Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Williams advocates for underrepresented communities


Dominique Williams

Dominique Williams' career plans did an about-face after she got to the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

When Williams enrolled four years ago, she expected to work as an attorney to advocate for underrepresented communities after she completed her dual degree in law and public affairs. "I originally thought I would be a practicing attorney and that my policy degree would be supplemental," she says. "In fact, it's the opposite!"

After she graduated in May 2011, Williams went to work as a postgraduate fellow for the Civic Consulting Alliance in Chicago. The nonprofit organization builds pro bono teams of government leaders, business experts and agency staff to address key issues the city of Chicago faces.

Public affairs started to dominate law after Williams completed a legal internship with a small nonprofit firm that serves low-income clients. "I loved the direct service aspect of the job," Williams says. "I knew our work was helpful to the clients, but at times I felt we were putting out fires rather than examining the reasons why our clients found themselves in these circumstances in the first place. In the policy internships I've had since then, I feel I'm addressing these big picture questions and also helping to provide communities with access to resources and opportunities."

Williams came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison after working for five years in the nonprofit sector in low-cost co-op housing, immigrant and refugee services, and international youth service and leadership.

She can't imagine anything but a public service career. "I'm one generation removed from poverty, and I've had opportunities my grandparents and parents could only dream of," she says. "I feel fortunate to have had such a great education, and I want to pay it forward. My parents definitely instilled this in me. Also, as a person of color, I bring a perspective that's rare among policy professionals – and it's a perspective that's needed."

The flexibility of the La Follette School program has let her pursue her interests in poverty policy, urban policy, housing policy, as well as public and nonprofit management. "The La Follette program allowed me to gain exposure to each of these areas," she says. "Also, being in a city like Madison, which has a dynamic city government and is the state capital, means there are lots of enriching professional opportunities right at your fingertips. The program's excellent reputation opens doors, and policy professionals are eager to hire La Follette students."

She finds the law and public affairs programs complement each other. "The dual-degree program has provided me with a very balanced educational experience," she says. "Whenever legal questions or issues arise in a policy class, I can draw upon my legal knowledge with ease. In my law school classes, I'm attuned not only to the requisite legal analysis, but also to the policy rationale behind laws or judicial opinions. The ability to move between the two disciplines has made for a rich and interesting graduate school experience."

At La Follette, Maria Cancian's course on Public Assistance Policy and Management allowed Williams to study the connections between poverty and public policy. The three courses Williams took from Paul Soglin, the newly re-elected mayor of Madison, on public management and budgeting gave her knowledge she will use throughout her career. "Paul encourages students to get off campus and out into the real world to study and learn from practitioners, which I enjoyed," she says.

An internship in the office of Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle gave Williams a good introduction to state policymaking, she says. Then, while working with the City of Madison's Community and Economic Development Division, Williams experienced the link between federal and local governments. "I started soon after the federal stimulus bill was passed," she says. "It was exciting to see how local jurisdictions implement massive federal legislation and the flexibility cities have to design policies tailored to local needs. I learned a lot about the interplay between federal, state and local governments."

— updated September 27, 2011