- Community Impact
- Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences
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In 2016, Pitt alumna Marisa Williams was sworn in as a member of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Advisory Commission on African American Affairs.
She stood there, smiling alongside her husband and son, ready to roll up the sleeves on her red jacket and get to work helping the commonwealth improve the health, housing, education, employment, business and other areas for Pennsylvania’s Black citizens.
It’s a visible, influential role, but not one unfamiliar to Williams. Today, she is CEO of HEARTH, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing, and she has spent much of her professional and adult life advocating for stronger communities and empowered and informed youth.
“If there’s a panel,” she said, “put me on it.” Serving in civic, social and cultural capacities is one way she helps others better themselves and their communities — and her gospel is the power of networking.
It took root when she first came to the University of Pittsburgh in 2001 from the town of Media, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia.
Her father managed a grocery and her mom worked as a teacher with special needs children. They navigated a family that included raising Williams and her two brothers. She lived with a blended family, which included her grandfather, uncle and two cousins. While in college, Williams worked in retail to provide a sense of self-sufficiency.
She was the first in her family to attend and graduate college. When she arrived in Oakland, for the first time in her life, economic differences stood out.
“I came from humble beginnings,” she said. “I joked with my Mom that I didn't know I was poor until I got to college. I saw people with cars, trust funds — kids who didn’t have to take out loans. I saw that people live differently.”
“College is a different experience,” said Michele Lasagne, head of the TRIO Student Support Services program at Pitt, which helps under-resourced students navigate college. “That’s why we work hard to introduce our participants to resources.”
Networking she said is a key component, as it opens up opportunities to engage with key leaders on campus, join clubs and access meaningful internships.
Twenty years ago, when Williams was on campus, she got involved with an earlier version of TRIO, and it gave her a roadmap for success. (The program is celebrating 50 years of continuous federal funding from the Department of Education this year.)
One of its strengths was the people TRIO introduced Williams to. By having conversations with diverse people, Williams was able to become a resident assistant her junior year. The position paid her room and board, which meant a portion of the financial burden was lifted for her family, but she was also introduced to leadership strategies and had a chance to work with administrators across the campus.
It didn’t stop there. Williams had always worked to supplement her scholarships, but the program’s INROADS initiative, which provides underrepresented students business opportunities, gave her access to her first professional corporate internship working in the human resources department with a local bank.
By the time Williams graduated in 2005 with a degree in communications from the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, her network was increasing. It had enabled her to study abroad in Brazil, helped her secure tuition grants and book scholarships, and prepared her to enter the work world.
Her growing network also helped Williams launch her career in financial services before she eventually transferred to more impact-focused work, including becoming the executive director of the Pittsburgh region YMCA and eventually the CEO of HEARTH.
Corporate life was fulfilling but Williams said she wanted to pursue more opportunities to “invest in people.”
To that end, her community outreach kept expanding. In addition to work with the governor’s office, she’s worked with the local and national Urban League, as well as youth, education and women’s groups.
Over the years, Williams has managed to touch hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
“As I climb the ladder, it’s important to bring others along with me,” Williams said. “I have so many mentees — Black, white, male, female. I just keep dropping seeds to be planted and talking about the power of networking.”
Her advice, especially for students, is to build confidence and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and talk to people.
That's how she arrived on the governor’s task force. Someone heard her speak, noticed her work and made a recommendation. Once there, Williams excelled. She helped to develop a program that recognized Pennsylvania’s small business owners — the hair and nail salon entrepreneurs and the other everyday people who touch everyone’s life and work.
She also highlighted educators, including being able to recognize her mother’s unsung work with autistic children. “Working with the governor, we wanted to show teachers they are loved and appreciated,” she said.
“I was blessed to have been in so many different spaces and creating those experiences,” said Williams. “It all flows from the legacy of being present with TRIO and the services and opportunities they gave me.”
Now, Williams gets to extend that legacy. Soon after her tenure with the governor’s commission on African American affairs, she was invited to join with the governor’s citizens police advisory task force. Her opportunity to network and serve continues.
— Ervin Dyer, photography by Tom Altany
For 50 years, Pitt’s TRIO Student Support Services Program has embraced first-generation and low-income college students, empowering them to lift themselves up — and their communities, too. Pittwire is telling their stories in a limited series.