When Sir Williams came to Madison to attend UW-Madison Law School, it was his first time living away from his mother’s home on Chicago’s South Side, in a poor neighborhood called Englewood.
But Madison quickly grew on him, and here he not only got his law degree, he met his fiancée, fellow attorney Truscenialyn Brooks. He later became the law school’s director of admissions, helping decide who will attend school there, and for students, whether UW-Madison is right for them.
Williams, 33, grew up with his mother, a federal Railroad Retirement Board claims examiner, and two brothers. His father, who was a Cook County sheriff’s deputy, lived nearby, but apart from the family. Starting in fourth grade, Williams was bused to another school outside his neighborhood, and even at that young age, he could see how disadvantaged the school in his neighborhood was.
At Michael Byrne Elementary School he was among a diverse student body, different from his predominantly black neighborhood school.
His school, he said, “taught me that we’re all a lot more alike than we’re different. It’s really just a matter of figuring out how you’re connected and what you have in common.”
After high school at Whitney Young, a magnet school where the emphasis was on college prep, Williams attended Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, which was not only affordable, but also allowed him to stay at his mother’s home. He earned his tuition selling women’s shoes at a Nordstrom department store in downtown Chicago.
With a strong affinity for public service, Williams went to work after graduation for a program through AmeriCorps called Public Allies, a leadership apprenticeship program. During law school Williams was involved in the Prosecution Project, through which he had an internship with the Dane County District Attorney’s Office.
How did you end up here in Madison at the law school?
There was a girl I went to high school with who was up here in law school. She heard that I was applying to law school and she said she was having a good time and she liked it. Ultimately I came to Madison and visited and I just felt like it was a really great fit. It felt really warm and friendly. I was really concerned about the diversity, because when you think of Wisconsin, you don’t really think of it as being a diverse place, and I don’t think that’s wholly inaccurate. But it was a lot more diverse than I thought it would be.
Do you have any plans to ever go into prosecution in the future?
It’s not something I’ve completely ruled out. I went to law school with the goal of helping people. I really like to be helpful. But in admissions, I get to help a lot of people. And so being in this position now to help other people whose dream it is to become an attorney, helping to equip them with the tools and the knowledge and the guidance to reach that goal is a really powerful thing. I’ve always said that one of the biggest problems with our justice system is that there isn’t enough diversity. So being in the position to create a sort of pipeline, and to help people get in and get on track and get here, I think is really powerful.
What can you do in your job to foster diversity?
Being in this role, I have a seat at the table. I’m not the final decision maker but I know the people on the committee that make the final decision, so if I see something, I can share my experience and my perspective and I’d like to believe that can influence ultimately what happens. It’s not to say that everyone I think should get in gets in, but even being in the room and having that type of access, it really makes a difference.
Everyone probably asks you about your name. What’s the story?
It’s funny, I never asked my mother about it until my senior year of high school when my speech teacher said, “Go home and ask your mother why you’ve got this name or I’m going to give you an F.” So when I asked her, she said, “I wanted to give you a special name, and I thought Sir was very special.”
And I think it really did make a difference. With everyone calling me Sir, which is typically reserved for people deserving of respect, I think I’ve always felt a responsibility to be a Sir. To try and live up to that. I use “sir” very generously when I’m addressing other men and young men. And it’s easy for me, because everybody calls me Sir. But I think it really did have a role in shaping my personality.
Interview by Ed Treleven