Ep 9: Expanding What’s Possible with Rep. Nikema Williams

Just as she prepares to take the oath of office as U.S. Congresswoman for Georgia’s 5th district, Rep. Nikema Williams reflects on her journey from rural Alabama to Washington DC, and the responsibility that comes with holding the late Rep. John Lewis’s seat. As Nikema explains, it’s not just about continuing his civil rights legacy—it’s about moving forward, building on the past, and creating a more expansive vision of what’s possible. She also shares her personal story of Covid-19, which she survived in the early days of the pandemic, and how that experience has fueled her calls for stronger government response and economic relief. Plus: How becoming a mom inspired her first run for office, and the many challenges of Zoom kindergarten.

Twitter: @nikemawilliams

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Alicia Garza:

Welcome to Sunstorm where we get real about what’s happening in the world and what we’re doing about it because we are the light in the storm. Hi, I’m Alicia Garza.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

I’m Ai-jen Poo and we’re back with two special bonus episodes of Sunstorm. In these episodes we’re going to be talking with a couple of our friends who’ve been doing the work in Georgia. Georgia, you’re on our minds.

 

Alicia Garza:

Oh, yes, and in our hearts. To talk about all things, Georgia with us, and all things in general, is representative elect Nikema Williams, who you also may know as the woman who won the legendary Georgia seat left by representative John Lewis. She is also a dear friend and incredible political force. She happens to be the Deputy Director of Civic Engagement at Care in Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. We are very lucky, very, very lucky to even be able to call her a coworker. Hi, Nikema. Welcome.

 

Nikema Williams:

Hello. Hello. Hello.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

We are so excited to talk to you. All eyes, including ours are on Georgia right now. What’s the mood among Georgians?

 

Nikema Williams:

It is so exciting here on the ground. I never thought that I would be excited about being interrupted from putting up my Christmas decorations. I’m putting ornaments on the tree, the doorbell rings, and I’m like, “Yes, it’s a canvasser.” I mean, I’m kind of weird like that, but it is so exciting to see people out, really passionate about what they’re doing, talking about the candidates here in Georgia, and really talking to voters about what’s at stake.

 

Alicia Garza:

Oh, that’s amazing. Well, let’s get into it, Nikema, because we all know you and we love you. I know I was texting you the other night with tears in my eyes because I’d seen you on [inaudible 00:02:10]. I’d seen you on [crosstalk 00:02:12].

 

Nikema Williams:

Oh my goodness.

 

Alicia Garza:

I was like, “That’s my girl, Nikema,” and you killed it, which was also excellent. Then you had really cute glasses on, which was also excellent, but let me just ask for the people who don’t know you and they don’t know your story, they just know that you are the successor to Congressman John Lewis, can you talk a little bit about how you even got started in politics? I mean, did you just wake up one morning and be like, “You know, today I think I’m going to run things,” or how did this happen?

 

Nikema Williams:

I grew up in rural Alabama in a home with no indoor plumbing and no running water. To say that I have worked for everything that I’ve achieved and nothing has been given to me is absolutely the truth. My grandparents raised me in the big city of Smith Station, Alabama, and when I say one traffic light, we didn’t even have that. We had a caution light that flashed in front of the high school, not even a real traffic light, so very small town girl. My grandparents were always engaged, never missed an election and I remember riding on the back of my grandpa’s pickup truck when he would pass out slate cards to our neighbors letting them know who the candidates were and who to vote for. I just thought it was fun because I got to jump off the back of the truck and run up to the doors. Never did I really fully understand that he was basically canvassing. That is what I’m doing now and what we’re encouraging people to do and it works.

 

I left Smith Station and I went to Talladega. I attended Talladega College, a small HBCU in Alabama. After college, I was on the first thing down interstate I-20, because I was told Atlanta was where black people came to grow and prosper. I remember coming over during college and I was like, “Wow, black people live in this neighborhood and black people are doing it in Atlanta. I have to move to Atlanta.” I moved to Atlanta not knowing a soul and literally worked three jobs, two full-time jobs and a part-time job, because I was determined that I was not going to move back to Alabama. I found my way here on the political scene, got engaged 18 years ago. Last year I was elected the first black woman ever to chair our state democratic party.

