I am at your service.” That’s how Liz Ligawa opened our interview, and it’s her approach to life as well: How can she be of service? She has brought that servant’s heart to every role and every job, including her current position at Prosper Waco as director of community engagement. She says her current title could be simply Listener.
Ligawa is a first-generation American who has lived in Waco for almost 20 years. Her parents came to the United States from Kenya, and she and her two brothers and three sisters grew up in America, although Ligawa did live in Kenya for a few years when she was very young. She came to Waco through the Methodist Children’s Home. Since her Big Sister there attended Baylor University, Ligawa never wanted to go anywhere else. She graduated from Baylor in 2003 and later attended George W. Truett Theological Seminary to pursue a joint master’s program, earning a master of divinity and a master of social work in 2016. Her son, Elijah, is in second grade at Rapoport Academy. Since becoming a mom, she realizes that motherhood is the one role where she is irreplaceable, and that’s something she wants other women to appreciate as well.
“My passion is for women, especially the roles that we play in our lives,” Ligawa said. “We get to choose where we put our energies.”
Ligawa has a lot of energy. Wacoan writer Megan Willome visited with her by phone to learn more about where she directs that energy: toward her community, toward her son and toward loving herself with the help of people she calls Team Liz.
WACOAN: How did you get to Waco?
Ligawa: It’s a long story. I’ll give you the short version.
I’m a first-generation American. My family is Kenyan, and my parents immigrated to the States. That’s when they started having babies. When I was really young, we went back to Kenya and stayed awhile, around when I was 1. We returned [to the United States] when I was 7 or 8. The transition happened when our parents went back to Kenya, and we came to live with one of our family members. Most of our family is back home in Kenya.
Our nuclear family, there’s six of us siblings, and then we have a set of cousins. At that time we were living with an uncle and an aunt. We would come to Texas, drive from Indiana.
Texas was always so different to us. The roads, the lane changes have these bump things, and we weren’t used to that. A million and one Texacos. We’d try to count the Texacos and lose count. Texas used to be our vacation.
Texas became our home when Mom and Dad went back to Kenya, and we lived with our aunt, who had five kids of her own. State agencies were different at that time. That was the intersection of our family into the foster care system, and we were placed in the Methodist Home in Waco.
WACOAN: How old were you?
Ligawa: I was 11.
WACOAN: Did you stay at the Methodist Home through high school?
Ligawa: Part of it, up until 10th grade. I did half my year at Waco High. I actually finished in Chilton.
WACOAN: How did you get to Chilton?
Ligawa: With a foster family. I didn’t start out with a foster family — the story gets way too complicated.
The principal [of Chilton High School], Annie McGruder — me and my sisters just really caught her attention, and she decided to open her home as a foster home so we wouldn’t have to go anywhere else. That act of love and service, by her saying yes, really changed how our family would look and where we would live, what home looked like.
We’re still in contact with her. She’d never had a foster kid before, she and her husband. They took that journey so they could make a home for us. So her yes was a very impactful yes on our lives. She was the first black principal of Chilton High School. She’s a little bitty person. She ruled with a big heart.
I had never lived rurally, except, I guess, when I was back home in Kenya. Rural culture and communities have a very distinct personality and rhythm.
WACOAN: Yes, they do. Compared to Chilton, I bet Waco was the big city.
Ligawa: Waco was going into town. The other closest city was Marlin.
WACOAN: And then you went to Baylor?
Ligawa: Yes. That was an interesting way that happened. When I was at the Methodist Home, I had a Baylor Big Sister, [through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America]. My Baylor Big Sister was Betsy Lynch (now Cain). That was the first time I started paying attention to what my life could look like after high school as an adult. All of those changes that happened when I was young, it keeps you in a very now-ness kind of rhythm. Thinking or considering the future was more distant. So Betsy went to Baylor, and at 13, I said, ‘When I go to college, I’m gonna go to Baylor.’ Baylor was the only college I applied to.
The Big Sister Big Brother program was on a semester or a year [basis] that you had to commit to, but she was my Big Sister all through her four years at Baylor. She’d take me out. My favorite was Whataburger. She’d come and pick me up, and we’d go hang out. We became family. I didn’t know what a mentor was. It was to have a relationship that’s not like a teacher, where if I’m successful in these ways then I can earn your validation. Betsy’s love was just for Liz, no matter what was going on in my life.
WACOAN: What did you major in at Baylor?
