Q&A with Marta Alcalá-Williams, winner of social justice award

CHANGE AGENT: With multiple decades of community activism and work under her belt, local resident Marta Alcalá-Williams recently received the Pauli Murray Brilliance Award from the Tzedek Social Justice Fund. Photo by Erin Hill

For Marta Alcalá-Williams, bringing equity and understanding into the Asheville community is a calling that energizes her.

In 2001, she launched a local Motheread chapter in the Hillcrest community that worked to combine literacy instruction with child development and adult empowerment. The program was relaunched in 2015 through Asheville City Schools, where Alcalá-Williams serves as the executive director for equity and community engagement.

The following year, Alcalá-Williams co-founded Marvelous Math Club in partnership with ACS, the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville and UNC Ashevilleo. Additionally, she serves as a volunteer with the Keep It Moving Coalition Asheville and is a leader of the Racial Equity Institute Asheville Core Team.

This breadth of work recently resulted in Alcalá-Williams receiving the Pauli Murray Brilliance Award from the Tzedek Social Justice Fund, a local organization that redistributes money, resources and power to support systems change and community healing in Asheville. The award honors community leaders performing intersectional work to further racial justice and LGBTQ equality through a $50,000, no-strings-attached grant.

Having lived in Asheville for over 30 years, Alcalá-Williams says it was a unique experience to hear other community leaders highlight her body of work. “Sometimes when you’re in it, you don’t have time to see it,” she says. “That was a very humbling experience.”

Xpress spoke with Alcalá-Williams about her earliest community efforts, the unique challenges women of color face and the ways individuals can make an impact within their own communities.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Given all that you do, how do you avoid burnout?

When you’re committed to something that’s so important, and something that you’re a part of, there’s no other option but to continue exploring [the issues]. I am a brown woman. My life is at stake.

But I did get burned out from being on nine boards at one point. Initially, the invitations to join made me feel like, “Everybody thinks I’m so smart; they want me on all of their things!” At the time, I didn’t know any better. In reality, it was, “I want you on my brochure because I want to say that we have diversity, but I’m not so sure that I want your input.” [People of color] get the “Yes, but,” often.

So, getting more honest with myself and with the folks in the organizations, I learned how to speak truth from a place that is not causing harm or putting myself in harm’s way. I’m not interested in the “Yes, but” anymore.

What propelled you to take on the role of a community leader in Asheville?

I was a stay-at-home mom. I began as a volunteer [at my daughter’s school decades ago]. Once there, I asked, “Can I go into the classroom and talk about diversity and differences?”

All the girls [that participated in these conversations] were Black. I asked my daughter’s fourth grade teacher, “Did you go around saying only Black girls can be part of Miss Marta’s team?” The teacher explained that these were the students that asked — that this was the audience that wanted to [talk about diversity]. That’s how I started getting my feet wet.

I was later invited to go to a training in Raleigh for Motheread. I went for three days with a group of other mothers and just fell in love with the idea of this organization. It brings books to life and invites participants to talk about independence.

I said, “How about if we try and start a Motheread program in Asheville?” People loved it.

When I went to Racial Equity Institute in 2015, it changed my life. I was like, “I’m supposed to be doing this type of work in a bigger way.”

But at one point early on I got told from a member of the community [whom] I was working with, “You ain’t come here to fix us. You don’t know my life.”

I put the clipboard down and said, “What would be beneficial to move the community forward? I’m here to learn, because I don’t know — I don’t live here.”

That’s when I started really learning.

What advice would you pass along to someone who wanted to make a difference in their community?

I would say put that clipboard down and really listen. Ask questions to the people you’re working with: “Am I hearing you correctly?”

This approach feels respectful and intentional.

Now that you’ve received this grant, does it change the way you look at your work?

I don’t think that it changes the way that I look at the work. I think it’s more, as a woman of color, what is the sustainability that I can create for myself?

[In my role with Asheville City Schools,] I work with a lot of women [in the Hillcrest community]. A concern for mothers in particular is figuring out what happens when their child’s preschool closes down because of COVID and they still have to go to work.

In the middle of [a recent Zoom meeting about this issue], I put myself on mute. I called the YWCA on my phone and said, “Hey, can someone hop on this call and give us information on child care? I want you to hear it from the mouths of the people that are having the experience.” The woman jumped on the call. She explained the protocol, we sent out all the information, and the mamas got to say, “This is what would be beneficial.”

When more people are working together, I get to take a backseat. That’s how we grow. That’s building capacity for our communities so it’s not taxing on just one or two people.

What do you see as your greatest achievement to date?

Being able to speak my truth … from a loving place and having folks be like, “OK, I can stick with you through this. It’s scary at times. It is not always what I want to hear. It is not always beautiful. But there’s something here.” That feels really uplifting to me because that means we’re shifting, we’re creating something special for the healing of our community.

I have this vision, that if we do the intentional work of healing and learning and growing our muscles together, we could be a model city for how to speak truth and healing together. I want to be a part of it, and I’m in it to shift and create.


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