Balancing a Ph.D. Program and the New York City Council

March 23, 2022

Nantasha Williams, who joined the New York City Council this year, credits her professors with giving her support and encouragement at a critical time.

Nantasha Williams City Council
Nantasha Williams (courtesy of Williams)

In fall 2020, when Nantasha Williams decided to run for New York’s City Council, she faced a tough decision: whether or not she should stay in the Ph.D. Program in Social Welfare. She told Professor Harriet Goodman, her mentor and the program’s executive officer, that she wouldn’t be able to enroll in any classes that semester, because she would be campaigning. Goodman convinced her to take her dissertation seminar, at least — she could catch up on everything else. “She encouraged me,” Williams said in an interview conducted via Zoom from her district office. “Just encouraged me to move forward and not to underestimate my abilities to get the work done.”

The encouragement that Williams received — not just from Goodman but from other professors, family, and friends — led her to decide to remain in the program while running for office. During the day she would make fundraising calls, or have interviews with unions, or work at her job for the JFK Redevelopment Program, where she managed community relations and external affairs. Her evenings were dedicated to knocking on doors in southeastern Queens — every single night, in all kinds of weather — and to candidate forums. The work paid off. On November 2, 2021, at the age of 33, Williams was elected to represent the 27th district on the City Council.

That wasn’t her first election. In 2016, Williams sought a seat in the New York State Assembly. Although she lost in the Democratic primary, the experience “really opened my eyes to the importance of local government,” Williams said. “Getting involved in the local community after I didn’t win, and wanting to really build upon a lot of the things that I said that I wanted to do while I was running for the assembly seat ... I worked hyper local in my community, and that was really exciting and I learned a lot.”

In the years that followed, Williams was often asked to run for office again. Getting pushed by others was a large part of what motivated her to give it another try; the other major factor was what had led her to the Ph.D. program in the first place: an interest in the policies that either enhance or limit our ability to help people in need. Raised by a single mother who was a social worker for the city for 37 years, Williams grew up with the idea that she should think of others rather than herself. “I’ve always had an interest in improving the welfare conditions for marginalized folks, for folks that look like me, and making sure that people can live a great life and they aren’t overburdened by the many discriminatory practices that have plagued us for so long,” she said.

Yet even as Williams decided to stay in the program and to work on her dissertation, which focuses on social movements, public policy, and racial justice, she has continued to fight against the feeling that she isn’t that “scholarly.” The positive feedback she received during her second-year defense affected her deeply: “Sometimes you don’t really see yourself,” she said. This encouragement and reaffirming of a student’s worth and potential, Williams said, is “the unspoken work that I think professors and other school faculty members and staff do that you don’t really think about — the social and emotional support they provide.” Her mentor has helped many students like her before, Williams said. “I have had the opportunity to get to know Harriet. I know tons of students have had that opportunity. And I know there’s probably hundreds more Harriets across the CUNY system.”

For her part, Goodman calls Williams extraordinary. As a student, Williams is “constantly taking in information and integrating it into the work. She’s very engaged in her own learning. She’s fearless,” Goodman said. And as a politician, Williams is “very interested in how you put together people who may have different points of view, because her objective is to get things done.” Goodman and Professor Jason VanOra (Psychology), another one of Williams’ advisers, rotate weekly meetings with Williams, which they are willing to schedule in the evenings, sometimes while cooking dinner, if that’s what fits into Williams’ extremely busy days. “The willingness of faculty members at the Graduate Center to support students who have great promise through all sorts of problems or who have other pressures on their lives — it’s what people do at the Graduate Center,” Goodman said. “I don’t know where else that happens.”

Even with all this support, Williams said it is still hard to manage her time. “I’m actually behind right now in turning in my draft of my dissertation proposal,” she said. “I don’t want to lie to people and make it seem like it’s easy.” However, she said, while the challenge she’s facing is possibly unique, CUNY understands that many of its students are nontraditional. “The nature of CUNY is to assist students that have to work — even in undergrad, you might have to work, to support your family and go to school — and I think they provide so many opportunities to all types of students to matriculate, to get an education, and to feel scholarly, to feel a part of a system that oftentimes doesn’t really reflect and/or have the flexibility to support a student like me.”

Williams has only been in her new job for a little over two months, she notes; she is still in the adjustment period. Going forward, it might become easier to manage her time. And the effort is well worth it, because she is getting a chance to pursue her ultimate goal: making government more inclusive. Deliberative democracy is “tough and annoying and convoluted,” but it is also a necessity. “The average person is really not part of the decision-making process,” Williams said. “Wanting to find ways to increase the civic engagement apparatus in New York City is so critical, because with that I feel we can address a lot of the issues. There’s a saying that those that are closest to the pain are also closest to the solutions. They know what they need.” Her intention is to make sure those voices are included and heard.


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