Action Lab, Now a Center, Welcomes Its First Executive Director, Dr. Ovita Williams

October 21, 2020 @ 2:57 pm

Created in Spring 2020, the CSSW Action Lab for Social Justice quickly reaches two significant milestones.

Dean Melissa Begg recently shared two important announcements about the CSSW Action Lab for Social Justice: it has now been formally designated as a Center within Columbia University, and Dr. Ovita Williams, Adjunct Professor and Associate Director of Practicum Learning, has been appointed as its inaugural Executive Director.

The designation of the Action Lab as a Center, granted by the Office of the Provost, recognizes the critical importance of its mission to call out and work to dismantle social injustice. Originally conceived by a number of students and faculty as an initiative called COVID-19 Action, under the leadership of Associate Professor of Social Work and Sociology and Associate Dean Desmond Patton, joined by Professor of Social Work Susan Witte, the Action Lab initially offered resources and trainings to help teachers, families, and social workers respond to the coronavirus pandemic. It expanded the scope of its work this past summer to include the Action for Black Lives initiative, with the aim of bringing together social workers and communities to organize for an end to anti-Black racism and build a society where people can thrive free of oppression, fear, and violence. Leadership for Action for Black Lives comes from students Natosha Dobbins and Caitlin Yee, who saw and made the connection from COVID-19 Action to that needed for Black lives.

In the words of Dean Begg, “This critically important initiative will enhance our capacity to expand and amplify scholarship and educational efforts to promote social justice through the active pursuit of improved policies and programs. Its designation as a University Center enhances its capacity to marshal interdisciplinary expertise to advance knowledge, learning, and impact at the highest levels, transcending school and department boundaries.”

Of the choice of the new center’s executive director, Dean Begg said, “Dr. Williams has dedicated much of her career to promoting an antiracist agenda, tackling anti-Black racism and white supremacy culture in pursuit of racial justice. She is the perfect choice for this challenging new role.”

Said Williams, “I look forward to joining the Action Lab team of student leaders, Natosha Dobbins and Caitlin Yee, its program coordinator Serafina Ye Jin Ha Kim, and its original faculty leaders, Desmond Patton and Susan Witte, in furthering their work to partner with institutions both inside and outside Columbia that share our commitment to social action. The Lab serves to amplify the voices of CSSW students and create a space for exchange of their ideas and critical response to our most pressing issues. I am ready to listen and continue to support this progressive leadership.”

Williams added that the Lab’s new designation as a Center “should give us even more leverage as we work to strengthen the foundation of social justice-based research and action, both within CSSW and across Columbia. Beyond Columbia, the Action Lab has a commitment to work alongside the Harlem community among others, building partnerships and shaping a consistent response to anti-Black racism that will be both liberating and transformative on all levels.”

Williams is a co-author of the third edition of Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn: A Guide for Social Work Practicum Learning (CSWE, 2019). Among her accomplishments in the field of social justice, she worked with CSSW students and others to develop the School’s foundation course in Decolonizing Social Work Practice, which approaches social work through the lens of power, racism, oppression, and privilege (PROP). This summer, Williams and three other faculty members worked with the Provost’s office to extend PROP training to all University faculty members and Council of Deans. A 1993 MSSW graduate of the Columbia School of Social Work, she received her bachelor’s from Vassar College and her doctorate in 2020 from the CUNY Silberman School of Social Work.

Related links:

CSSW and Racial Justice

Provost Office Awards to Advance School’s Anti-Racist Curriculum

Columbia School of Social Work Launches Social Work Action Lab for Social Justice

CSSW Council of Deans Issues Call to Action to Address Anti-Black Racism