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  February 25, 2002

Soul Food an Important Ingredient
of Williams' Life, Work
By Jim Smith

Herbertia Williams' Sunday rituals are immutable. They were established in her childhood and she depends upon them, each week, to remind her who she is and where she came from, to nourish her whole being.

First there is morning church service. Then there is the big dinner of soul food she prepares for her "family."

They are not the family she grew up with. That family is back home. The folks who break bread with Williams on Sundays are friends who know she is one of the best cooks they've ever met. Why's that? Because what she spreads on the table exemplifies all that "soul food" means for her: history, tradition, the good things in life.

It's serious food. But then Williams, associate dean of students, is a serious person. The lessons of both church and soul food, she will tell you, have informed her entire life. They are lessons she took with her to school and - after graduating from the University of Virginia and earning a J.D. at George Mason University in 1994 - to a career that began in 1995, when she was named director of judicial affairs and mediation services at the American University in Washington, D.C.

For one thing, her life is remarkably focused. "From the time I was eight, I told my family I would be a lawyer," she says. No one in her family was surprised when she lived up to that prediction. Her sisters - one older and one younger - made similar early predictions about becoming a doctor and a dentist, and that's exactly what they did.

What's most remarkable, perhaps, is not that Williams and her siblings have all achieved successful careers in challenging fields. It's that they did so against significant odds.

Williams was just three years old when her father, a mail carrier, died suddenly, leaving her mother, Gloria, to bring up three little girls by herself in inner city Richmond, Va. Though Mrs. Williams would be compelled to shoulder that responsibility on her salary as a government contract specialist (supplemented by her husband's modest pension), she never had a moment of doubt about her ability to take care of her daughters. Faith, she knew, would give her the courage to see that her daughters did not fall victim to the many traps and dead ends to which far too many disadvantaged urban children succumb.

"My mother was determined that we would make something of ourselves," Williams says. Toward that end she told her daughters they would succeed in school and they would not be distracted. Growing up, the Williams sisters had little time for anything other than school, church or rest. "If my mom saw us fooling around or wasting time, she'd say, 'Someone else is reading and studying right now. Don't you think you should be reading a book?'" says Williams.

The lessons sunk in. Not only was each of the girls an outstanding scholar, but they learned enduring lessons about discipline and hard work that have paid off throughout their lives. "My mother demanded a lot of us, but she is also a fair and caring person," Williams adds.

It is that complementary set of values that have made her successful in both of the jobs she has held since graduating from law school. When she went to law school, she imagined that instead of practicing law after graduation she would teach. Instead, a series of short-term opportunities - a summer internship that immersed her in public service law, a clerkship with a judge; and a semester at Regents College in London, where she was also a hall director responsible for 100 American students - set her on the trajectory that has defined her career.

As associate dean of students at UConn, her responsibilities are primarily to mediate student disputes and discipline students for a wide range of violations of both law and the university's honor code. It was a career track she never expected to take, but over the past six years she has found that she is, in fact, a teacher.

She speaks often of "teachable moments," those situations where an individual has made a mistake and there is an opportunity for him or her to learn from it and grow. "Most important epiphanies happen because of mistakes," she says. "We have standards that we must abide by, but that doesn't mean that if we violate those standards there is no hope for redemption. My job is to be fair, but demanding, just the way my mother was with us. I love my work."

But she also loves her hobbies, including cooking, which she did not embark upon until she was 27. A workaholic, who usually ate at restaurants, she was forced to change her lifestyle when she learned that she had diabetes and hypertension. She was also determined that her life would not be only about her career.

So she immersed herself in soul food cuisine with the same passion and energy that she brings to every new challenge. Trying to replicate the stick-to-your-ribs food she'd always enjoyed during summers on her grandparents' farm in North Carolina, she was also determined to create delicious dishes that would not stick to her arteries.

What she discovered was there are many ways to create delicious dishes that are low in salt and fat. She became so good at it, in fact, that friends and family members turn to her for recipes now. In January, she presented a "Nouveau Soul Food Demonstration" in Putnam dining hall as part of a day of culinary events presented by the University's Department of Dining Services.

"Soul food," she says, "is about cooking with love. When I prepare a meal for my friends, I am celebrating the heritage of black people, how my ancestors assimilated the basic foods they had to work with and created an authentic cuisine. It is a tribute to my family and the important gifts I was given as a child."

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