By Eelisa Jones
There are some of us who are lucky enough to have met at least one person in our lives who has answered the question of how to improve the lives of those around us with a resounding battle cry.
These individuals endlessly strive to achieve progress in the name of equality and succeed in blazing through the status quo, leaving trails of inspiration for others to follow.
Polly Williams was this kind of woman. She was known as a leader, a representative, a mentor, and a friend to many who knew her.
Born in Belzoni, Mis., Williams graduated from North Division High School and earned a Bachelor of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1975.
Williams was elected into the office of State Assembly District 10 Representative in 1980.
She remained in that office for twenty years. When Williams announced that she would not be running for an 11th term in 2011, she had become the longest-serving female and African-American representative of either house in Wisconsin history.
Williams was a pivotal advocate for parental school choice – a project that uses government funds to assist low-income families in accessing private school education as an alternative to that available in public schools.
In 1989, she authored the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) as the first school choice legislation in United States history. With the assistance of MPCP, low-income Milwaukee families were given the opportunity to choose where and how their children were to be educated.
After successfully passing MPCP, the public often referred to Williams as “The Mother of School Choice.”
Williams further reached out to the Milwaukee community by hosting a one-hour talk-show on Milwaukee’s WNOV Radio on Mondays.
Sherwin Hughes, current WNOV host, says that he had the honor or meeting and speaking with Williams on multiple occasions during his involvement in Milwaukee political events and WNOV broadcasts.
After first meeting Polly Williams at a general community meeting for black politicians and advocates, Hughes said that he had many opportunities to see her in action.
“She was dynamic, charismatic, and unapologetic,” says Sherwin. “If she believed in an issue, she didn’t care if you had an opposite view.
If her heart was set on helping a segment of a community that was not often talked about, she would not be sorry or say ‘sorry’ for doing what she believed in – which is very rare.”
Current Wisconsin Senator of District 4, Lena C. Taylor, first met Polly Williams while Sen. Taylor was on the campaign trail for representative of State Assembly District 18.
Prior to their first meeting, the senator says that she was already well aware of who Polly Williams was and what she had accomplished in the Wisconsin State Assembly.
“She was my state representative all of my adult life,” says Sen. Taylor. “I knew her as an icon right from the beginning… She was a living legend.”
Sen. Taylor attributes much of her success in securing the 18th Assembly seat to Polly Williams’ support and guidance.
Polly Williams has a left a legacy of equal education advocacy both within and without the state of Wisconsin.
She lectured at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Minnesota, and Marquette Universities. She appeared on several major media outlets – including ABC’s World News and PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. Williams was also featured in the New York Times as a major 20th century education innovator.
Within her lifetime, Polly Williams has created an irreplaceable legacy for minority community members, advocates, and politicians.
She was not only able to answer the question of how she could improve the world around her, but was also able to faithfully listen to her heart and never stop moving forward.