Ligawa: Major was psychology, minor was English. At that time I wanted to be an attorney. As much as I knew of myself then, I knew I am my mother’s daughter. I am Helen’s child, and she is a strong advocate. I knew I wanted to be an advocate. I wanted to be a civil rights attorney, but that’s not what the Lord had planned for me.
WACOAN: When did you graduate?
Ligawa: My undergrad was in ’03. There were two options I was considering. I was considering getting my [doctor of psychology] or focusing on my LSAT, [law school aptitude test], and working for a couple years then going to law school.
My first job outside of college was at Texas Life Insurance Company, and one of my favorite bosses really helped develop a leadership lens in me because of what he saw. I never saw myself as a leader. He actually told me, ‘You are meant for great things, and you need to do them.’ I was like, ‘Who’re you talking about?’
He would put me in environments where that [leadership] could come out. I’m like, ‘I’m not sure why I’m here.’ Or he would create opportunities for me to develop what he saw in me, and then I would love it. He knew what he was doing.
He wouldn’t let me live beneath Liz. He wouldn’t let me settle, and so he would always push me. He didn’t say, ‘This is what you need to do,’ but he would point out what in me he saw, so it’s already been called out. If I decide not to do it, I have to wrestle with that. He was one of the people in my life who spoke into me that helped me to pay attention.
WACOAN: So how did you get to Truett seminary’s joint degree program?
Ligawa: The way that I got to the program, the MSW/MDiv, I was working in Providence [Hospital] in their case management department. We helped with discharge planning. You’ve got to make decisions quickly, you’ve gotta move, you’ve gotta go. We’re making sure patients have what they need to be successful in that environment. That’s what leading is — making sure those who are following have what they need. I kept on getting feedback: ‘You’re good at this.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not sure what this is; I’m just doing my job.’
From Providence, I went to St. Catherine [Center], their sub-acute care unit, and I was a case manager there. I had my own clients. Doing medical social work — this is before I had a [master’s] degree — required a flexibility and creativity of language.
Medical terminology can be pretty confusing, especially if you don’t live that day in and day out. I had to grow in the skillset of being able to be translatable. If my patients don’t know the meaning of the message, then I haven’t communicated. It didn’t serve them well if I can say a whole paragraph of medical lingo that leaves them still needing to know what’s going on. I’d get feedback from my colleagues or from families, especially, of how I was able to relate to them information, and it helped them to feel part of the process instead of feeling like a recipient.
By this time I was a divorced mother of a young little boy. The feedback I got was, ‘You need to go back to school.’ But I was like, ‘I can’t go back to school. I’ve got a baby. I’m parenting by myself. How does that happen?’ But God has a way of reminding you of what your purposes are.
When I feel God is leading me in a particular direction, I fight it. When I was deliberating and praying about it, I remember I was on the access road to [Interstate] 35, and there was this sign saying I-35, but I was on the access road. And the sense I got was you won’t get where you’re going until you get on that highway. You can deliberate all you want and still be on the access road. That’s when I applied for Truett, and that started my graduate school journey of a seminary degree and social work degree.
I went in with the intent of being a clinical social worker, being able to bill — that kind of practice. I came out with a passion and a desire for the health of not just one individual but the health of communities.
WACOAN: So when did you finish your graduate degrees?
Ligawa: My MSW I finished in May of 2016 and my MDiv in August of 2016.
Those leaders [in graduate school] God put in my life to identify these virtues of leadership [in me], even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. I think of Dr. [David] Garland and how he leads in such a way that it’s not about him but about those whom he serves. We called him Dr. He Garland and her Dr. She Garland. [Editor’s note: Dr. Diana Garland, founding dean of Baylor University School of Social Work, died in 2015. Dr. David Garland is currently interim president of Baylor.]
Then she got sick. I remember going to the hospital and bringing a bag of goodies for Dr. He Garland to snack on. I don’t know how he knew my name, but he did. That impressed something so valuable on me about leadership.
When I went to the hospital to see them, he said, ‘We usually go to the [Baylor] basketball games, but why don’t you go and take Elijah?’ There he is, in such a tough spot, and he’s still thinking about others. I went to that game in tears and with an aching heart, but I wanted to also receive well because he was giving me a gift. And even though I didn’t want to go, I wanted to honor his gift.
Even now, he’s leading our university going through such a tough time. You don’t lead when it’s pretty and nice only. You lead because it’s in you to lead.
WACOAN: So you have these two parts of you, the social work part and the seminary part. Tell me more about the ministry side of Liz.
