ASU School of Social Work director looks back at 4 years in the job

James Herbert Williams points to accomplishments, sees school's future as strong

April 20, 2021

James Herbert Williams plans to keep a full schedule that includes editing two books and traveling to Africa once he concludes his four years as director of the Arizona State University School of Social Work this summer.

“Prior to coming to ASU I had several collaborations in eastern and southern Africa, and I would like to reconnect with my African colleagues. I spent the last decade working with tribes in Africa on conflict mediation and sustainable development,” Williams said. James Herbert Williams, director, School of Social Work, Arizona State University James Herbert Williams returns to teaching and scholarship when he steps down as director of ASU's School of Social Work July 1, 2021. Download Full Image

His successor, Elizabeth Lightfoot, steps into the school director position July 1 from the University of Minnesota.

Williams returns to full-time teaching and scholarship as one of four editors of a book about the “Grand Challenges for Social Work,” a 10-year initiative to address significant health, social, economic and environmental problems impacting society. The profession’s focus on these 13 grand challenges should “move the needle” on identifying positive solutions to ameliorate these problems.  

Williams is a board member and executive committee member of the Grand Challenges for Social Work. During his tenure, the School of Social Work has been very active with GCSW. The book is actually the second edition of one published at the start of the 10-year period five years ago. It will examine what’s been accomplished at the mid-point of the initiative, he said.

Williams is also editing a second book with his colleagues from the University of Houston; the University of California, Los Angeles; and Howard University, based on a co-sponsored four-part symposium, “Social Work, White Supremacy and Racial Justice.”

“The events of last summer reminded us (of) the need to hold the social work profession accountable for its racist history by providing a space for social workers to present their scholarship,” he said.

Williams said the school has made “some tremendous strides” since his arrival at ASU in 2017 from the University of Denver.

Since then the school has risen to No. 25 out of 296 accredited Master of Social Work programs in the United States in annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, meaning the school is in the top 10%, Williams said. Four ASU faculty members are members of the prestigious American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

The school's faculty and student populations are larger today and it offers a more expansive online program. A new Master of Social Work degree program is based in Yuma, Arizona, at the request of students who wanted a local in-person program, not an online one.

“People call it launching a program, but it’s really increasing community capacity,” he said of the Yuma Master of Social Work curriculum. “If you hold a program in Phoenix, graduates won’t leave the big city.”

The school, based at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, also succeeded in bringing a Master of Social Work program back to ASU’s West campus.

“Its presence is expanding our footprint, not just in the Valley but throughout the state,” Williams said of the program’s multiple locations.

Williams said he is particularly pleased that Professor Neil Websdale and the Family Violence Center he heads moved to ASU last fall from Northern Arizona University.

“(The center's) research and community engagement complement the work of the Office of Gender-Based Violence. Having FVC and OGBV increases our national recognition for innovation and high-quality scholarship in the areas of family violence and gender-based violence,” he said.

Williams also said he worked to make sure everyone employed at the school, whether tenured, tenure-track or fixed-term faculty or staff members, understands the school’s mission and knows how each is making important contributions to that mission.

He also said he has worked to make the School of Social Work a more student-centered, student-friendly school.

“This is a challenge, given our size, our multiple sites and research productivity,” Williams said. “We created more student-supportive programs.”

Looking forward, Williams said he believes the school has a very strong future. Labor statistics are predicting a growing need for social workers, he said, yet in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, much turmoil has surfaced in the profession in the past year.

“There are divisions in our profession who say we need to reassess our involvement with the child welfare system or our partnering with the police,” Williams said. “A self-assessment has occurred: We are asking, 'Who are we? How do we interact with other institutions and professions?' Those are big questions and big conversations we need to have.”

He said other big issues face the profession as well, in education, student debt, diversity of the school’s students and keeping its graduates in the profession.

In addition are salary issues — whether an MSW graduate will be paid a livable family wage.

“They come in with all the best intentions about what they want to accomplish – but given the cost of higher education, quality assurance and gatekeeping will be an important part of our profession,” Williams said.

This may not necessarily mean adapting to a model of measuring outcomes similar to those in the medical profession, he said, “but we have to show that what we’re doing actually works, otherwise, who’ll invest in it? Will this family be at a better place than when we started working with them?”

Williams said he’s confident in the future of social work because he’s seen in younger scholars that “our profession is in very good hands. They’re very well trained, more intentional and willing to address the big issues.”

Some days have been better than others, but Williams said throughout his time as director he always started his morning looking forward to going to his office.

“Academia is such a privileged profession. You get to spend your day with very bright people and you get to choose what research questions you want to investigate,” he said. “It has been a great opportunity to serve as director. I will miss my colleagues from being the director.”

Williams said he deeply appreciates the school’s administrative team and support staff.

