Rising Star in Community Building: Aaron Williams

Congratulations to Aaron Williams, Committee Chairman, Young Friends of The Ville and 4theVille Team Member, recipient of our 2019 Rising Star in Community Building Award!

The Rising Star in Community Building Award recognizes an individual who:

  • Demonstrates dedication to and passion for the community building sector.

  • Exhibits leadership, vision, and a commitment to action and results.

  • Shows promising potential to achieve outstanding impact in community building policy, investment, or community change.

Humans of St. Louis storyteller Maleeha Samer sat down with Aaron to learn more about his work and what it means to him. Here’s some of what he had to share.

Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams

“The first time I met some longstanding community members of The Ville, we hung out at their house for a bar-b-que. We had a little brotherhood and sisterhood smoke. Mind you, these are women that are the age of my grandparents or oldest aunts and uncles, and we hung out for about three hours talking about everything and nothing. And that built the bond we needed to try out some things as a community-based group. We’re definitely not a success story right now, but we’re moving and we were able to trust each other quickly. Us three, along with our other team members, were willing to put in the time to get to know one another and build worthwhile relationships instead of just doing the work right away. Now I’ve known them for close to two years, and we feel comfortable telling each other that we love one another. That, to me, is important, especially because I’m not a touchy-feely guy. When this 60-plus year-old woman tells me she loves me, my typical reaction would be, ‘Thank you,’ or to cringe a little bit. But I feel comfortable saying it back, and that’s a testament of where we are and what we’ve built together.”

- Aaron Williams, Committee Chairman, Young Friends of The Ville, and 4theVille Team Member

Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams

“I learned about The Ville when I was at Washington University in St. Louis. My freshman year, I took a class with Bob Hansman called Community Building, Building Communities. And then I became his teaching assistant for two years. That class always stops in the neighborhood, and I was attracted to this place because I grew up in a similar historic black neighborhood in Kansas City called the 18th and Vine district. The more I came, the more I learned, the more I got engaged. It reminded me of home. And I knew that if I were home, I’d be pouring myself into 18th and Vine. But I’m in Saint Louis, so I’m pouring into The Ville, my second home. Most people here are middle-aged or senior citizens, and I appreciate that. When I come here, it’s like talking to my grandparents. There’s this traditional way of respecting elders by listening to what they say and trying to make something out of it. So I’ll sit out here at the Northside Community Housing Office or at people’s houses and listen to them sometimes complain or sometimes just dream. And that helps me realize we already have everything we need here in The Ville. There’s a lot of talent here and a very experienced community, and that’s what’s driven what we’ve gotten done – creating with their thoughts, their pain, their concerns, and their vision. At this point, it’s more a matter of changing the outside world’s perspective of this area and deconstructing the negative stereotypes so people will start paying more attention to it and investing more of themselves into it.”

- Aaron Williams, Co-Chairman, Ville Collaborative

Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams

“Community means safety. It’s a place where you can let your hair down, let your guard down, and say what you really think and feel about whatever the topic may be. In The Ville, conversations usually revolve around how this region has never valued things that were created by this community. The level of expertise in the The Ville - Greater Ville and the beauty that was coming out of this neighborhood didn’t matter. They’ve just always been residual. And that’s why we brainstorm ways to circumvent that perspective and regenerate this place now... we don’t want to wait for the big developer to come here. We don’t want to wait for the City to say, ‘Momentum is going in that direction now. We should probably do something in The Ville.’ We want to remain the same little island that everybody thinks we are and create value, restore dignity, and invest in this place off of the strength of what it is. That’s it. And that’s the comfort that you find in this community.”

- Aaron Williams, Board Member, Northside Community Housing, Inc.

Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams

“Maybe this is a fault of mine, but I love bending or breaking rules. Maybe that’s why I don’t get caught up in trying to be on the right side of history. I would love to see this region adopt that way of moving more often. Let’s have some arguments. Let’s talk about the elephants in the room. We don’t have to attack each other and hate each other afterward. Everyone can contribute. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have or how much street cred you have. This region needs to do a better job of not being afraid of discourse. We polarize too easily, and instead of trying to understand things and seek innovative solutions, we’re afraid to step on toes. I’ve run into white people who are afraid to give their suggestions about The Ville because they don’t want to offend anyone. No! Tell me exactly what you’re thinking. It might be helpful.”

- Aaron Williams, Urban Land Institute St. Louis - Urban Plan Committee

“One thing that this region can do is stop celebrating people before their work is done. We are quick to call somebody an expert, or praise them for what they said without doing our homework, and actually seeing if they execute on what they say. Personally, I avoid awards. I avoid leadership programs. I avoid them because I don’t want that kind of attention, especially when I feel the work that I’m trying to do is not done. It was hard for me to accept this award from Community Builder’s Network. I asked if there were a way I could defer to someone else, because accepting it breeds mediocrity to me, when we actually need to push people to do better, do more. Acknowledge your shortcomings and ignorance and then seek out groups that can help you improve them. Don’t just be content with sticking with what you know and what makes you comfortable. I hate saying that, too, because I hate buzzwords. It’s like ‘comfortable space,’ ‘lean in,’ and ‘equity.’ But, I am human, and after you hear them so much, you start adopting the language. Show up. That’s really what people need to do. That’s the one thing we talk about a lot in Young Friends of The Ville, and when we started we didn't have the silver bullet or the answer. We decided we were really just here to listen and see where we can fit in. We’d have to raise money for the North Side because that’s what a young professional group does. But outside of that, it’s just figuring out where we can be helpful and stepping into that role.”

- Aaron Williams, Committee Chairman, Young Friends of The Ville


We hope you can join us to celebrate community builders like Aaron at our 7th Annual Community Building Awards on April 11!


Photostory by Humans of St. Louis and Maleeha Samer. Photostory narratives represent the opinions of the speaker(s) featured only and do not necessarily represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.