December 15, 2021

School of Information Sciences grad returns to her roots

Kendra Williams (left) is not the first in her family to contribute time and dedication to making change on Wayne State’s campus and beyond. Her mother, Edna E. Ewell Watson (right), is also a WSU School of Information Sciences alumni.

For Kendra (Moyer) Williams, a forced second career path led her back to her roots in more ways than one.

The Wayne State University School of Information Sciences graduate, who received her master’s in library science during WSU’s Dec. 14 commencement, will be the first to tell you the arts were her first love.

Williams first earned a bachelor’s in English literature and film studies at the University of Michigan and followed that with a master’s in communications and theater arts management from Eastern Michigan University. Shortly after coming out of that degree, she was hired by the Detroit Opera House as its assistant to the head of production.

“But it was literally two weeks before 9/11. It was a hard start because everyone was so emotional, as you can understand. Shortly after, Michigan lost most of its budgets for the arts for several years,” said Williams, 51. “My father died that November, too. It was a rough time in my life, and all while trying to cobble together this career in the arts.”

Over the next couple of years, Williams found herself going from the Detroit Opera House to working the Best Western Hotel breakfast buffet. Understandably, she moved out of the state for a change and landed in Boston. Prior to leaving Detroit, though, Williams went to Focus: HOPE and became certified in computer training repair. “I pretty much pivoted from arts to technology because there was just no work in the arts,” she said.

While in Boston, Williams tried to maintain a connection with her first career choice and found a job in production and sales for the Boston Ballet, even though she knew she was nearing the end of that path. But with activism always having had a place in the background of Williams’s life, it influenced her to engage when she could. When she began working with the Occupy Boston movement, her activism gained a professional scope.

She taught activist groups how to collaborate and correspond via the internet while maintaining anonymity and protecting their personal data. Around this time, Williams also engaged in promoting internet and tech access to all by installing free software similar to Microsoft Office on computers that were then sent around the world. Working with “hacktivist” groups gave Williams computer training and knowledge, she said, which led to her interests and work in information services.

After about five years in Boston, the expense of the city and feeling burnt out had Williams thinking of making a move. Around the same time, her mother needed surgery and someone to care for her. Williams moved back home to help and decided to apply to the School of Information Sciences.

While at WSU, Williams worked with Kafi Kumasi, Ph.D., to bring urban school libraries back to life for local children as a research assistant/web developer on Project RUSL: Restoring Urban School Libraries, a library literacy project that incorporates hip-hop with reading and literacy programming. In 2020, Williams was awarded the American Library Association’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services’ prestigious Spectrum Scholarship. Prior to graduation, she was offered a full-time web services coordinator position with the University of Denver.

For Kendra Williams, earning her master’s at WSU and working within libraries has allowed her to apply her technology skills in ways that give her an avenue to participate in the activism she is interested in while also earning a living.

“I actually had a job the day after classes ended this year. I told them I couldn’t start until I was done with school,” Williams said. “I encourage anyone to look into this field and program. There are so many opportunities beyond just working in a library or at a reference desk.”

Williams is not the first in her family to contribute time and dedication to making change on Wayne State’s campus and beyond. Her mother, Edna E. Ewell Watson, is also a WSU School of Information Sciences alumni, librarian, Oxford Fellow and professor emerita at Eastern Michigan University. Williams was even influenced to work in digital privacy by her mom’s work on library patrons’ rights to privacy under the Patriot Act.

“I remember being a kid and my mother used to take me to Wayne State when she was in school,” said Williams. “I remember crawling around on the floor when I was 2 or 3 years old under the desk, and I remember her writing out my letters and teaching me how to read.”

Both Williams’s mother and father, John Watson, have been recognized for their social justice efforts in collections at the university’s Walter P. Reuther Library. Watson co-created the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the 1960s and was also the first black editor of Wayne State’s student newspaper, The South End.

With the apple not falling far from the tree, Williams worked as a research assistant in metadata with the Voices from the Grassroots project at WSU Law School’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, where she helped create a metadata library of terms that includes specific topics pertaining to Civil Rights activism in Detroit.

Williams said that getting her master’s at WSU and working within libraries has allowed her to apply her technology skills in ways that give her an avenue to participate in the activism she is interested in while also earning a living. Aside from libraries, Williams’s activism has taken many shapes over the years, from her work on pushing for the Detroit trash-incinerator shutdown, having her hands in environmentalist efforts by helping plant community gardens, to volunteering with Girls Rock Detroit. She encourages people to participate in activism, any way they can.

“Look for things in your community that you’re interested in where you can volunteer. I've always volunteered somewhere – even if it killed me — to also help keep my resume and skills current,” Williams said. “I feel like I still have to be active with teaching people about how to use technology better and how to adapt free and open-source software, just for the purposes of maintaining our democracy at this point.”

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