Last week the Waring Prize Committee returned to campus to welcome Lee D. Williams '79, recipient of the 2018 prize, presented annually to an exceptional alumni brokering change in the world. Williams addressed the community in the Chapel, sharing insight and inspiration from his work on behalf of immigrants and refugees seeking asylum and refuge.
Williams, who works on the front lines of the immigration issue as Senior Vice President of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), was lauded by his nominating colleagues and by the Prize Committee for his civility, steady demeanor, and sustained and positive contributions to society.
"I am humbled and happy to have the chance to talk today," said Williams. "The real reason I came to Reserve is because of the love of my parents and their belief in education to better oneself. As a kid from Aurora, Reserve exposed me to a broader world. The choices I made in college and my career would not have happened if I hadn't come to the Academy."
Williams described his Reserve experience, including French classes with Madame Price, and how the school enabled him to live abroad, falling in love with language, travel and cultures. After WRA, he went to Georgetown, majored in Arabic, traveled to Cairo and drank in the world. He spent 18 years on Wall Street, helping investors enter into emerging markets.
But the compassionate DNA embedded in many Pioneers propelled him to his next career path. After his years in New York, Williams returned to Hudson and began to volunteer, initially as an ESL teacher, and then became a board member and executive director of the International Institute of Akron. Williams brought a businessperson's discipline and experience to the agency's work for immigrant and refugee resettlement in Ohio, and his leadership locally propelled his next chapter nationally.
Recognizing his contributions and passion, USCRI recruited Williams as its Vice President. The organization was founded in 1911 but its agenda remains resoundingly relevant. Through partner agencies and field offices, USCRI annually assists thousands of refugees in the U.S.,
finding them new housing, helping them navigate the new culture and connecting them with employment opportunities so that families can become self-sufficient as soon as possible.
"A person's life can be turned on its head quickly because of events going on around them," said Williams. "There are nearly 69 million people globally who have been displaced; if this was a country, it would be the 21st largest in the world."
Williams acknowledged how difficult it can be, from the secure pews of the Chapel and comforts of Hudson, to imagine the fear, quest for safety and daily uncertainty that characterizes a refugee's life. He illuminated sobering realities, like the 2.6 million people living in refugee camps, where the average stay is 25 years, making the camps, "multi-generational events." But he underscored the determination of refugees.
"Refugees succeed," he said. "They are entrepreneurial. They have experienced horrific things over the course of their lives. Their most fundamental want is to be somewhere safe, to provide for their families. And it is wonderful to see communities come together to help."
Listening to Williams describe the power of community, back in the midst of one that inspired him, was moving, as is his personal commitment to restoring freedom, dignity and independence for all people. "Everyone, everywhere, equal value" is the mantra of the USCRI, and has been espoused and modeled by Williams and his work.