparatory program for students from low-income families whose parents don’t have four-year college degrees. UNI-CUE, based in downtown Waterloo, serves 85 high school students through the program.
“It’s bittersweet transitioning from Big Brothers Big Sisters because I really believe in their mission,” said Williams. Administrative work that is part of her job doesn’t allow for as much interaction as she had hoped with the children served by the organization.
“My heart is really boots-on-the-ground, listening to young people about their challenges,” she noted. “I’ve very much missed connecting with families and students.”
At Upward Bound, “obviously, there is the administrative part of it,” said Williams. But the job involves regular interactions with people receiving services.
“I think what drew me to the UNI-CUE is the diversity of the staff and high level of engagement with the community,” she said, citing an opportunity to speak at the organization’s SHINE-Young Women’s Conference earlier this year. “Just to be able to engage with those young ladies ... that was the icing on the cake for me.”
Robert Smith, UNI-CUE’s executive director, said that interest in personally engaging with students is exactly what he was looking for in an applicant.
“She will be working with the students and families on a daily basis,” he said. “I’m just excited to have her.”
He added, “She’s one of those Upward Bound kids. She clearly understands these kids we’ll be working with and she’s willing to share her story.”
Williams is a Seattle native who, at age 10, started regularly spending time in Omaha, where her dad lived. By the time she graduated from high school, her family was living in Billings, Mont.
She ended up in Omaha and lived there for 30 years, raising three children who are all in their 20s now. While they were going through school, Williams was doing college homework right beside them. She has an associate’s degree in interior design from Metropolitan Community College in Omaha and bachelor’s degree in art management from Bellevue (Neb.) University.
“That’s really how my work around youth advocacy started, with my own kids,” said Williams. The arts program she founded grew out of a college class assignment. She also served on Omaha’s school board for five years and was education chairwoman for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
While the Cedar Valley is smaller and less urban than Omaha, she sees “a larger opportunity to make an impact” as a leader in this community. She hopes to continue to “engage and really be an activist for young people and young people of color” while moving into the new role.
At Upward Bound, she will be succeeding Robert Welch, who has had a short tenure in the position. He started April 20 and is leaving at the end of the month after being offered the executive director position at Tri-County Child & Family Development Council, which operates the region’s Head Start program.
Williams was among the “40-50 applicants” Smith received when the search was started to replace Wilfred “Mickye” Johnson, who retired earlier this year.
“In all the years that I’ve had to interview for people at UNI-CUE, this (was) by far the best pool of applicants,” said Smith, who had a hard time narrowing down candidates beyond the top four. Welch edged out Williams initially because he had past experience working for Upward Bound at the University of Iowa. “I was very fortunate that she was willing to move in and take over the Upward Bound program.”
For Williams, there was no question.
“I was extremely elated when I got that phone call,” she said, adding the program is doing “really fantastic” work. She hopes to use art to further enhance what’s available for students. Williams also wants to find ways to integrate some of the cultural change underway due to the pandemic and the response to George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.
However, the fundamentals of the Classic Upward Bound program are solid, she said. “I don’t have to worry so much about building something, it’s already built.”
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