Karen Williams, a Ward 7 public servant with a penchant for collaboration, died on Christmas Day. She was 74.
Williams, a former State Board of Education (SBOE) representative and onetime president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association (HCCA), leaves behind her husband, four children and a litany of grandchildren.
She also lives on in the memories of Ward 7 residents and District leaders who, in the days since her death, continue to express gratitude for her decades of service.
In speaking about his late wife, Earl Williams said that upon their move to Hillcrest in the late 1990s, he followed her lead in the realm of community involvement.
He recounted instances when she volunteered her home for community functions, including a Ward 7 Democrats event last year.
Williams said that neighbors, young and old, often visited their home and confided in his late wife about a bevy of issues.
“The Hillcrest community and Ward 7 at large was one of the most important things to Karen, next to her family,” he said.
Wednesday, Dec. 28 would’ve marked 26 years of marital bliss for the Williamses.
Shortly after they set up roots in Hillcrest, Karen Williams joined HCCA. She soon started assuming leadership roles within HCCA and garnered a reputation for her humility, vast knowledge of education issues and eagerness to establish bonds between Hillcrest residents and District residents in other communities.
“We got a legacy of service from Karen,” Williams said.
“We learned that if you want a vibrant, safe, educated community, you have to participate. You can’t wait for someone else to do it. You have to step up. What you do dictates what your community looks like.”
A Life of Service to Ward 7
Williams, born and raised in Ward 8, graduated from Ballou Senior High School in 1966. She later attended The George Washington University where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in elementary special education.
During the 1970s, she served as an officer in the U.S. National Park Service, becoming one of the first women to do so. An injury later relegated Williams to a desk, from where she helped establish a partnership with the Special Olympics and launch the U.S. National Park Service’s community relations unit.
In the realm of education, Williams worked as a special education teacher at Stanton Elementary School and executive director at Big Mama’s Child Development Center, both located in Southeast.
In 2012, Williams was elected to the Ward 7 seat on the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE) — an entity that had recently become independent of the Office of the Superintendent of Education.
As a Ward 7 state board representative, Williams helped launch the SBOE’s Student Advisory Committee, through which District students could weigh in on policy issues. She also worked with her SBOE colleagues to create a District-wide initiative centered on teacher retention. Another achievement of note includes the development of “No Child Left Behind” waivers and graduation requirements, along with the state diploma for students who completed the GED and NEPD programs.
While on the newly independent state board, Williams also collaborated with her SBOE colleagues to create systems that raised the agency’s prominence as a resource for students and parents.
Fulfilling that goal, in part, required the creation of an SBOE executive team. It also called for Williams and others to hire and work with Dr. Faith Gibson Hubbard and Joyanna Smith to establish the Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education and the Office of the Student Advocate, respectively.
For Gibson Hubbard, who sat at the helm of the Office of the Student Advocate between 2015 and 2019, Williams’ spirit of collaboration shined in moments of conflict.
Gibson Hubbard said that, despite their periodic differences of opinion, Williams respected her viewpoints and encouraged her to fulfill her vision for the Office of the Student Advocate.
After Gibson Hubbard’s transition to the Executive Office of the Mayor, she and the former SBOE representative maintained contact, with Williams expressing interest in the early childhood education issues Gibson Hubbard would tackle as executive director of Thrive by Five DC.
Gibson Hubbard said Williams later supported her family during the birth of her daughter, and this past spring when Gibson Hubbard announced her run for the Ward 5 D.C. Council seat.
In the District’s politically polarizing climate, Gibson Hubbard said that Williams’ legacy will be her unique ability to unite people around a common goal, regardless of political and ideological differences.
“There has been a lot of growth on the state board, especially in the way the board is respected and seen as a true partner in the realm of education,” Gibson Hubbard said.
“That came from Karen’s work. There was no road map. Karen had to navigate through uncharted waters and operationalize [the independence] of the state board. She worked to professionalize the board in ways that hadn’t happened before.”
In 2020, Williams lost her SBOE re-election bid. On her campaign’s Facebook page, she congratulated her opponent and eventual successor, Eboni-Rose Thompson, then the chair of the Ward 7 Education Council.
Thompson, who currently represents Ward 7 on SBOE, said Williams’ demeanor throughout the campaign spoke not only to their longtime relationship, but Williams’ love for the Ward 7 community.
In acknowledging Williams’ work on the SBOE, Thompson said her predecessor always stood prepared to groom young talent and help out in any capacity, even if not as the leader.
One instance Thompson recounted happened in the early days of the pandemic when Williams volunteered with the Ward 7 COVID Response Team. For weeks, Williams manned the phone every morning and connected quarantined Ward 7 residents to vital resources.
“Literally if not for Karen, there wouldn’t be someone to answer that phone,” Thompson said.
“It wasn’t about how she could be seen. It was about serving others. I’m grateful to her and the type of work she did.”
A Champion for Young Adults
The Hillcrest neighborhood, located in Southeast along the D.C.-Maryland line, consists primarily of single-family homes with 19th-century architecture similar to houses in neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park.
In late 2019, the Hillcrest Community Civic Association celebrated its 30th anniversary. That milestone followed several iterations of Hillcrest Day, an annual fall event that brought together community members of various ages.
Amid the planning for these events, Williams facilitated long-lasting multigenerational connections with young adults who lived in Hillcrest.
For nearly a decade, Toya Carmichael, an attorney and hospital executive who once lived in Hillcrest, grew close to Earl and Karen Williams, who she would come to regard as surrogate parents. Under Karen Williams’ leadership, Carmichael planned the Hillcrest Community Civic Association 30th anniversary celebration and other functions in the years preceding the pandemic.
Carmichael described those moments with the Williams’ as the best part of the Hillcrest experience, especially when, like other young adults, she had questions about how to tap into District resources.
“Karen didn’t micromanage,” Carmichael said.
“She stayed on top of things to make sure they got done well and she was straightforward. She respected me as an adult, professional and neighbor. I enjoyed working with her.”
Similarly, Jimmie Williams, a longtime Penn Branch resident and president of the Washington Literacy Center, said he remembers the late Williams for her commitment to District residents living east of the Anacostia River.
Williams recalled meeting the late Williams, no relation, while serving as president of the Penn Branch Community Association. The two would form a close bond, with the late Williams even becoming an aunt to Williams’ adopted son.
In 2016, the former SBOE representative joined the advisory committee board of the Washington Literacy Center. In that role, she worked up until her last days to ensure that the nonprofit stayed true to its mission of boosting literacy and workforce opportunities among District adults, especially those living in Wards 7 and 8.
The Washington Literary Center president said that more people needed to know about his friend and colleague’s tenacity. That’s why he served as her campaign manager during her SBOE re-election bid in 2020.
“Karen’s legacy was her consistency of advocating for the youth and making sure they and adults had opportunities,” Williams said.
“She was about building strong communities and blazing a path for people. She brought resources to the Hillcrest Community Civic Association meetings, like the mayor, community services or someone to talk about international travel for students,” he continued.
“She wanted to make sure residents had access to resources, understood the inner workings of the city and, most importantly, knew their neighbors.”