6 questions with...Erica Williams

PopTech’s series, 6 questions with… gives us a chance to get into the heads of social innovators, technologists, artists, designers, and scientists to see what makes them tick.

When Erica Williams took the PopTech stage in 2009, her talk centered on how the Millennial generation—today’s 18-30 year olds—are re-imagining the nature of political engagement. Today, as the Senior Strategist at the Citizen Engagement Lab, her work continues at the intersection of youth, digital media, community engagement and social change. To dig deeper into what’s been driving her efforts, we asked Williams to participate in our 6 questions with… series.

If I had been a fly on the wall of your office, what would I have seen you doing yesterday?
My two favorite things: brainstorming and talking to smart people. The primary focus of my work right now is to develop big ideas for creative, tech savvy, culturally relevant civic engagement. The best way to do that is to be inspired regularly by art, technology, language, policy and the brilliant people who believe in the power of social change – and this generation - as much as I do. So that’s what I did! Watch YouTube videos, research young voters, write a speech, pick the brains of branding and communications experts, and strategize with my brilliant colleagues on Skype.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work at the Citizen Engagement Lab relevant at this point in time?
I hope to make the world more reflective of my generation’s values by championing the people and ideas that advance them. Society is facing large, complex problems (poverty, global warming, a failing economy and education system, etc) at a time when, I believe, young people are more empowered than ever to solve them. Using media, popular culture, technology and political organizing to support the involvement of everyday people in their communities sits right in the middle of that perfect storm. My work speaks to audiences that, demographically speaking, are the future of the county: the young and the racially diverse.

What do you wish you had known when you began working on your most recent project?
I wish I’d known that being “innovative” is easier said than done. It takes a concerted effort to do things differently than everyone else and see things in ways that most others don’t.

What was the pathway that brought you to this work?
From a historic civil and human rights coalition to a huge political think tank to a small cutting edge start-up, the path has been pretty unconventional. What’s remained constant has been my focus on engaging non-traditional audiences in the work of social change and using my love of media, popular culture and technology to do so. Growing up the daughter of two preachers, I was set on the path of community activism (and public speaking!) very early. Each professional step has allowed me to grow and continue to find my own tiny space in the world. 

Who or what has most influenced your life and work?
Who? My parents. They took their responsibility as parents very seriously. There is not one single character trait, passion, quirk or value that I possess – particularly those that influence my work - that I can’t connect directly to their influence on my life.

What? Books and music. I am heavily influenced by the language and art that I constantly consume. Growing up, books and music fed me, taught me, made me laugh, made me cry, and to this day, challenge me to think about the world and my work in new ways.

What book is on your nightstand right now?
Justice by Michael Sandel. For the past week I’ve gone to sleep every night completely confused and challenging my own assumptions about right and wrong. That’s the sign of a great book!

Image: Erica Williams

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