Meet Kevin Williams: Superman, global citizen

By Timothy Den Herder-Thomas

Kevin Williams ’09 is a Jamaican from Brooklyn. He aspires to be Superman, sprints like the wind, and has a lot of shoes.He has been called Macalester’s bridge between multiculturalism and internationalism.

When he changed homelands, Williams said, the most immediate differences was going from no pets for years to being able to have 23 dogs, and realizing that 20 Jamaican dollars were only worth 50 cents.

In Jamaica, he dropped from 9th to 7th grade. “The education system is supposedly better in Jamaica than in New York City,” Williams said.

Williams said that he’s here at Macalester because the University of the West Indies is a dead end unless you want to be a lawyer or a doctor.

Williams sees the availability of opportunity throughout the American education system as a key asset.

When I asked him about life in Brooklyn, Williams said, “I heard gunshots and parties while trying to go to sleep.”

He lived on a block completely surrounded by projects, but the block itself was almost suburban. I was surprised to hear that this didn’t create much conflict.

“There seemed to be an understanding that you can’t do [vandalism, drugs, violence] here,” and a mutual respect between the very different communities.

Williams’s dad left the family when Williams was three. He grew up with a strong-willed single mother who worked as a secretary and took him with her to New York University when she went back for her undergraduate degree.

Williams said they never tried to run his father down for child support since he could barely support himself.

“It was inspiring for me because even though he wasn’t there, I managed to learn from his mistakes,” Williams said of his father.

When Williams transferred to a middle school in Manhattan, he got his first real experience with “white culture,” and racism.

“The principal wasn’t fond of black students coming out ahead of white students,” Williams said. “I’d raise my hand when no one else was, and they’d never call on me.”

When he told his mom, she was furious.

“That was the first time I saw my mom really go after something,” Williams said. “That’s how I became so tenacious. Within two weeks of her talking to the school board, the principal resigned. This kind of [discrimination] had happened before.”

In junior high, Williams started track and field. In Jamaica, he became the two-year champion of his school for 400- and 800-meter races. He once chased a bus for four entire stops when he was late to school.

In 1999, Williams’ mom married a long-time family friend named Derrick, who had always been the male role model in Williams’ life and one of his best friends.

Derrick moved the family to Jamaica to start a school for boys from low-income communities.

After spending a few years at a public school, Williams became the first and most advanced student in the new boys’ school.

The school often struggled with teaching proper English to poor, Patwa-speaking children. Patwa is a heavily slang-based Jamaican dialect.

Williams’ mother eventually returned to Brooklyn because she couldn’t deal with the culture and challenges that Jamaica presented.

Williams headed for Macalester after he graduated from Derrick’s school.

In the fall of 2005, Williams’ mother attended Family Fest. It was during this weekend that Williams connected with a Jamaican friend online only to receive the shocking news about Derrick’s death.

“I had to tell [my mom],” Williams said. “I just couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that he’d been shot. She kept asking me what the problem was and I finally had to say, ‘Your husband just got killed.'”

Derrick had been gunned down by a mugger two days before their anniversary.

“As difficult as it was, I’m so grateful she was here,” Williams said. “It [could] have been so much worse.

“Since then, I had a break with Jamaica, I gave away my Jamaican jacket and couldn’t wear my reggae jewlery. My only connection with [it] was gone. I didn’t go to the funeral; I had midterms. My mom told me to stay, plus we couldn’t both go since we were broke as hell.”

The experience taught Williams something powerful.

“Make every moment count for something,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. Give it all you got. When I play, I play hard.”

His stepfather’s death changed Williams’ view of life and social issues.

“We complain a lot about racism and prejudice and hate crimes,” Williams said. “However, my step-dad was killed by his own people whom he was trying to help.”

According to Williams, Jamaican people often blame the island nation’s poverty on the white man.

Williams said he feels differently.

“Jamaica is run by two parties that are all about black,” he said.

He has seen the broken-down houses of impoverished black people a ten-minute drive from the fancy pool-decked mansions of other black people who neither know nor care.

“A lot more people give me credence because I’ve lived in Jamaica and lived in America,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be both international and domestic. I try very hard not to distinguish myself as either.”

“Macalester needs to deal with multiculturalism and internationalism in the same way,” Williams said.

He doesn’t deny or forget the trouble African-Americans have gone through, he said, but they need to take some responsibility for making a difference in their lives.

“The white man may make the gun, but you buy the gun, you buy the bullets, you pull the trigger,” he said.

When asked about being a bridge between internationalism and multiculturalism, Williams said. “I say what I mean and I mean what I say. We need to stop lying to ourselves when we say that yes, there are a lot of ignorant and insensitive people here, but we’re not one of them.”

In Williams’ opinion, a major problem at Macalester is an inacceptance of the unknown.

He remembers his first year when the so-called “Jamaican table” was branded as exclusive. According to Williams, who sat there, it was in fact very multicultural.

One week, those at the Jamaican table moved to the south end of Caf Mac, and people all around them left.

Williams defines global citizenship as, “the ability and the desire to interact peacefully and successfully with any and every one while giving and receiving knowledge.

“I consider myself on the road to being a global citizen,” he said. “There’s a lot I know and a lot I don’t know.”

In accordance with Gandhi’s edict to be the change you wish to see in the world, I asked Williams what change he wishes to see in the world.

“Bush out of the presidency,” he said, but then he paused. “I don’t want to see a change in the world; I want to see a change in the way the people of the world respond to each other.”

Williams said we have to look far beyond race.

“We need to stop finding ways to have superiority over one another,” he said. “Even in a world without color, there is still heirarchy.”

How do we break through?” I asked him.

“I want to say start from scratch,” he said, “but that’s the easy way out.”

What message does Williams have for Macalester students?

“Do you know how much power you are sitting on? Don’t lock yourself off from your own advancement,” said Williams. “A lot of people are looking for a leader rather than finding the leader in themselves.