Life takes you in many different directions, you might as well enjoy some music while on the journey.”
So says Jocelyn Johnson Williams: classically trained flautist, educator and community organizer. Williams, who’s from the Maryland-Virginia-Washington, D.C. area, came to Waco in 2017 when she got married. She works as the community organizer for East Waco at Grassroots Community Development.
First and foremost she is a musician. Williams got her bachelor’s in music performance from the University of Richmond and her master’s from Catholic University of America. But she says the desire to work within communities was instilled in her by her parents, especially her mother, who was president of Cedar Villa Heights Community Association in Maryland.
“I grew up seeing the process of how working with your community leaders and going to those planning meetings, how it does pay off. It’s been embedded in me and is just now being unleashed to work in that same aspect as an adult,” Williams said. “My mother was instrumental with working with the county and city council in Maryland, making sure that the elderly had what they needed. I saw her work to see that our neighborhood had street signs and sidewalks and a park built.”
Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Williams by phone to learn what a community organizer does, what the people of East Waco want for their neighborhood, and how Lizzo has impacted youth’s interest in the flute and other instruments.
WACOAN: You’re new to this position, correct?
Williams: I started in December 2019. It was a good time to start, kind of slow, because we work with a lot of schools. The other two community organizers, in North Waco and South Waco, we collaboratively do workshops together, but it was a good way to start because schools were getting ready for winter break. It allowed me a chance to familiarize myself with the East Waco area and make those connections and meet people. January was really, really busy for me.
WACOAN: What does a typical day look like in your job (if there is such a thing)?
Williams: Since I’m new to the position, I’m making appointments, having meetings to meet with community partners — pastors of churches, school principals, family support staff, business owners — getting to know them, know what their link or role is in the community, finding out the ways Grassroots has connected with them or how we can connect with them for the future.
Some of what we do at Grassroots is a leadership training program, for our adult community, to help people who maybe have not taken a leadership role, whether in a community association, their school, their children’s learning or their churches. We’re giving them an opportunity to learn about different ways they can become leaders and take on a leadership role. We work within the community and help the community move on with their goals.
I’m starting to get into that mode where I have sat down with a lot of people and talked about the ways they want to continue moving forward and enhancing the community and ways I can help them or Grassroots as a whole can help them. There are action plans coming, projects coming that I’ll be involved with. And networking, helping connect people, giving ideas and perspective that wasn’t there before in meetings.
WACOAN: Give me an idea what Grassroots does in the communities it serves.
Williams: Grassroots is a great nonprofit organization. They started in order to build homes and [hold] homeowner classes and financial literacy classes to help people become homeowners. That’s the foundation. They wanted to expand it to be more a part of the community and have that connection to the communities they’re building in. That’s how they built the community organizer position. Other organizations do similar work, but I feel it’s unique in its own right by the way we are able to reach out, branch out, touch communities in different ways.
We work with several different groups that we connect with, like Prosper Waco, United Way [of Waco-McLennan County], Transformation Waco, Voice. We network with all the different chambers of commerce: Greater Waco Chamber, [Cen-Tex] Hispanic Chamber, [Cen-Tex] African American Chamber. We have conversations with them, just people learning about Grassroots and what we can offer.
We have a roofing repair program that I don’t think many people know about, for homeowners within the city limits, especially elderly and seniors who need roof repair. They fill out an application or we help them fill it out.
There’s also a spring and summer service project that’s coming up, through Grassroots, with a group called Bounce [Student Disaster Recovery]. If there’s external repairs needed for your home, if it’s within the city limits, you can call, fill out the information with the things you’re needing. Service groups come and volunteer. They’re replacing siding, painting, building ramps or repairs to ramps. We’re trying to get the word out more and more.
WACOAN: Is the Move East Waco program still ongoing?
Williams: This year it’s being funded by a grant by the Waco Foundation. It started in 2017 through a group of community people, residents interested in seeking better health strategies, fitness strategies. Grassroots and Baylor and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority were instrumental in helping to propose a grant to the Waco Foundation, called an [Immediate] Impact Grant, to supply financial resources so we could pay for instructors to do the program.
There’s a cycle of seven over the course of the year, about every six weeks. It’s Tuesday and Thursday evenings, 6-7. We host fitness instructors from different disciplines — kickboxing, barre, Refit, yoga, Tabata, a little bit of everything. We’re finishing up the [current] series on the 20th of February, then we’ll take a few weeks off, then the next cycle starts for six weeks, then a couple weeks off, then on to the end of the year.
I’ve been able to participate on Tuesday evenings. We’ve had a good turnout, especially our first one, we had 20 or so people. Even though it happens in East Waco and we’re promoting it to families, it’s open to anyone, free of charge. Right now it’s at the gym at Carver Middle School. It’s 45-50 minutes. The last 10 minutes someone will speak on a different aspect of fitness or health, everyday things: decluttering your life, meditating, getting a massage, sugar intake, salt intake, what your cholesterol numbers mean so you can ask questions when you’re at the doctor.
