Intention is Everything: Interview with Shanon Williams

February 6, 2017
By Marni Fritz

Often in anti-racist social movements, the work of women goes ignored.  Women work tirelessly behind the scenes, only to be represented by a man with a bull-horn. This erasure is exhausting and overwhelming.  In an effort to raise up the voices and anti-racist work of women in Pittsburgh, I am beginning a series that focuses on the fierce women who are taking ownership of their work, to discuss concepts of identity, what their work looks like, and how they make sure they are giving themselves the emotional attention they deserve.

p1090995Sitting in Every Day Cafe, a new coffee shop in Homewood, Shanon Williams opened up to me about youth, inclusion, identity and representation. “Access and inclusion make all the difference in the world. There are some very old power structures that really shouldn’t be in power anymore. We are at a point where young leaders should be leading but that isn’t happening.”

Shanon currently works for Ceasefire PA as their Campaign Coordinator, working with the youth in Pittsburgh, teaching them how to be advocates for their own rights. “We need to make sure our young adults have access to the same spaces that we do.” This requires getting the youth involved. “We try to get them experience as well, beyond just training. If there is an opportunity to attend a protest or sit in at a meeting or be in front of a particular power structure, we invite them.”  The program concludes with a trip to Harrisburg in order to advocate with their representatives for different policies addressing gun violence.

Shanon stresses the importance of inclusion of those directly affected by issues in Pittsburgh. “We need to make sure that planning spaces are representative of the community that lives there: age, race, ethnicity, gender. There are several situations where there are meetings where progress and input are talked about, but there is no genuine input from the community. It’s transparent. It’s damaging. It’s violent and it is dangerous.

When asked to expand on her definition of violence, Shanon replied: “I identify violence as anything that imposes any level of trauma or dysfunction on any person or group of people. Taking away someone’s housing- that is violence. Imposing a negative image or stereotype upon someone- that is violence.”

Shanon currently serves on the Community Police Relations Implementation Group. Her focus: restructuring the power in the room away from elected officials, police and the department of justice, and focusing it on those most affected in the community

The community is not me. I know how to convene meetings with people in power and I have the power of an organization backing me.  But Janay down the street, who works at the Rite- Aid, doesn’t know who they are or what they do. She’s concerned with the same issues that we all have and has opinions like we all do. If she wants to be at the table, she deserves a spot.”

Shanon describes her experiences in these spaces as one of exclusion and dismissal.  “It’s not easy being the only black woman in these spaces. It’s a daily struggle figuring out what that means and who I am.”

Diversity is one buzz word that’s emphasized, but Shanon says we need more than diversity because it’s easy to tokenize marginalized groups in these spaces.  We should be talking about inclusivity, access and power, not just diversity.  “If we are not careful it is easy to be used for what you look like to push someone else’s agenda.”

Shanon describes the struggle between the fear of being portrayed as the “angry black girl” and embracing the label because she knows she’s standing up for herself. “There is no separation of the two. I need to take up space; otherwise I am not allowed the level of respect in rooms I am in.”

Shanon is also an organizer in the community. Around the time of the election, children of color began experiencing an increase in bullying and the use of racial slurs from their peers and adults. As a reaction, the Woodland Hills football team decided to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick as a protest against systemic racism. Some parents in the district and beyond berated the children using racial slurs.

In response to the violence, Shanon began making contacts. With the help of  Dustin Gibson, the action Stand With Woodland Hills began to form. In solidarity with the students. a group of people showed up at a Woodland Hills football game to kneel in recognition of structural injustice. It was a beautiful moment of support. “They [the youth] shouldn’t feel bad about what they did. They shouldn’t feel as though they are not able to or that it’s dangerous to stand up for what they believe in.”

Regarding Pittsburgh police-community relations, Shanon noted that “Chief McLay has had a lot of impact in terms of community relations, race relations, and implicit biases by opening up the conversation. But we have a long way to go.”

Shanon went on to describe such efforts as an attempt to educate the community on the position police are in, but not necessarily to explicitly address racism on the institutional level. Events like pizza with children in Homewood sound great, but what the children really need is to understand how to work through public safety issues with the police. Consultation with the youth who frequently come in contact with police is needed. “They speak on their successes with youth engagement but there are no kids at the table.”

Self-care and identity are intertwined for Shanon. “Socially, in general, it’s difficult being a black woman anywhere. So I think about what identity is because it’s so heavy and incorrect that it’s hard to know what it is and who I am.”

“I would like to add that the role of Black men in support of black women is so conditional that it becomes damaging. This, for the simple fact that we literally dedicate our lives to the lives and well being of Black men, first, and Black people second. We support them with everything we have. We brave social justice issues, systemic racism, familial and communal dysfunction, and we do this all in love in loyalty to our men, but when it’s the other way around, they are nowhere to be found. We are tired. Tired of having to be strong, alone. Tired of being scared. Tired of being angry, alone. We are alone and that’s a problem. That is violence.”

It’s emotionally draining to deal with these dynamics in both the personal and professional spheres. “I was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which I have only recently began internalizing. It can be painful to be in social situations sometimes. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster.” Shanon emphasizes healthy habits in her daily life including diet, exercise and knowing when she needs to separate herself socially. “I make sure the people I surround myself with treat me right. The people you surround yourself with can really affect you. I separate them out based on intention and honesty.”

“In reference to my mental health diagnosis, I want to also stress how difficult it is to seek help and support for mental health in Black communities, because it’s simply not acknowledged. Thank goodness that more people are speaking out about it and it is becoming normalized, but it took for me to show up on my mom’s door step, in tears, and no clue why or what was happening, for her to begin to come around to understanding that it is a real thing.

“We have so little understanding of mental health, and yet, we are so heavily affected by it. We don’t even realize that mental health plays a major role in a lot of our engagement with others, resiliency, and social aptitude. We go through life, once again, alone. Only this time, it’s all of us. Perhaps even more for our men, because they are expected to be covered in hyper masculinity at all times. That’s a barrier to our healing that is being addressed and hopefully will continue to be addressed, until we are healed and no longer a culture of perpetual trauma.”


Marni Fritz is the Director of Communications and the NewPeople Coordinator for the Thomas Merton Center. Her energy is focused on anti-racism and intersectional feminism.


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