Ligawa: Truett is home to me. I’ll just go in that narthex and breathe the air and feel at home. Especially being a woman who is trying to fill out her call of God, it’s not the easiest thing. We [women] usually don’t go into theological training with a lot of applause or commendation or a ‘Go get ’em’ or ‘We have your back.’ It was a very cautious and risky thing for me to do. When I entered seminary, I was like, ‘I’m here because I want to do Christian counseling, so I need to have a good knowledge of the Bible.’ If you asked me in 2012-13, that’s what I would’ve told you.
I was in a class called Life and Work of the Pastor. One of my favorite people, Dr. [Robert] Creech, we were reading Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Pastor: A Memoir.’ It shook me up. It so much unnerved me because it felt so personal. I was like, ‘Why is he reading my thoughts?’ I was so off-kilter, and I had a meeting with Dr. Creech. I said, ‘This is not who I am, not what I’m called to do.’
He’d been there with students before as God starts to speak to different parts of who we are. There are things we did not consider to be parts of ourselves. If we see through a mirror dimly, it felt like God was unfogging this mirror. The woman in front of me was so unfamiliar but exactly me. That paradox, I had not considered that was me but it was so me.
Dr. Creech had a pastoral heart, the perspective of a whole community, like a pastor does with a whole flock. He’s like, ‘God will show you. You don’t have to choose anything right now.’ [I realized] who I thought I was may not be who I am. The journey to discovering and learning to appreciate who I am started a different — it wasn’t the beginning of the journey, it was a different mode. I learned to love myself late in life, but that was part of the process when I was in Truett, in the halls of Truett, in the classrooms. There was a molding and a deepening of who I was. I’ve never felt more loved and accepted and appreciated as Liz. Liz could be completely Liz. Truett is home.
WACOAN: You mentioned your son, Elijah, earlier. Tell me more about him.
Ligawa: Mama’s baby! He is a summer baby. He didn’t come until August, and it was hot.
He teaches me so much about what it means to really see and love others. I didn’t think that a child could be such a teacher to an adult, but he is. He’s 7 … and a 1/2. Don’t forget the 1/2! He’s a second-grader, and I can’t believe we’re already here. I feel like I had him a couple days ago, and now he’s in second grade.
I can’t slack with him. Let me get everything else wrong in my life but not being his mommy. In every other role I’m replaceable. I absolutely adore being his mommy.
Motherhood. I’m a nurturer by nature. Motherhood is a different type of nurturing. There is this little one who is dependent on you. How I love him is how he learns what love is — that’s just huge. Let me get this right!
How we interact is how he learns to be among others and how he is valued. My goal is to live before him so he knows he is valuable, even when he is not loved by everyone he wants to be loved by. Even when he is not making marks or not reaching other people’s expectations, he is just as valuable. That’s a full-time job to be thinking about that.
I can’t ever respond [poorly] when he’s having a bad day. Life happens, but he has taught me flexibility. His mama can be so high-strung. He is more chill; he’s more relaxed. He takes his time in responding. I just appreciate that about him. He doesn’t get too riled up. He’s a lot like me and a lot like his dad. He’s an only child.
WACOAN: He goes to Rapoport?
Ligawa: Yes, in their North campus.
WACOAN: What do you like to do together?
Ligawa: So one of the things that’s easy to do is for our children to fit into our routines. It’s like a checklist — making sure he’s fed, making sure he goes to bed, goes to school — and his life can become another one of my tasks.
I’ve been doing Mommy-Elijah days since he was 1. There’s nothing that will hamper our time together. We’ll go and eat at a certain restaurant or have ice cream or go buy some expensive cupcakes. I’m intentionally being with him instead of him being around what I’m doing. Mommy and Elijah — that is one of my most favorite times. He’ll go, ‘Mommy, can we have a Mommy-Elijah day?’
I want him to know he’s important. He needs his mommy’s time, that quality time that, ‘Hey, let’s not schedule anything and just be.’ It’s a way I can pay attention to being intentional. Demands and life and work can turn into a routine where we’re just doing life alongside one another instead of with each other. He’ll sing, ‘Mommy and Elijah,’ and I’m wondering how old he’ll be when he doesn’t want to do it anymore. I’m not there yet, so we’ll do as many as we can until he says, ‘No more.’
WACOAN: What does he like to do?
Ligawa: He tried out skateboarding. That didn’t last long.
We just moved downtown. That’s been a good thing because we love our new place. It’s three times the size of our previous home, but we’re in a commercial district, so there’s not a lot of neighbors. We used to go to Hewitt Park or Whitehall Park that were close to our [old] home, so now we’ll go to the river.
