Putting Her Ph.D. to Work: Alumna Ovita F. Williams Named Executive Director of the Action Lab at Columbia University

Ovita F. Williams (Photo courtesy of Williams)

When Ovita F. Williams (Ph.D. ’20, Social Welfare) was sorting through job opportunities after she completed her doctorate, one stood out from the rest. It was a position at the Social Work Action Lab for Social Justice at Columbia University School of Social Work. The lab was formed in March by social work students and faculty in response to COVID-19. They wanted to help community organizations find qualified volunteers to support immediate needs, from tutoring the children of frontline workers to writing grants to providing counseling and emotional support to people in distress. The Action Lab also provides directed training for social workers and community members to address a range of issues related to COVID-19, from grief and loss to social and government policy. Several months into its work, as the pandemic underscored deeper racial inequalities, the Action Lab expanded its mission to focus on equity, raising awareness around anti-Black racism and social justice. 

“We're not just talking, we are literally finding ways to deal with the current social issues that disproportionately impact communities of color and other communities that experience oppression,” Williams said. That work includes support sessions called Umoja Circles, led by a trained practitioner, specifically for Black and Afro-Latinx communities, as well as extensive information about mental health resources and grassroots organizations focused on racial justice.

Williams brought 25 years of experience to the position. She worked in child welfare and in the King’s County District Attorney’s office doing forensic social work. For the past 15 years, she served as associate director of field education at Columbia School of Social Work. She also brought to the position her new Ph.D. from The Graduate Center’s Doctoral Program in Social Welfare. Her studies have been driven by the same commitment that fuels her career, the passion for social justice.

The Graduate Center caught up with her as she started a busy workday, remotely from her home, to find out about her path to a doctorate and what advice she has for students considering a social welfare Ph.D., especially students of color.

The Graduate Center: You had a very full career. What drew you to getting a doctorate in social welfare at The Graduate Center?

Williams: When I went to school at Columbia University School of Social Work, I wanted to be a clinician, I wanted to do therapy, I wanted to do counseling with families and children. And that's what I did. I loved it. 

And then I was supervising students who were master’s-level social work students who did their internship at my agency. I started to do academic advising and field advising. And I'm thinking, academia seems to be a place I might want to really take a look at. It was in the back of my head when I was working and doing direct practice.

The social welfare program really spoke to me because I was doing the social justice, antiracist work. I really wanted to do the work that was still closely connected to the communities that we serve. I didn't want to remove myself and sort of sit in a space where I was collecting data and doing research exclusively. I wanted to be able to have that combined with the day-to-day lives of people that, as social workers, we serve and we are there for. My classes really pushed conversations around racism, really encouraged us to think about gender, sex, and racial identity, and how all of this matters, how systems of oppression matter in the way that we're thinking about our research, context, and then policy, and delivery of services. 

GC: How did your graduate study build on what you were doing?

Williams: I think that the Ph.D. has taught me to be a better instructor. I can talk about participatory action research and what that means, so I'm able to pull these research concepts into my teaching, into my writing, into the way that I'm thinking about the social issues that I'm passionate about. And it has enriched and added another language to what I was already doing, a language that really builds on the context of direct practice and enhances the ability to show how research and practice connect. I didn't have that research base. It makes it a much more holistic way of thinking about my work and my research and the way that I teach and work with students.

GC: What would you tell someone considering a Ph.D. in social welfare?

Williams: In my career, I want to have drive. I want to have motivation. I want to be doing what is meaningful to me, while making a difference and continuing to advance my own personal career. I tell students this: Know why you're getting into this and stay true to that. What are you passionate about? What's guiding you? What's drawing you because that's going to be the motivation. There were moments when I felt, what the heck am I doing? I can't do this anymore. This is too hard. 

If you're going through this intense journey, it’s about your ability to do academic work, and it's about tenacity.

My colleagues and I who went through the program talked about this all the time. For students of color in a doctoral program, there are so many roadblocks. We found for ourselves that finding other students of color in Ph.D. programs as peer support was really about being there for each other. One of the things that we talked a lot about was, we're doing this for our families; we're doing this for the very small percentage of students of color who get a Ph.D., who actually achieve that. Knowing those numbers and knowing that what we're doing is riding on improving those statistics, really keeps us going and motivates us. So, there's that bigger picture. It's not just the individualistic point of view. It’s about community resources and community wealth. I think that at the bottom of it, it's really those kinds of ideals that kept us going.

Submitted on: NOV 12, 2020

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