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NIEHS Celebrates Legacy of M. L. King, Jr.

By Eddy Ball
February 2010

With three books and several television appearances to her credit, Williams, above, looks forward to the biggest television appearance of her career later this year - an interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She is also working on a children's book with her daughter. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Kim Peterson, center, and  friends
NIEHS Administrative Officer Kim Peterson, center, and friends enjoyed Williams' upbeat humor. Seated beside her are colleagues Sharon Evans, left, and Gezell Jones. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Trish Castranio
Program Analyst Trish Castranio was of one several audience members Williams addressed directly in the course of her monologue - one of the speaker's strategies for keeping people engaged. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Toby Williams
Toby Williams smiled as his wife told the story of how her "gentle giant" helped her rebound from a bout with crack cocaine addiction and encouraged her to try drawing. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Eli Ney, left, and host Wanda  Holliday
Diversity Council member Eli Ney, left, and host Wanda Holliday were obviously impressed by the speaker, as Williams showed off the drawings she completed using her feet and toes to hold and guide her pencil. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Oprah-bound motivational speaker Tawana Williams returned to NIEHS on Jan. 7 as part of the Institute's annual celebration of the achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr. Highlighting the theme of "Remember! Celebrate! Act! A Day On, Not a Day Off!" Williams' talk on "Focus on What You Want" linked King's collective dream to the aspirations of individuals to become all that they have the potential to be and use their talents to help others.

Co-sponsored by the NIEHS Diversity Council and the Research Triangle Park Chapter of Blacks In Government, the event opened with remarks from host Wanda Holliday on the significance of M. L. King Jr. Day for people of every race and ethnicity and closed with Williams' heart-felt expression of gratitude for the great leader's legacy. In between, Williams explored the ways that people can strive to achieve an inner freedom to reflect the external, collective freedom that King struggled for and died to realize.

Pursuing collective and individual dreams

While King's "I have a dream" speech focused on the aspirations of a people dispossessed because of race, Williams discussed the dreams of individuals - and the ways people can tap their inner power and overcome negativity, both their own and others'.

"I'm excited about the dream of Dr. King and his legacy," she began, "[And] I want you to think about your dream." Apropos of the day's theme, she also put the audience on the spot by asking, "Are you willing to open up your heart and your life to help somebody else?"

On her feet, animated, "in your face," and making eye contact with her listeners during an engaging monologue, Williams took full advantage of the rousing iambic pentameter and call-and-response rhythms of the traditional gospel church and the King James Translation to move her audience. They, in turn, responded with affirmations, laughter, and, at times, tears of epiphany and joy. Williams spoke candidly about hitting bottom several times - a victim of nay-saying, rape, and a ten-year crack cocaine addiction - and how she sprang back to achieve self-actualization and success.

Born without arms, Williams has been defying negativism all her life. "Every time someone told me I couldn't do something," she told the audience, "the next time they saw me I was doing it."

Williams' message is deceptively simple - but, as she emphasized several times, one that too many people don't yet understand at the personal "gut" level. Williams' husband, Toby, the man she described as her "gentle giant," led the responses to her narrative, punctuating his wife's talk many times with "That's right!" as she told attendees, "There's some stuff in you [that] you didn't know you could do."

"It doesn't matter how many times you fall," Williams urged her audience, "you get up again and again and again."

During the question and answer segment of the event, NIEHS Human Resources Specialist Angela Davis, who was visibly moved by the presentation, echoed the sentiments of many in the audience. "I just want to thank you for what you've done for me today." Biologist Negin Martin, Ph.D., noted afterwards, "I wish my daughter and my friends could also hear her speak."

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