I like the water. The water’s peaceful. There’s a creek in Cameron Park, Proctor Springs. We’ve started going there. It’s a place where a boy can be just a boy. We’re gonna look like creek water when we leave! We love nature, so the things we like to do together involve being outside somewhere.
The last time we went to Proctor Springs I’d just gotten off work, and he’d just gotten out of school. I didn’t have shoes to go to the creek, but we went and we did the trail, the sidewalks around the river. I keep his scooter and his bike in my trunk so that whenever the opportunity arises we can just go.
WACOAN: You said you moved downtown. How do you like it?
Ligawa: I love it!
Elijah misses his friends because we lived in an apartment complex [before], so we had lots of kids within a year or two of Elijah’s age. He has had a harder time with it. Him being with his peers is important to me. I want to make sure he gets access to them. I have five brothers and sisters, so I can’t even imagine how hard it is for him.
He wants Mommy to have another baby. I said to him that when things are weighing on our hearts, we can pray about them and see what Jesus says. He has a lot of faith for a kid. He’ll put his ear to my stomach to listen. He was asking, ‘Is she in there?’ And it’s because he’s been praying, so he’s expecting to hear her.
WACOAN: That sounds like one even the folks at Truett might have a little trouble explaining.
Ligawa: [Laughs.] Yes! I learn new things about the wonder of life through his eyes. Learning to experience things in a new way. When we get older, we think we know a lot. And a child comes along, and the things we’re used to seeing, they see differently. I love that because it reminds me of hope. Hope gives us a chance to see things differently or at least to expect that they can be different.
WACOAN: Part of what you’re doing at Prosper Waco is bringing hope to the greater Waco community through collaborative efforts. What is your role there?
Ligawa: My focus is community engagement. I’m the director of community engagement.
I love doing this work. I have a vocation where it’s also my passion. It fits how I naturally see things, and I’m inclined to be drawn to whether I can fix it or not. Whenever we are trying to work on something together, whether “we” is a church or whatever our definition of community is, it asks something of us: Can there be something different? That can be such an important question at the beginning.
If my heart is settled into thinking things are going to remain the same, then the soil of our heart is not ready for that seed of hope to be deposited. But if our response to that question, ‘Can things be different,’ even if the answer is just, ‘Well, maybe,’ then there is a space, even though it’s little. There’s space for hope to be blown in there, to be whispered. You don’t have to shout hope. Hope can just come through a whisper: ‘Maybe things can be different.’
If our posture is opened just that much and we are willing to think and talk about how they can be different, then we have a space to collaborate. That’s what I get to do in my job. I’m trying to assess who’s interested in being involved in issues. There was a time in my life when this wouldn’t have been my work because my response would have been, ‘No, things can’t be different.’ As my life changed, as my response to life has changed, I can really answer that question differently.
I really do think the title of my job should be Listener because that’s what I do well. I’m a good listener, and people entrust to me parts of their heart. There’s a reason I went into social work. The reason why listening is a helpful skill in my work is when we feel heard, we feel acknowledged. We feel like there’s something valuable that we have to say.
Listening for facts only is a bad listening habit. Listening is two-way for me — not only listening for what’s happening and the feelings behind the words, but it’s almost like I’m taking a stethoscope and listening to the different organs of the community.
I’m asking the question, ‘What do you see?’ In my profession, as a social work practitioner, the work can’t be about me. If I’m asking, ‘What do you see?’ I’ve made the work not about me. That’s part of being client-centered.
WACOAN: What are you working on right now?
Ligawa: We’re about to embark on these ambitious events called What’s Up Waco. It’s a community visioning series addressed in three parts: What’s Up? What’s Next? and What’s Best?
The purpose is to combine leadership voices within a certain geographic community toward a common vision so that the future that is hoped for will receive the proper investments toward its realization.
It’s going to be music, there’s gonna be food and there’s gonna be work. It’s gonna be in South Waco, North Waco, East Waco — where an identity of community is.
We’re starting a community visioning process. Not only what do you see, but what do you want to see? What results do you want to see in our community? It’s different than asking, ‘What do we not want to see?’ That’s already taking out people’s hope, and that’s when fear comes in.
If you start by saying what you want to see, if you start by the result, by identifying that, then the process looks a whole lot different than ‘I need to be fixed’ or ‘We need to be fixed.’ How do we solve complicated interconnected hard issues around poverty and race? How do we solve these [issues] together?
We don’t all carry the work in the same way. That’s what happens too many times. We all try to do the same things. Our different perspectives give us different angles to the problem. What do we do well? How can we continue what we do well for a common result?
