Paul Williams on Building Better Communities
November 29, 2017—It’s nice to be back in the neighborhood,” says Paul Williams, president and CEO of Project for Pride in Living (PPL), as he looks out his tall office windows onto the brick storefronts, taxis, and mix of people walking on Minneapolis’ Franklin Avenue below. Since 2014, Williams (MPA ’87) has occupied the corner office at the nonprofit that provides housing, employment training, and education. Although he’s not from the Phillips neighborhood, he feels he’s gone back to his roots. “I grew up in the inner city,” he reminds me.
Williams assumed the leadership of PPL three years ago after serving as deputy mayor of St. Paul and before that working for foundations and a nonprofit lending institution. “I was ready to get back to the inner city,” he says. “This is where I do my best work.”
On this day, the 2017 winner of the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Achievement Award makes it clear that it is his approach to his work, and not his career in foundations and government, that he wants to discuss. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
How does where you’re from relate to what you’re doing now?
Part of what I’ve done throughout my career is to act as a bridge. I’m a translator between the community and mainstream institutions. Having walked in both of these worlds, I can speak both languages.
What’s the thread that runs through the various jobs you’ve held?
I’ve always tried to get the places where I’ve worked to invest more in community-based capacity. In many inner-city neighborhoods, we still struggle with not having organizations that have a real ability to deliver. It’s not that it just takes more money. It’s also about having the financial systems, the board governance skills, program staff, resources, technology, lights, and furniture to really do the work in an impactful way. My sense is that we’ve under-invested in that.
What does it take to build healthy communities?
We need to invest in the physical, economic, and social capital of communities. We need to address green space and affordable housing; business, job, and wealth creation; and help people organize. When you work in all three of those spheres, you begin to get more transformative and deeper results, especially when the community has a voice and role in helping to drive and deliver that.
Why is affordable housing important?
When you get an affordable, quality place to live, you’re not moving three or four times a year. Kids start doing better in school. Adults are able to get jobs or attend school and start building their skills. It builds self-reliance.
What trends in your field energize you?
In the housing arena, I have been excited about mixed-use, transit-oriented development. In the employment arena, it’s the career pathways approach. These are training programs where the employer plays a direct role in shaping the training. And I think all of the dialogue in our communities about racial equity is energizing. It’s a conversation that’s not going away. It’s important even though it’s messy, complicated, and critical.
You daily confront some of society’s most intractable problems—poverty, racism, injustice. How do you maintain perspective?
I’m a big fan of Parker Palmer, who writes about living in the “tragic gap.” You can swing too far toward optimism and having this rosy view that everything’s fine, or you can swing too far toward cynicism, where you’re burned out and nothing’s going to work and you don’t trust anybody. Being in the tragic gap is about acknowledging that pain and then working with it. You are able to enjoy the highs and suffer with the lows. It’s where the work is done.
Also, being in the community allows you to see the impact of your work over time. For example, the graduation of our 40th banking class—all lower-income folks with spotty employment records—to see them graduate and then move into living-wage jobs with growth potential is really satisfying. Stress is reduced when you see real results for real people.
How did the Humphrey School prepare you?
What I especially gained from the Humphrey School was an eye for evaluation. What drives real impact? How do you get the community to be its own evaluator? Whom do you talk to? How does evaluation become a voice, a tool for a community, as opposed to an artificial assessment of community?
What do you know that others should as well?
Communities don’t change with the snap of a finger or a policy. They change and grow one person, one family, one neighborhood at a time.
Interview by Carmen Peota