 

Three years ago this week I was sworn in as a Georgia state Senator and here I am. In just a couple of weeks, I am headed to the United States Congress to represent a district that was held by John Robert Lewis for 34 years. It’s the honor of my life. I am so full y’all. My cousin called me. He’s like, “Nikki,” I know people say this is our ancestors’ wildest dreams, but he said, “I don’t even think our ancestors imagined this for us.” My family is just so proud. We’re going to bring, at some point when life is opened back up and the outside of safe, Smith Station is coming to DC. We’re going to do a big country celebration in the nation’s Capitol.

 

Alicia Garza:

That’s what’s up. I love that.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

I love that so much. That country celebration needs to happen. Oh my gosh. I just got chills listening to you share your story. I know that when you first ran for state senator, you talked about how being a mom really also informed that decision. I know you’re mom to beautiful son named Carter who’s the best. Talk to us a little bit about being a mom and how that has shaped your vision for politics and policy.

 

Nikema Williams:

When I first decided to run, I remember my husband and I lived in a neighborhood, Vine City, which is the neighborhood where, when we got married and my parents came over, my daddy was like, “Why’d y’all move here?” He’s a country man and the neighborhood looked kind of sketch to him. He’s like, “I don’t understand. You can live anywhere in the city. Why here?” I’m of the belief that elected officials, these positions are jobs and voters have an opportunity to fire and rehire people. My elected officials were always doing exactly what they were supposed to do. I was represented by progressives in the heart of Atlanta, and so I just was set that I was not going to run for office.

 

Then my state senator decided to run for mayor of Atlanta. And I had some soul searching to do, as people said, “Why aren’t you going to run?” I looked around. I had this little son that I was raising in the shadows of a billion dollar stadium and looked around our neighborhood at the children who were never going to be able to step foot inside of that stadium, but it was taxpayer dollars, partially funded. We see the stadium every day when dropping our kids off at school. They walk past it. I decided to step up and run because I knew when I looked out for Carter and I uplifted him that I was going to uplift every other child in Vine City, in our communities, because my decision-making process is always around centering those most marginalized.

 

I stepped up to run. People told me that I shouldn’t run. My first race shouldn’t be for state Senate. Someone said, “Well, what if you lose?” I was like, “Well, if you help me, I won’t lose.” I didn’t lose y’all. I won, not outright the first time, because there was a runoff in Georgia. The nation is aware that you have to have 50 plus 1%.

 

I was the top vote getter, and got into a runoff, and then won my election on December 5th, and was sworn in on December 15th, 2017 with my child by my side in some bright green Ninja Turtle shoes that I tried to convince him that he did not want to wear to Mommy’s swearing in, but he won. All of my pictures, he had them on these bright green Ninja Turtle shoes, but it has been quite the experience the past three years serving as a Georgia State Senator. I often have to remind myself that I’m serving in an institution that was not designed by me or for people that look like me. I have an obligation to make sure that I am looking out for my people in this process.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

First of all, I stand Ninja Turtles, so I’m with Carter on this one.

 

Nikema Williams:

I’m going to show you the picture. They look awful in all of my pictures.

 

Alicia Garza:

Here’s the thing, Nikema. I’m so glad that you are in the position that you’re in, especially in this moment of the ‘rona, and reconstruction, and rebellion. I mean, it’s all the things, right? I got to ask you, you yourself had a personal with the complete bungling of this pandemic, and so many people have died unnecessarily. You got the ‘rona. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to be a state senator, trying to make these plans for what happens in Georgia and how we protect people, people talking to you and being like, “Asking me to wear a mask is the evil hand of the government,” and then you get this disease? What was that like and did it change your perspective at all on what we need to be doing in this moment?

 

Nikema Williams:

Back in early March, the virus hadn’t quite hit Georgia yet, but we knew that it was coming because people had started to take precautions. We were still in the state Senate chamber doing the work of the people. I contracted COVID-19 from one of my colleagues in the state Senate. I had a fever for three days straight. At one point I literally did not know if I was going to live or die. I didn’t know what side of the statistics I would turn out on. I had to turn off the news because I didn’t want to see anymore.