“When you’re a leader you need to have people around you who take care of you. You don’t always need it from them, but it’s there when you need it,” he said. “I’m fortunate from my time at ASU to have a wonderful group of colleagues. You only can have accomplishments if you have the right people whom you put in the right place for them to succeed.”

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions


Grad student combines film and digital culture to expand the Black experience in film

April 20, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Jay Williams wants to use all the tools at his disposal to tell the stories popular media often ignores.   Jay Williams profile headshot Jay Williams. Download Full Image

“I’m researching how utilizing new technologies can bring audiences an opportunity to experience the voices of underrepresented communities and peoples traditionally excluded in popular media,” he said.

Williams, who is graduating this semester with a Master of Arts in digital culture, said his path toward filmmaking started as a teenager growing up in Georgia. 

“I was part of a media literacy program when I was a teenager in Atlanta, and it changed my life,” he said. “In that class we looked at images of African Americans in film and media and dissected how those images could be made to be better representative of Black culture.”

He went on to study film at Georgia State University, and after graduating with his bachelor’s degree, delved into the world of independent filmmaking. 

“Without access to large amounts of money to fund projects, I became fascinated with independent filmmaking as a way to make films without spending a lot of money and yet still making quality work,” he said. 

Williams worked on larger productions in Atlanta while simultaneously working on his own independent films as a writer/director/editor. Independent filmmaking allowed him to tell the stories he wanted. 

“As a Black filmmaker in America, there are a host of stories that I would love to be part of telling to help fill the perspective from Black culture,” he said. “The Black experience in film needs to be so much more than the slave narrative and the annual Hollywood slave movie. It's important not only for wider audiences to see that, it's essential for us to see ourselves as more than that. I want to do my part to present our stories to the world so that our voices are heard.”

Williams wanted to explore other creative mediums to express and represent what he valued most. And he found the perfect place to do that at the School of Arts, Media and Engineering in the digital culture program. 

“I’ve been able to think about how audiences consume media and what the future of that may look like where we are consuming film not in a theater, but in new spaces, new environments and locations,” he said. “I think digital culture grounded me more in the technical headspace of how I want to tell stories and not just in the traditional four-walled theater space.”

During his time at ASU, he was able to combine his understanding and passion for film with the creative tool set the School of Arts, Media and Engineering provided.  

“I have been heavily influenced by remix culture, which brings various elements, like separate images and sounds, to contrast and even disrupt the existing narrative,” he said. “This type of narrative disruption brings attention to relevant issues in the film. I did this in Dr. (Lauren) Hayes’ class with the 1915 film ‘Birth of a Nation,’ to bring to the audience’s attention to the parallels between the horrific images of today and a century ago. Also, by sampling parts of the film’s soundtrack, I was able to create a new audio aesthetic that contrasted with some of the film’s imagery. All together I see how this fuels a sort of creative reappropriation of scenes and makes us pay more deliberate attention to what we are seeing.” 

For his applied project, Williams created an experience to shine a light on Black cowboys and explorers. 

“My applied project, The Unknown West, is an extension of the research I’m interested in — it is a way to give respect to the little-known contributions of Black cowboys and explorers in the American West,” he said. 

The project is an immersive experience where the participant can “reveal” the faces and images of these forgotten people by physically moving around the space.

“I'm always going to be a filmmaker and a creative, it's in my DNA,” he said. “Now it's a matter of using the new skill sets I’ve gained in digital culture mixed with my previous experience in film."

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: My undergraduate degree was a major in film and video at Georgia State University. My “aha” moment was in film history class and realizing the deeper connection people had with film. The conversations about film being like a snapshot of time and the society it was made in would fuel conversations for hours. I loved hearing about why those films were so impactful. I wanted to continue in those fascinating talks and learn more.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: What surprised me about ASU was how easily I found my creative niche. I wasn’t expecting to be able to merge so many of my interests into one educational experience. I feel like I found a long-lost home within AME at ASU!

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU had so many resources available to my needs. I thought about how I would fit in coming back into education after some time in the professional world, but the diversity and acceptance at the school was remarkable. It made the perfect fit. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I have several. Even as I think back I can’t pick just one. So a shout out to: Dr. Pavan Turaga, David Tinapple, Grisha Coleman, and my amazing chair, Dr. Lauren Hayes. Each professor gave me an opportunity to be myself and in their own way encouraged me to explore my interests further. Thank you!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: My advice would be to enjoy this moment. It goes by fast. This might be the last time in your adult life that you can explore anything that interests you. I’ve looked at grad school as a sort of academic playground that I can explore and ask questions. I would also recommend meeting people and making as many new friends as you can.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: As a grad student, Matthews Center is my home! Just studying and being around my AME fam has really inspired some great memories and ideas for future collaborations.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would like to tackle food insecurity and the quality of food that we eat. I’d like to give people a chance to eat better and have better options available that are less expensive. I know that might take more money than $40 mil, but it would be a start for sure.

Megan Patzem

Multimedia specialist, School of Arts, Media and Engineering