Photo: Rena Naltsas/ Chicago Lawyer  
By Andrew Wyder

These are the issues that have been at the forefront of Sodiqa Williams’s mind for more than a decade, things that have intersected through her personal and professional lives:

   Mass incarceration. Race in the United States. Equity.

   They have driven Williams (LAW ’11) hard since her undergraduate days at Princeton University. They are also the reasons that when she was ready for a career change in 2014, the Safer Foundation was a logical landing spot.

“I am of community,” says Williams, who is the foundation’s general counsel and vice president of external affairs. “I’ve lived in all parts of the city. While I wasn’t born in the city of Chicago, I’ve been here most of my adult life, and I spent part of my childhood here because my father is a retired Chicago police officer. I’ve had all kinds of experiences that weren’t necessarily good with police. The father of my kids? He’s incarcerated. He was a high school sweetheart. We had been together for 13 years. I saw the challenges that he faced.”

More than six years into her tenure at Safer—a nonprofit founded in 1972 that aims to end the cycle of recidivism through training and assisting those with arrest or conviction records learn the skills to find careers—it is evident that Williams’s passion remains as strong as ever.

Talking over a video chat late this past summer, Williams seemed to emanate frustration as she recited two sobering statistics. One in three U.S. citizens has an arrest or criminal record—110 million as of the end of 2016, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And in Illinois more than 4 million people, or roughly a third of the population, living in the state have been arrested or have a conviction, according to Safer.

“It’s ridiculous!” Williams says. “When you think about that, it starts making sense why we see all these symptoms in our community, the violence and all these other things, because you have people trapped in this cycle of justice involvement. Then their kids are a part of it, and it keeps on going and keeps on going.”

From the moment she started at Safer, Williams got to the task of ending the cycle of incarceration by creating opportunities.

She began by trying to create an inclusive environment in the health care industry, a sector that has grown consistently over the last decade and is one of the few projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to continue growing. Williams set up forums with key players in the industry and government and then helped create a pilot program to fill jobs in a sector that constantly has unfilled positions by hiring people with records to work at local hospitals. Ultimately, it led to her writing a tool kit in partnership with the National Employment Law Project for health care systems nationwide about hiring people with records.

The initiative, started in 2016, has already resulted in Safer placing 150 people with records in clinical and non-clinical positions within the health care industry.

“We still are primarily focused on employment, but what [Williams] has brought and created in our organization has done two things: pulling down barriers for people seeking employment, education, and housing, and also in creating new opportunities,” Safer President and Chief Executive Officer Victor B. Dickson says. “It has taken our work to another level. It has expanded our mission.”

“If someone doesn’t start prying the door open, it will never be open.”
—Sodiqa Williams

The efforts of Williams and her external affairs team have resulted in tangible results, not only nationally with the health care tool kit or with the version she is working to develop with JPMorgan Chase to create similar pathways in the banking industry, but also for those in Illinois and, specifically, Cook County.

They helped a Just Housing Ordinance pass in Cook County in 2019, while also playing a key role in occupational licensing reform in Illinois. By ensuring that individuals with records are able to be licensed without judgment, these individuals can pursue new career opportunities.

Dickson says that the reform efforts—which required licensing agencies and boards to consider rehabilitation before a denial; prohibit the consideration of arrests, sealed, and expunged records in decisions; and ensures that individuals are not automatically disqualified from getting a license solely on the basis of having a conviction on the grounds of good moral character—opened up more than 100 occupations to people with records in Illinois.

“Those are the living-wage jobs,” Williams says, “whether it’s nursing, real estate, insurance producers, social workers. We covered barbering and cosmetologists.”

While she remains focused and is moving forward on her work at Safer, Williams has started to think about what her future will hold—by looking back. Her time at Princeton led to a goal of, ultimately, running for the U.S. Senate. Real-world experience eventually drove away that idea. Buoyed by the advice of her late father, who passed away over the summer and who had been involved in the civil rights movement, and energized by the recent protests of Black Americans calling for equity, she has started to reconsider the possibility of running for office.

“[My father] always taught me, do what you set your mind to, and that if you will it, you can make it happen. That is the approach I take to everything. The systemic reform that I’ve done, everyone’s always said it’s not possible. I say to them, ‘Yes, it is. Let’s make it happen.’ You put a plan into action with a time frame, figure out who you need to talk to and the will you need to build up to get it to happen, and you push it,” says Williams.

“If someone doesn’t start prying the door open, it will never be open.”