 

This time I remember I had a conference call for work and my boss, Jess Morales Rocketto, she calls me. We’re talking and it was supposed to be on Zoom. I sent her a quick picture and I was like, “I’m in the emergency room.” She’s like, “Nikema, why are you on a conference call in the emergency room?” I went through the whole story and I know that I was very fortunate to have a job to give me the time off that I needed. I was in bed for three weeks straight. There are so many people in this country that don’t have paid leave, that don’t have healthcare to be able to go and see their doctor.

 

When I was first sick, there weren’t even tests available in the state of Georgia. I was one of the first people to be tested. When my doctor called and made it available, I was able to drive up, knowing that I have the health insurance to cover the testing, to cover the cost and the prescriptions, basically experimental, because we didn’t know what would work at that point. It was the second week of March. I was able to get the prescriptions that I needed to try and make sure that I could get through this virus, this disease.

 

I kept looking at the numbers as they grew, and my zip code was the top zip code in the state for infections. At one point, 80% of the people in the hospital from this disease were black people here in Georgia. It was just heartbreaking. I kept hearing story after story of a nursing home down the street from me where the elders in our community, black staples of our community, were dying because there weren’t the necessary precautions taken by our leaders. While I was in the bed, once I actually knew what day it was again, I started to write letters on how do we make sure that we halt evictions in the state of Georgia so that people aren’t put out on the street? How do we make sure that all of our utility companies halt disconnections during this raging pandemic?

 

The last letter that I wrote was to make sure that this mass law that we had on the books in Georgia that said adults can’t wear masks in public, in public places, and it was based on a law to target the KKK back in the day because they didn’t want people going out with their faces covered. I know that laws are also meant to be punitive and are enforced selectively in many instances. I remember my husband, Leslie is six foot two, he’s a big black man, and he was like, “I don’t know about wearing these makeshift,” because masks weren’t readily available at that point. People were like, “Just put a bandana across your face.” He’s like, “Imagine being a big, black man walking into a convenience store with the bandana on your face. I’d feel like I have a target on my back and I’d rather take my chances with corona.”

 

Alicia Garza:

Wow.

 

Nikema Williams:

I wrote a letter to Governor Kemp asking him to suspend that law on the books. I don’t agree with him on much and y’all know he is not going to do anything that I asked him to do, but citing someone else, he said he was going to suspend that mask law that was on the books, so that at least that couldn’t be used against our communities when I knew that black people were dying more at the hands of this disease than other people.

 

I mean, those days were just brutal in the house with my son walking in. He’s saying, “Mommy, you have the coronavirus. Is that why I can’t go to school?” Carter’s trying to figure it all out. Leslie’s trying to take care of me while staying well himself. I’m down in a guest bedroom downstairs, which I also understand is a privilege because so many people were just in a home where they didn’t have a way to isolate or have someone there to take care of them because our care workers also couldn’t get into home safely to take care of people. It was the intersections of so many different competing disparities in our country that we, for so long, have swept under the rug and just have an addressed.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

That’s right. It has revealed all of the injustices and inequities that have been epidemics in our country for so long.

 

Nikema Williams:

Right.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

You know, Nikema, one of the things I was thinking about as you share that story is how, I don’t know if you know this, but we call you the joyful warrior because literally it is amazing how you just bring so much joy to every space you’re in, and the way you lead, and it’s contagious. At the same time, it’s like fierce clarity about injustice and determination to address it. How do you hold both of those things, right? The fierce clarity about everything that we have to address all of the injustice, and all of the inequality, and all of the brutality, and the voter suppression, and all of those issues, and still stay so joyful.

 

Nikema Williams:

I remember in ninth, grade reading in my Alabama history book. I came home and I was like, “Ma, Auntie Autherine is in my history book,” literally in my Alabama history book. My aunt integrated into the University of Alabama, and so I think about everything that she went through when she was not even ultimately able to get her degree from there because they expelled her, because she brought a danger to the campus, because other people didn’t know how to react to her being there. Yet, she was willing to make that sacrifice and open doors for so many other people to come behind her.