Last week someone came from poison control and gave information. I learned a lot.
WACOAN: How would you define what a community organizer does?
Williams: I feel like as a community organizer my job or responsibility is to connect as much of the community as possible, being a networking link to help in any way that we can for that community, that organization, that business, to achieve their goals. That may be through leadership training or us being on a community or a coalition group, mentoring in the neighborhood, being part of a Stars Book Club, mentoring in schools in the area. It may look like bringing about more family participation within schools, whether through PTA, if it’s established, or to help bring about change by establishing a family engagement group.
Any support we can give to churches — if they’re doing an activity, a project — networking with them, with the schools or with businesses.
WACOAN: Tell me more about Stars Book Clubs.
Williams: I do it at J.H. Hines Elementary. You go through their training, through Stars Book Clubs. Once you’re approved you’re assigned a day and assigned certain students.
I have three students. We’re given some information about the students, their reading level and how to challenge them at or above their reading level. I go in during lunchtime. They get their lunch, we go to a nice quiet table at the library and we read together, read aloud, a page or a paragraph until we finish that book.
I get a chance to talk with them and talk about what they learned from that book — the characters, the storyline, the plot. It helps not only with reading comprehension but the development of knowing how a book is formed and engages them in that. I’ve only been doing this book club about two weeks, but I’m enjoying the girls I meet with. They’re very intrigued by the books. We’ve had great conversations around what they learned.
WACOAN: What is a book you have enjoyed together?
Williams: ‘The Secret Olivia Told Me,’ [by N. Joy, illustrated by Nancy Devard]. It’s more or less a picture book, but the illustrations were silhouettes, so I talked with them about, ‘What do you notice?’ We talked about how you can’t see their faces, you just see the shape of their bodies. It could be anybody. They could change up the names and make up their own stories — it’s not tied to what somebody looks like. They liked that.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about East Waco. I understand it has a real neighborhood feel.
Williams: A lot of people know each other. There are several families that take up a radius of a couple blocks, so the grandkids might live there now, or the grandparents are there and the grandkids come back, or they live on the property next to each other and that brings their kids back. It’s very much family-oriented, very much community-oriented.
WACOAN: There have been many visions for the Elm Avenue area over the years. What are you hearing?
Williams: I’m still learning what was and what is now and what’s going on for the future. I feel like the Elm Avenue corridor, the people who live in and around that area want development, want production, want East Waco in general to thrive. There has been a concern about what kinds of companies and kinds of businesses are coming and how good they are for East Waco as a whole as for Waco in general. That’s the underlying concern.
The community itself is wanting to make sure they’re informed and have a voice to be able to impact what’s happening within their community. I think there’s some excitement and some concern also. Change is not easy when you uproot or shift things. People are generally happy but want to be made aware of any changes. They would like to see more family-friendly businesses or things that would promote economics from within, like a convenience store, a pharmacy, a grocery store, a medical facility (an urgent clinic or something like that) because they don’t have those things on that side of the river.
WACOAN: They want to participate in the economic growth.
Williams: Yes. Especially from the school perspective, because they’re challenged by STAAR scores and reports, and they’re working to stay above level. I feel like those schools are challenged with keeping their morale uplifted. Those schools are thriving. People are working hard, they’re very vested, but it’s keeping that whole area uplifted and everyone hopeful and connected.
Sometimes there’s a disconnect as far as East Waco with other areas [of Waco]. That is changing with some of the businesses, with people in leadership roles — whether churches or schools or businesses or community associations — connecting more with each other and connecting with greater Waco. That’s a plus.
WACOAN: You’ve mentioned working with churches several times. Why is that an important part of your job?
Williams: There’s many, many, many churches in East Waco, just about on every other street corner, every other block. There are a variety of ways people can continue their faith journey or participate in a community. The churches I have had contact with, pastors and members, they do many community activities. They have food pantries, they host events for kids, like an Easter egg hunt. They actually have movie nights for [not only] their congregation or church but open up to the greater community. They also volunteer. Several members volunteer for Stars Book Clubs or at the schools.
They just had the Waco [Family & Faith] International Film Festival, and several churches were part of that by hosting some of the faith and family films on Saturday, so people could have a variety of places to go on the east side of the river, as opposed to making the trek over to the Hippodrome if couldn’t make it over there. They could still participate at Carver Park Baptist Church, Toliver [Chapel Missionary] Baptist Church, to see some of those films.
Most of [the churches] have a strong voice in the community and want to continue that and find more ways to be involved, not just holding a church service, but things like movies. This was come, enjoy, then a light discussion afterward.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about your background in music. Do you still teach private lessons?
Williams: I do teach some private lessons. I teach from the Music & Arts center at Central Texas Marketplace. That opened a little over a year ago. The headquarters is in Maryland. Years ago I taught there for a little while. When I saw they were coming here, I thought, ‘Let me go check that out.’ I teach lessons in flute, beginning piano and voice.
