Meet Rhonda Williams: Historian, Author, and Mentor

December 01, 2008

Photo credit: Anthony Gray

Rhonda Williams, a 2002–03 fellow, understands the importance of women’s voices: those who are underrepresented in society due to race and class, those who are seeking support as they pursue higher education, and even those who can provide support and guidance for her as she moves through her multifaceted and ambitious career in academia.

In 2004, Rhonda published her first monograph, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality. The project aimed to give voice to low-income women, who are often “missing from historical documents and political discourse.” The book “gets underneath the caricatures and stereotypes” to explain the complex living situations of women in public housing. It also explores how women in these situations gain dignity and respect, as well as a political voice and economic stability. Rhonda hopes her book is accessible to anyone who picks it up. “I wanted to be able to reach people and draw them in to understand the situation [of public housing policy].”

One woman Rhonda interviewed was forced to move into public housing in Baltimore after a divorce that involved domestic abuse. Another woman interviewed revealed a “flowering burst of life” amid the concrete by cultivating a garden rich with tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables. “Someone who didn’t know her would just make assumptions about her,” explained Rhonda, adding that people often lump all public housing residents into one category without seeing the individual stories. These oral histories woven throughout the text help drive the narrative of Rhonda’s monograph.

While working on the book, Rhonda was awarded an AAUW fellowship, so she was able to spend more uninterrupted time on her research and writing. The publication of the book acted as a springboard to promotion and tenure for Rhonda. She accepted a tenure-track position in Case Western Reserve University’s history department, where she has recently spearheaded several programs aimed at supporting African American scholarship. Rhonda is also leading a social justice initiative that looks at “how people think about social justice, what scholarship in this area is already happening on campus, and how to create thematic programming around social justice.”

Rhonda is currently working on a second book, focusing on illicit narcotics hustling (mostly) in urban
America after World War II through the lenses of race, class, and gender. It encompasses three main areas: street drug culture, the politics surrounding drug use, and the effect of drugs on cultural production.

Rhonda recognizes that she could not take on all these ambitious tasks alone. She says she often relies on others for advice and support. “Finding a mentor who will provide you with thoughtful and frank wisdom, and expose their own wounds, will help carry you a long way.”


  1. Sharon Milligan says:

    Rhonda Williams is engaged in inspiring work to understand historical and present-day issues. Her work on women in public housing should be required reading for anyone interested in helping women improve their lives.

  2. Virginia Williams says:

    Rhonda is very very dedicated to her work, it is a joy to see her created jucies flowing, great job Rhonda!

  3. Joelle Carter says:

    Rhonda’s work is every important and it is so important that AAUW continue to share these types of endeavors with the community-at-large. Despite many of the societal ills (e.g poverty, racism, sexism, hate, etc.) prevalent in our community (local and global); this type of research and writing appears not to be “sexy enough” for the larger society. Cheers, Rhonda!

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