Thad Williamson’s passion for creating social change and advocacy to improve the city of Richmond has always shown through in his classroom. Now, the University of Richmond professor and civic activist is running for the 5th District seat on the Richmond City Council.
When Williamson moved to the city to work at UR in 2005, he focused his efforts on publishing and teaching. But students in his Justice and Civil Society class, a course in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies that requires students to volunteer with a local nonprofit organization, influenced him to make a change.
“I had students saying, 'That’s great that you have us out in the community doing things, but what are you going to do?'” Williamson said.
Williamson, who teaches leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law, is running for the city council seat in a special election to be held on Nov. 5.
The winner will take office on Dec. 1 and finish the last 13 months of Parker Agelasto’s four-year term. Agelasto resigned in April after facing lawsuits because of his decision to move out of the district.
Although this is Williamson’s first campaign for public office, he is not new to public policy, Richmond City Hall, or balancing civic responsibilities with teaching.
In 2011, he took up his students’ charge and served as a member on then-Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ Anti-Poverty Commission and was the principal author of the commission’s report.
After that, Williamson served as the co-chair of the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty, which took steps to act on the commission’s recommendations.
The Maggie L. Walker Initiative created the Office of Community Wealth Building, which has worked to implement a comprehensive poverty reduction initiative that includes education, employment, housing and transportation. Williamson served as the first director of OCWB from June 2014 to May 2016.
Additionally, Williamson served as director of the mayoral transition team following the 2016 election and as a senior policy adviser in the office of Mayor Levar Stoney on a part-time basis from January 2017 to June 2018.
Serving the public means that Williamson has not published as much academic writing as he would like, something he said was a conscious trade-off. However, he believes his work within the city of Richmond has enhanced the classroom and that being a city councilman will only create more opportunities to improve his classes.
“Now I’m able to share what’s going on in real-time with students, whether it means talking about issues, bringing in classroom speakers, taking them to events and getting people to see how big issues of justice that I talk about in class also relate to the here and now in Richmond,” Williamson said.
Senior Sara Messervey has taken two classes with Williamson: Justice and Civil Society and Leadership in Political Contexts.
“What I love about him is his engagement with the community,” Messervey said.
Messervey is living off-campus in the 5th District this year and will be voting for Williamson, she said.
“He is dedicated to social justice,” Messervey said. “And I think that when you’re looking at someone who is running for office, and particularly local office, it’s really important to have someone who’s committed to helping everyone located within their district and making sure that they are covering the needs of everyone within their district.”
Junior TJ Tann has also taken Justice and Civil Society with Williamson. For Tann, the experience of volunteering in Gilpin Court, a public housing neighborhood in the city, and Williamson’s openness about issues of social justice made the course distinctive from any other class he has taken at UR.
“He’s a really honest dude,” Tann said. “And even before you talk about any of the politics or the goals that he has set in his vision for the 5th District -- I think before anything, he’s just a really good guy.”
Tann is spending the fall semester studying abroad in London, an experience that he said would be bittersweet.
“I did want to be on the ground to help him with his campaign,” Tann said.
For Timothy Hamilton, an economics professor at UR and a resident of the 5th District, poverty is an important issue in the election. Hamilton said he planned to vote for Williamson and that he was impressed with both Williamson's firsthand experience and objectivity.
“He comes at it from an academic background that is, based on what I’ve read and gathered talking to him, very analytical, very logical -- not just trying to appeal to emotions or anything,” Hamilton said.
Williamson said he had a desire to serve and a passion for making things happen. He also believes that we should all engage in using the skills we have to make a difference, something Williamson tries to emphasize to his students, he said.
“My ultimate reason for running is I’m deeply committed to helping the city of Richmond overcome its legacy of racism and inequality and really try to drive down poverty, improve education and improve the structure of opportunity for people here,” he said.
But even if Williamson does not become a city councilman, he will continue to work to improve the city, he said.
“I hope to win because I think I would be effective,” Williamson said. “If the people don’t pick me, that’s their prerogative. I’ll find ways to serve that same goal in other roles.”
Contact contributor Caroline Robelen at firstname.lastname@example.org.