Alumna Elaine Williams earns top honor for recent graduates

Elaine Genise Williams is way ahead of schedule.

Only two years removed from earning her bachelor’s degree in social work from VCU, she is already being honored with one of the VCU Office of Alumni Relations’ 10 Under 10 awards.

The award, presented Nov. 2, recognizes the top 10 alumni who earned their first VCU degree within the past 10 years and have enjoyed remarkable professional success, made important contributions to their community and/or loyally supported the university.

Williams’ primary focus has been around issues of housing instability or homelessness, particularly for youth.

“I experienced unstable housing in my childhood, which led to homelessness in my adolescent years,” she says.

She says fighting for underserved populations is fundamental to studying social work or serving as a social worker.

“As social workers, we have a code of ethics, and we take that oath to fight for justice and make sure the most marginalized in the community are receiving needed resources to thrive and reach their fullest potential,” she says.

Williams was making a difference before she even enrolled at VCU. As a high school student in 2012, she co-founded Change the World RVA, which is still the only organization in the region specifically focused on the needs of high school and college students facing homelessness. She remains as a board member.

After graduating from VCU in 2017, she testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about simplifying the federal student aid process, with special consideration for students experiencing homelessness. While she was at VCU, her federal aid was delayed several times by as much as four months because of the complexity of the process.

Williams is currently program director of RVA Thrives, an organization that empowers residents of Richmond’s Jefferson Davis Highway corridor to take greater control over decisions affecting their community.

She also is part of the team working on the Grand Challenge, a national award from A Way Home America, which the Greater Richmond area earned this fall to help eliminate homelessness among youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth. Two School of Social Work faculty, M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., and Maurice Gattis, Ph.D., were instrumental in writing the grant application.

“The School of Social Work embodies what we’re trying to do to end youth homelessness, and it’s important to have people at the table who understand what it takes,” Williams says. “It’s already in the values and mission of the school, so having faculty lead this effort was a no-brainer. They are people who live it and breathe it every day on the front lines.”

Williams has also consistently been at the fore. She received a Community Trustbuilding fellowship in 2018 and participated in a six-month program to develop skills in peace building and conflict resolution with a focus on racial reconciliation. In summer 2019, she served as an Initiative of Change facilitator and led a workshop in Switzerland on enhancing community participation and empowerment. Williams is also co-chair of United Way and a member of the Youth Housing Stability Coalition.

At VCU, Williams was named a Federal Policy fellow, meeting with lobbyists, advocates and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and was a member of the living-learning community engagement program ASPiRE and a resident assistant. She presented research at the annual Undergraduate Poster Symposium on experiences and service needs of Richmond-area youth facing homelessness and housing instability who do not meet the traditional definition of homelessness.

“Every youth deserves fair opportunity, no matter their experience,” Williams says. “These are young people experiencing homelessness on their own, so if we don’t create a safety net or access to resources that make it easier for them to actually achieve something, we are part of the problem.”

Rest assured, Williams has – quickly – become part of the solution.

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