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Alumni Spotlight: Marcia McWalker-Williams

May 3, 2022
Marcia Walker-McWilliams
The best thing about libraries? "The sense of possibility," says alumna Marcia Walker-McWilliams.

Northwestern University alumna Marcia Walker-McWilliams (BS06) is executive director of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium at the University of Chicago and the author of Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality. She is also a board member of the Digital Public Library of America.  

What is the Black Metropolis Research Consortium?
We’re an association of libraries, museums, community and arts groups and cultural heritage organizations throughout Chicago that all have Black historical collections. Twenty-two organizations, including Northwestern, are members. We provide fellowships to support academic scholars, writers, and artists, and we have an internship program that exposes students of color to working in libraries, museums, and archives.

What convinced you to study at Northwestern?
The weekend sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. We were paired with Black student mentors—rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We followed them around and I just thought they were so cool and really smart. And the campus was beautiful. After that weekend, I was sold.

Why the double major in social policy at SESP and African American Studies?  
African American Studies gave me a historical lens and SESP grounded me in discussions about policy and bureaucracy and relationships and how you move things forward. I also liked the smaller environment within the African American Studies Department, that feeling of mentorship that I got with the faculty where they knew my name and were interested in the same kinds of questions as I was.

How has the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movement changed your work?
There's more focus on sustaining the work and the people that do the work. It’s also paying attention to structures that support the efforts, and how they need to change, bend or be completely revised. Our goal is to help people understand, through engagement with historical sources, the diversity of the Black experience.  

What intrigued you most about Addie Wyatt, the subject of your book? 
She was working progressively within her church and her ministry to promote women's equality, not just in the workplace but as part of the women’s movement. In the ‘60s and ‘70s that also meant she was involved in civil rights activities in Chicago and the south. I was fascinated that she was doing the work in all those spaces and she continued to do that work, despite a lot of pushback.  

What was your late mother’s experience in the labor movement?  
My mom, Jerry Walker, worked as a nurse's assistant at a nursing home facility and was elected to be their shop steward, or the person you go to if you have a grievance. She was really great at it, even though there was a racialized context to it all: Most of the nursing assistants were Black women while the nurses and doctors were white.  

Did she pass along any lessons?  
My mom raised the four of us as a single parent. After a long day of work, she made sure we had supper and did our homework. Then she’d bust out her briefcase to begin working on her grievance notes. As a young child, I recognized this was additional work she was doing, work that made her feel valuable, right? She was trying to make her workplace better. I inherited that sort of understanding and desire to continue that work in some way. 

Who influenced you at Northwestern?
My advisor Mark Hoffman (now associate director for academic advising and enrollment for SESP’s master’s in higher education administration and policy program) was interested not only in my development as a student, but how I was doing as a human being. That was novel to me as an undergraduate. I’m also thankful I was able to interact with and learn from Martha Biondi, Lorraine H. Morton Professor of African American Studies.

What are you currently reading?
A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump by Lonnie Bunch III. I'm a big fan of Secretary Bunch and all the work that it took to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

What’s the best thing about libraries?
The sense of possibility. When you step inside, there’s nothing there but opportunity.