 

I know that each generation has an obligation to move us one step closer to full equality. I don’t know how to not do more and to continue to look for ways to open doors for more people to come behind me. I have a lot of people counting on me and leadership sets the tone. For far too long we’ve had leaders in this country who were not willing to stand up for everyday people and show them what is possible in this country. I refuse to be that person.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Yes, thank you for refusing to be that person because we need a hundred, a thousand, 10,000 more Nikemas at every level of government, making sure that there’s equity, and making sure that there’s justice, and making sure that there’s joy along the way. Nikema, you have such a beautiful spirit. It reminds me so much of Congressman John Lewis. You have said that your job obviously, right, I mean, you are your own incredible person, your job is not to replicate what he did. It’s to push it forward and to put your own little shine on it. You know what I’m saying? Talk to us about your vision for Georgia, especially in this really critical moment where, obvi, all eyes are on Georgia, but really all eyes are on the future of this nation. What does it mean to push that vision forward? What does that mean for you in your role?

 

Nikema Williams:

I look at all of the work that has been done, and all of the attention that is on Georgia, and me being able to be the state party chair at this time. I don’t think any of these things happened at the same time by mistake. I’ve been given an enormous platform to talk about the reforms that we need, to talk about the change that we need in this country. I bring my lived experiences to the conversation. I think about the need to get to Washington and get a national response to this pandemic.

 

As you might hear at some point, Carter is upstairs at school right now in front of a computer screen, though, for kindergarten. His very first day of kindergarten was in front of a computer screen. I think about how important it is for him to have that social interaction, but I have to have him safe in the process.

 

The day that President Obama was in town, the day before the November 3rd election, I told Carter, “I’m going to take you to see President Obama.” He said, “No, Mommy. I don’t want to go because today I can meet Ms. Coleman in real person.” He was going to have a drive-through at his school to meet his teacher for the first time ever as a kindergartner. That was what was important to him. Two days ago, I took him with me to see Joe Biden. He was like, “Yes, I want to go.” He was super excited, but then I realized, he said, “Oh, it was because I got to miss school.” He even told the mayor. He was like, “I’m here because I get to miss school today.”

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Carter’s onto something.

 

Nikema Williams:

It’s so important that we get our children back to school safely because I know who is at greater risk of falling behind. I have a great support system. I have Miss Betty who is upstairs with Carter right now. She’s with us every day because, while Leslie and I are both working from home, somebody has to be with the little ones to make sure that they’re getting what they need at this critical time.

 

Then, looking at our economy and how do we get people back to work, so many women have left our workforce during this time of this pandemic. I mean, it’s going to be so difficult to right this ship, but I’m going to make sure that I’m working with this new administration to make sure that our people are not left behind in this process. I look at the pandemic. I look at the black businesses that have been lost. I look at the black people that have been laid off. I’m still a state senator until I’m sworn into the United States Congress. I get the emails every day of people telling me they don’t know how they’re going to feed their family. They don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent because they haven’t gotten their unemployment benefits. They haven’t gotten their checks.

 

At the top of my list is a national response to this pandemic, getting people back to work, getting our children back to school safely, and getting our communities the healthcare that they need and deserve because right now people keep saying, “We just need to get back to where we were before this pandemic,” but that doesn’t get us full equality. That doesn’t get people the care that they need. That doesn’t get our children the education that they deserve, and so I’m fighting to move us forward. The big thing that can not be left out of the conversation, especially when it comes to Georgia, is voting rights. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act has already passed the House, but it has been held up in the Senate. The same people who sat there and said they were revered Congressman John Lewis are not willing to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which gets us back to where we were pre Shelby v. Holder, so that we have pre-clearance in States like Georgia where we know that they’ve consistently sought out ways to keep people that look like me from voting.