That’s what I get to do is help identify what we do well. How can we step out of the way of things that need to happen? How do we encourage this restoration of relationship in communities that have high rates of poverty?
Sometimes there’s large pieces of disconnectedness. How do we restore processes that actually work for us? How do we restore trust among relationships? Trust is the currency of relationships — that’s what I hustle. My hustle is relationships.
WACOAN: When we started this interview, you said that as women, we choose where we put our energies. You have your energy focused in a lot of directions. How do you keep balance?
Ligawa: As I was thinking about this interview, about how do I keep balance, I asked myself, ‘How am I making this work?’
In my work, Prosper Waco is about focusing on the health of communities. What makes people flourish and what are the barriers to that? [The job] comes with a lot of demands. So I need to be intentional about being with those who are on Team Liz.
Team Liz are the people who don’t gain from what I do and they don’t lose from it. They love me without regard to any performance. This is so important and necessary in staying balanced. If most of our connection and relationships are with parties and individuals who need something from me and they do not reciprocate something back, then I’m gonna get tapped out really quickly.
WACOAN: How do you determine who makes up Team Liz?
Ligawa: I have a very diverse Team Liz.
I look at the things that I need. I’m a writer, a poetry person. I need to go and get somewhere that I can experience some art with another poet or another artist, or I need to go an open mic, someplace where art is happening.
That’s something I didn’t pay attention to earlier, and I’d get tapped out. I’d wonder, ‘Why am I grouchy?’ Because I’m not paying attention to what I need. Art is part of Liz’s makeup, and I need to invest in that.
I love Liz, and I think it’s important to pay attention to myself and allow myself the same grace and patience and opportunities that I give to those who I love. I’ll pay attention to myself last, but I’ve corrected that. You can’t keep on giving what you don’t have. Some days you will find me on my floor listening to Maya Angelou. I need art in my life. Artists are the truth-speakers.
WACOAN: Speaking of Maya Angelou, I saw that you’re involved with Waco Poets Society.
Ligawa: Waco Poets Society and In the Words of Womyn [Heart of Texas] writing circle. I’m really good friends with them.
I just express things in poetry. I might say, ‘The moon has a heavy sigh tonight.’ Or maybe I’m trying to express something, the afterthought of green. Language plays a part in how I express myself as an artist. It helps me breathe. It’s like oxygen. It’s almost like getting a hit of art.
My mom was that way. She was very artsy. She loved language. It’s one of the ways I get to honor my mom because I get this gift of language from her.
God gives us our gifts, and we are held accountable to him. Sometimes it’s easier for me to be a good steward of my finances or my gift of leadership but not necessarily my gifts of poetry.
WACOAN: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Ligawa: One of the things I wanted to highlight is how I keep balance as a black woman. Sometimes there is a badge of strength that is either placed on us or we place on ourselves. It makes it hard to balance life well because the expectations are incredible. And so you’re expected to do a pirouette in heels, carrying a medicine ball weight.
I’ve had to learn that tears are necessary. My work is not connected with how many things that I can do. There’s such a temptation to lean into the role of being a strong black woman. If you’re good at something, people are going to want it. Just because you’re good at it doesn’t mean you need to do it all the time. I know the burden of strength among black women is too heavy a yoke.
This population of black women, we’re dying prematurely. We’re having heart attacks because there’s an expectation to do too much. If me not crying is looked at as strength, I will expire. These are the things that I have had to learn, not lending myself to false characteristics of what my role is supposed to be.
I’m also a mother of a black son. There’s a grief that stays in my heart. I don’t want to enter into that community of mothers that are grieving their sons. Elijah is five years away from Tamir Rice.
And so I look, especially, at the black women in my life, I ask them, ‘How are you doing?’ because that question doesn’t come to us a lot. Even culturally, the expectations are to be so strong that it’s hard to find the value in ourselves if we’re not doing 10,000 things.
If someone reads this, I want them to know that strong looks different for each and every woman. Strong shouldn’t be the highest thing.
That’s one thing I really have to pay attention to or I will be unhealthy. I will lean into everyone else’s expectations of Liz. I was always the good one, growing up. People confer a degree of goodness on you that you have not really earned. It’s easy to live into their expectations of you and completely miss what you are actually called to do.
I try to remind myself that tears are necessary and try to love myself even when love doesn’t seem like it’s abounding around me. In this work, where a lot of my roles and relationships are dual — people know me personally and in my work — I have to have a boundary around my work. I don’t have to respond to every request, to every situation that needs help.