AU Excellence: Dr. Wanda Wigfall-Williams
BY: CRAIG STEVENS
Through the pursuit of careers in public service, journalism, art, medicine or law, many of us at American University want to make the world a better place. Lucky for us, we have plenty of world-changing faculty right here at AU.
One of these individuals is Dr. Wanda Wigfall-Williams, a professor in the School of International Service. Before she got to AU, Wigfall-Williams graduated from Temple University, where she got her BS in psychology, and went on to receive her Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University. She has overseen terrorist negotiations, facilitated dialogues between paramilitary groups and developed counter-trafficking campaigns in West Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia.
The daughter of a Jamaican mathematician and a Dominican mother, Wigfall-Williams grew up in several different countries, including Italy, Switzerland, Ghana, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Kosovo and the United Kingdom for boarding school at the age of 12. Wigfall-Williams credits her worldly upbringing for leading her into a career of global public service.
Read below our conversation about her life career in LGBTQ advocacy and conflict resolution.
Content warning: sexual assault
Craig Stevens: What prompted you to work in your field or even study a topic like conflict resolution?
Dr. Wanda Wigfall-Williams: I often moved around when I was little. At age 7 or 8, my father would take me places on the island [of Hispaniola]. So we went to Haiti many times and he would say, ‘Keep your mouth shut, and hold my hand and don't react to anything you see.’ That was around the time when Papa Doc Duvalier was in power and the Tonton Macoute were cutting off people’s ears as you were just standing in the street. So I saw things when we would go to places like West Africa, and then we were in Kenya for a while. I had the benefit of going places with my father, and I wanted to understand what made ordinary people do such extraordinarily evil things. So that’s my thing. That's what has compelled me and motivated me throughout my life.
CS: Could you talk about one of your earliest experiences working in conflict resolution?
WW: I did a favor for a professor of mine. There was this project in Northern Ireland that needed to get done and he had a conflict, so I said sure! So I was a special rapporteur on this conference called “Men, Women and War” produced by a transnational organization called INCORE. It was very intense. I remember we did a piece on what happens to women and how rape is a strategy of war—not just used against women but it’s meant to get at the hearts and souls of men. So [at this conference] I heard firsthand from some of the Korean comfort women who had been kidnapped at an early age during World War II. They described walking home from school, being abducted and taken out of the country; and next thing they knew they were somewhere else and forced to service 80 men a night! You know the Japanese wanted their soldiers to have a break from fighting and the comfort women were made available for their sexual release. They treated these girls like they were crap. Some died, many were so destroyed physically and psychologically that they just withered, and the few that remained wanted to get their stories out.
CS: I’m sure those were some powerful testimonies.
WW: Yes. And we finally got an apology for the women. But at this conference, I was able to talk to these women. We circulated a petition which went to the United Nations and around that time [the UN] finally began to look at rape as a crime against humanity, which it has been since I was a child. But you know it’s one of the challenges of working in conflict zones.
CS: Which project during your long career stands out as notably impactful?
WW: I had a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, way back in the day at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. So that's when they weren't even calling it AIDS, they were calling it GRIDS.
CS: GRIDS? I’ve never even heard of that
WW: Yup G-R-I-D-S, gay-related immune deficiency syndrome
CS: You're kidding me...
WW: Hand to God. The president, Reagan, was using this kind of language. So I had this cooperative agreement to work with adolescents domestically and it extended to some of our territories, like Puerto Rico. That was really challenging work. And the people who were managing most, if not all, of the HIV and AIDS programming, were white gay men of a certain class, and their allies. You didn't see a lot of Black folks involved, and that has something to do with the discrimination and exclusion that exists in the LGBTQ population.
So the boys that were running the show were, unfortunately, dying at a rapid rate. I would go to six or seven funerals a week. And these were people I worked with, people I cared for. All of those losses remain with me because I saw the worst side of the U.S. I heard people saying, ‘Let's deport these people to an island altogether, and they can die, and then we can disinfect the island.’. Like damn! The administration wasn't even following the science of the disease. Instead, fear was the underpinning of policy. They didn't care; they just wanted to exclude HIV positive people, those who had AIDS—marginalizing them further.
I worked with teenagers in high school and junior high, and homeless workers. We had to go out and teach people about safer sex strategies. Most of the johns did not necessarily want to negotiate about wearing a condom. We taught the street workers how to cheek a condom and put it on, how to clean their works.
