MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Damon Williams, 42, returned home to be closer to his family after two decades in Washington and San Francisco.
He built up a lengthy resume with various nonprofit and housing agencies in two of the largest cities in America. Unsurprisingly, Williams was optimistic about his job prospects – that did not last.
“There was a lot of ‘your resume is great. Love to have you, but you’re overqualified,‘” Williams said. “I understand what that is. A lot of it was also around who do you know to be able to get an interview. It was challenging.”
As the job search continued, Williams saw an opening for the vacant executive director position with the Frayser Community Development Corp. Former director Steve Lockwood, in the position 18 years, announced his upcoming retirement in February.
After writing a “pretty personal” cover letter and pushing for a conversation about what his vision would be if selected, Williams’ luck began to change.
Selected by the nonprofit’s board in July to fill the vacancy, Williams now runs Frayser CDC, one of the largest neighborhood nonprofit organizations in Memphis.
It’s largely credited for improving the housing market over the past decade in one of the city’s most significant African American neighborhoods. The organization wants to continue improving Frayser’s trajectory upward.
“If I could imagine my dream job, this would be it,” Williams said.
Williams spent his childhood in Westwood and Whitehaven gaining a curiosity about the way things were in his hometown.
A Whitehaven High graduate, he developed his civic-mindedness at Doubletree Elementary. Through his elementary school principal, Williams regularly attended political campaign events with classmates.
“As a little kid, I would watch the news and just kind of connect the dots,” Williams said. “I saw there was a level of inequity in Memphis. Even as a young kid, things always seemed to boil down to race in Memphis. As a young kid, that definitely had an impact just how things varied depending on your ZIP code.”
When Williams left Memphis to attend the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, he joined various community organizations hoping to find his calling.
“That’s how I got exposure to the nonprofit and political world,” Williams said. “I started thinking about why I’m here. What things I really care about. Really for me, it was helping people. One of the things that really bothers me is when I see people being treated unfairly or discrepancies in the way people are receiving services.”
After graduating from UT-Chattanooga with a degree in nonprofit management, Williams moved to Washington.
Four years later in 2006, Williams entered the housing world as a housing trainer, and later program coordinator, with Housing Counseling Services in D.C. His job duties were to understand and inform the public about fair housing and down-payment assistance programs.
“It made me more passionate about what I did and stretched the importance of what we did,” Williams said. “I think it made me better, because in a small way, we were fighting a small piece of injustice.”
Since he can remember, Williams wanted to live in California. While pursuing a doctorate in nonprofit management, many of the schools that offered that program were in his dream state.
In 2012, he moved to San Francisco to pursue a doctorate and is currently writing his discretion. He previously got his master’s in nonprofit management from University of Maryland Global Campus in 2006.
During his time in San Francisco, he worked at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic as an associate director of property management. Among his duties, was managing a portfolio of homes available to the recently homeless.
One of the biggest lessons Williams learned through his work in D.C. and San Francisco was the potential impact of reinvestment into undeserved communities if done the “right way.”
“I saw it done the wrong way and I’ve seen it done the right way,” he said. “What I think is the right way is when you redevelop a community with the intent of making the improvement for the people who currently live there.”
Wanting to be closer to his mom, watch his nieces grow up and not be a “distant” uncle, Williams returned to Memphis earlier this year.
After initial struggles in his job search, Williams became a finalist for the Frayser CDC executive director role.
Williams said the idea of revitalizing a neighborhood in Memphis in the ways he saw it done at his previous stops was attractive.
“I love Memphis,” he said, on what attracted him to this role. “I really do, but it’s always been a concern how minority communities – specifically Black communities – are not provided resources that they are entitled to and should have.”
For Frayser CDC board chairman Geoff Lewis, actively involved in the search, Williams’ energy and poise stood out.
“Steve (Lockwood) was great,” said Lewis, an MLG&W lawyer. “But with new people come new ideas, so it’s good to hear something new, something different perspective.” He said Williams “seems like a real poised person. Specifically, for CDC work, we have to deal with a lot of different government entities, different officials and (he) seems like a good fit to work with them.”
Lockwood, 70, will stay on full-time through October to help with the transition and plans to still be involved with the CDC in a part-time role assisting the nonprofit on longer-term projects.
“His personality is significantly different than mine, but his motivation and outlook is not very different than mine,” Lockwood said. “He’s kind of quieter. He said when we hired him, (that) he’s a listener. So, he doesn’t run and jump around and tell people what to do real fast. He ponders on stuff and let’s things develop.”
Lockwood, who became a Frayser advocate over his long tenure, is playing a key part in introducing Williams as the new face of the CDC. Right now, it’s challenging because instead of introducing him at in-person events, it’s through Zoom calls.
“It would be a little easier if distancing were not in place,” Lockwood acknowledges.
Williams plans to focus on the important CDC initiatives like improving home ownership in Frayser and attracting new businesses and economic development. Though, he admits it’s a bigger role than even succeeding on those fronts.
“I can’t say that I’m doing outreach in the community, but I’m not connected to all of the churches in the area,” Williams said. “And letting them know about services and programs and making sure their parishioners are aware of services that are in the neighborhood.”
One goal of Williams’ is for people to identify specific areas of the neighborhood where the Frayser CDC made a direct impact, a mindset he’s had since he was a child.
“I would like to see people in the community exercise and utilize the equity they built from home ownership to start businesses, investment or reinvestment in the community,” Williams said.
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