 

I like to say that I live my life out loud and own purpose. I have a purpose when I’m going to DC and we’re going to get this fixed because I’m going to continue working on it until I have a United States Senate that’s is willing to work with me to get this done for all Americans. It should not matter where you live in this country if you are able to vote safely during a pandemic. No one should be able to play the political games that I see happening right here in the State of Georgia right now trying to suppress our right to vote.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

That’s right. All the truth in this conversation. I’m wondering what you think now that everybody’s talking about Georgia, and thinking about Georgia, and Georgia is the center of the political universe right now. What do you think people get wrong about what’s happening in Georgia right now?

 

Nikema Williams:

I think when people say, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to make sure that people turn back out to vote in January for these runoffs?” it’s the same way that we’ve been doing it cycle after cycle. If you look at what has been happening in Georgia, this didn’t happen overnight. You have people that have been deep organizing on the ground cycle after cycle, talking to voters about what matters to them, so that voters understood that they have the power, not the person whose name is on the ballot.

 

I say that as someone who asked voters consistently to vote for me, but in voting for me, you’re voting for you because I represent what you want to happen when I get into office. We give the people’s names on the ballot way too much power over us and that’s why I know that Georgia voters are going to turn back out to vote in force because it was never just about Donald Trump. It was never just about one election cycle. It was about the people of the state using their voices to decide the way that they want to see this state move forward.

 

Alicia Garza:

Oh, yeah. You tell them, Nikema. You tell him. Listen.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

I’m in church right now.

 

Alicia Garza:

Okay. Nikema, here’s the deal. Georgia’s on fire. We know that this didn’t just happen yesterday. There’s been a decade at least of really, really intentional, slow and steady work. Every step of the way, I’m sure people told y’all, “Totally not possible. Can’t happen,” but look at this, child. You are one of the most powerful women in Georgia at this very moment. Okay? Georgia continues to turn up and turn out. Now literally is the turning point. If you could talk to people in your state right now about what’s next and what the future holds, what would you say?

 

Nikema Williams:

What the future holds is a state that governs with their people. Right now we look at so many people that are in office only there to enrich themselves and not looking out for people in the state who need them most. When I look to the future, I’m looking at having representation who truly represent the people. I don’t think that we fully understand what that looks like because we’ve been so limited in our vision of what can be for far too long. When I talk to voters, even myself, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to look down the road at the future that you really want and not just at the small term goals.

 

How do we look at bold, big visions for our country? How do we make sure that things like universal family care, so that no parent has to decide if they’re going to take care of their child going to daycare, or having childcare for their child, or caring for an elderly parent? How do we make sure that these things are a reality? I think that it starts with January 5th. That is my immediate future in making sure that we have the United States Senate who is willing to look out for the people. We can’t get big change without that. We can’t move forward and having a national response to this pandemic without that. We can’t make sure that we have a healthcare system where everyone in this country truly has healthcare as a human right and not tied to your job or not tied to if you have the means to pay.

 

Alicia Garza:

Love it. Professed. The best that’s all there is.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

Do it full stop.

 

Alicia Garza:

Period. Well, Madam Congresswoman Elect, Nikema Williams, we are so grateful to you for spending some time talking with us, sharing your story, but most of all, for your courageous, clear, powerful leadership. We’re so excited to see you sworn in, and take your seat in Congress, and take this country forward. We are so blessed that you’re going to be out there fighting for the rights of Georgians and really for all of us. Everyone, you got to follow Madame Congresswoman Elect Nikema Williams. You can find her and follow her incredible work at Nikema Williams on all the socials. Thank you listeners for tuning into our special bonus episode of Sunstorm. Don’t forget to check out Sunstormpod.com where you can catch up on all the Sunstone storm conversations. We will see you soon. Bye.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

You’re the best, Nikema.

 

Alicia Garza:

Sunstorm is a project of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in collaboration with participant. Sandstorm is executive produced by Alicia Garza, Ai-jen Poo, and Kristina Mevs-Apgar. Sunstorm is produced by Amy S Choi and Rebecca Lehrer of the Mash-Up Americans. Producers are Shelby Sandlin, Mary Phillips-Sandy, and Mia Warren. Original music composed by Jen Kwok and Jody Shelton.

 

Ai-jen Poo:

You just tell that baby when it counts that I said I love the Ninja Turtle shoes.