CS: Is there any individual who sticks out as the greatest motivation to continue this kind of emotionally-taxing work?
WW: There are many people that motivate me, but I think my real motivator was my grandmother. With only a fourth grade education, she is the smartest woman I've ever met. And she wasn't an easy woman, but I loved her. I remember I was 5 years old and she said, ‘Somebody's always gonna be prettier, smarter and richer than you, so get over yourself!” I was 5! But she was right. The other part of that though was that, if God gave you gifts, you must use them. She instilled in me a commitment to whichever community I was living in, and that I must always give back; I’m not allowed to be greedy.
CS: That’s funny, my grandfather always used a similar idiom. He would always say ‘Throw the rope back, and bring somebody with you,’ and that was the way that we as a Black community could advance and make a place for ourselves in this world.
WW: Well I understand that, and I really gained some perspective after visiting the slave dungeon where my ancestors were held in Elmina, Ghana. It just gave me a different take on life. It gave me a sense of place, belonging, pride and resilience. It was awful in there, you could see the marks on the wall where the fecal matter was above people’s heads. I was there doing some work for USAID at their mission in Ghana on gender mainstreaming, and I couldn't understand why all these African men and women were looking at me so angrily. So I just stopped and said, ‘What's up with you folks, whats going on?’
They explained to me that while I’m talking about issues with women, they had a more pressing issue with their boys being kidnapped and sold to work on fishing boats in the Volta River. Parents will have kids and can't afford to take care of them. So they'll sell the child to these fishermen who enslave them and the kids spend their lives in these teeny tiny underpants, no shirt.
So a colleague of mine, Eric Peasah, started Right to Be Free Organization, where he has bought the kids back [home]. They go through this rehabilitation process and gets Doctors Without Borders to come perform surgeries because often these children have been hurt. He starts to see them change and eventually smile and laugh.
"There is injustice in our world and I cannot be complacent nor can I be accepting of it. Because if I do that, I’m no better than the active participants."
CS: From what you’ve expressed, it seems that this line of work inflicts a great deal of heartache. Do you have any advice for students on how to stay resilient and continue doing this necessary work?
WW: You have got to be bold, you must be brave and courageous. Some of the things that I have seen, I can't unsee. While I would like to have an eraser to remove certain traumatic images, I think it is because of those memories that I am who I am. But somebody has got to do this work. And somebody good has to do this work because there are all kinds of people who will just take advantage of folks just because they can. There is injustice in our world and I cannot be complacent, nor can I be accepting of it.
CS: So when that stress gets to you, is there an activity you like to engage in, a restaurant or space that you like to visit to get your head away from the day-to-day?
WW: I’m a really good cook, so I like to cook. But sometimes I’ll go to Rasika on the West End, and oh my it's to die for. So my husband and I will go for brunch. However, what I like best to do on a daily basis is self-hypnosis.
CS: What? Self Hypnosis that sounds cool.
WW: [Laughs] I can get wound up, I can really just go down that spiral of stress. I think it's a form of PTSD that you get after working in this area and constant exposure to trauma and violence. I learned at 17 [years old], I was trained by a psychiatrist, and I’ve been doing that practice ever since.
CS: That sounds really effective -- silence and meditation always help. What final message would you like to express to the student body?
WW: I am a happy person despite all of the ugliness in the world. I manage to find the beauty in a situation. I was working in Chad with refugee women who fled Darfur. The women went out to get firewood, and the Janjaweed would chop down the wood closest to the camp so that the women had to go out further. Then they’d show up on their camels and rape all the women out there.
I remember this day. It was the one and only day that I went out. And I have never run so fast in my life the backs of my heels were hitting my behind. They raped the women who didn't get away, from babies to 90 year-olds, and if the women resisted they made it worse. After that happened there was this young woman with her baby and she had a cowry shell that she was putting in her daughter’s hair. [smiles and laughs] I just beamed because it was a beautiful moment after such horror.
So I try to surround myself with things to keep me grounded and people who are positive and are about making change. I am with a man who loves me generously and has for 36 years. He understands me and what makes life meaningful to me. I don't need a lot of cash, I don’t need a lot of flash. I just need to do work that makes me feel like: Yes, I am walking the path that my ancestors started. I am motivated by them and will never let them or myself down.
This semester Dr. Wigfall-Williams is teaching “When Worldviews Collide – First Year Seminar – SISU 106;” “Identity, Race, Gender and Culture – SISU 260” and “Cross-Cultural Communication - SISU 140.”
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.