WACOAN: How long have you played flute?
Williams: I’ve always loved music. I sang in the church choir from the [age] of 7 or 8. Around that time I was able to join a band, pick an instrument in elementary school. I knew I wanted to play an instrument — the flute or the harp. They didn’t have a harp at my school (they probably don’t have a harp at most schools), so I took on the flute. I fell in love with that. I’ve been playing since I was 8 years old. I started taking private lessons by the time I was in middle school, maybe 11 years old. I loved it. I got my bachelor’s and master’s in music performance, so I’m considered a classically trained flautist.
My goal was to play in an orchestra. I also knew I needed to get a job and pay some bills. I have played in some orchestras, subbed for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and did contract work with a touring group from the National Symphony Orchestra. We went to schools and did demonstrations.
I also had my own freelance job where I worked with a couple of instrumentalists. We did dinner parties, weddings, receptions around the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.
WACOAN: And you’ve taught music in schools as well.
Williams: I do love teaching. I took a part-time job teaching music at an independent school in Virginia, in ’97, Browne Academy. That job moved to full time. I was more or less the pre-K and lower school teacher. I did that for nine years and went to another school in Maryland, Green Acres. I was one of their two music teachers for 11 years. I loved it. I taught general music and taught handbells and worked on musicals. I did everything from teaching parts to playing in the pit to choreography.
WACOAN: Have you found places to play music here?
Williams: I have. I’ve played at a couple of churches, at my in-laws’ church, for some of their special services. From that I played at Second [Missionary] Baptist for one of their services. I think I played at a birthday party of a friend. I volunteer time to some of the retirement communities and play flute and sing there. I played at the new campus of First Methodist Waco, the south campus.
I came to Methodist through their handbells. I was looking for a way to be involved in handbells since I taught them for many years. I wanted to be involved, just to play. I contacted [First Methodist Waco] and asked if they were looking for someone to sub or play or just watch, and they jumped on the chance for me to be a sub. I subbed most of last year. In January they said, ‘We need you as a regular person’ because things shifted. Now I’m a regular ringer. That’s fun. I get to play and be a part of the group.
WACOAN: Since you’re a flautist, I have to ask you about Lizzo. Has she had an impact on people wanting to learn to play flute?
Williams: Yes, I think so. She has brought a revived appreciation for music, especially with the younger generation, the youth, which is good because in a lot of schools, that was one of the first things to be cut out or diminished or downsized was music and arts programs. [Lizzo is] good to give youth an idea that you don’t just have to sing or be a rapper — that’s great — but know about producing your own music, writing your own music, learning an instrument that you can play and make a living.
I knew going into this, learning from my parents, that I might be the only African American someone sees playing classical flute. They said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You keep going. Do what you need to do. This is what your love is.’ I’d been told as a young person, ‘Why are you learning flute? You need to learn this, that or the other to earn a living.’ I still make a good living from music, whether playing, consulting or teaching. It’s always going to be needed and wanted in some way.
If you have a dream out there, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t make your dream come true. I think [Lizzo] has helped in that aspect. But I also just applaud all the other people coming that have the limelight and have that platform to bring about change and the hope for music.
WACOAN: How did you get from classical music and teaching to community organizing?
Williams: You might think a music teacher and a community organizer don’t go together, but I did social justice work before I came here. When I came to Waco I didn’t want to go right back into the classroom as a music teacher but wanted to pursue my interest in diversity inclusion and equity work. I received my training through the Summer Diversity Institute of the National Association of Independent Schools and the National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), a program of Wellesley College.
As an educator in Maryland, I was the director of that at my school. I had the opportunity to facilitate workshops, facilitate seminars for parents, staff members, board members. I helped with state conferences around diversity and inclusion for professional development. When I came here, I wanted to pursue that even more within the school system. I thought this would give me the opportunity to branch out and do some of that work.
I’ve been hearing as a thread in the schools and churches about cultural relevancy and cultural awareness, not just racial but across-the-board diversity. Being understanding of people from all walks of life and different backgrounds, races, religions, genders. Having an appreciation and understanding around that.
And my parents were very much involved within our small community. My mother was a community association president. A sign was put up before she passed that’s dedicated in her name and there’s a community building with a room dedicated in her name: Thomasinea Johnson.
Five Things Jocelyn Can’t Live Without
1. Travel coffee mug. I have to drink [from] it every day. I have a couple special ones. The one right now has my initial and pink and green and yellow.
2. My Bible. It’s an app on my phone, but it gives me a Word of the Day and also has great devotionals. My faith and belief in God is extremely important to me. I read a passage of Scripture or a devotional every day. Prayer and reading the Word of God helps keep my focus on my purpose and life journey.
3. My planner that has my daily schedule. I write it all down. If I need an explanation, I write that too. I started using it when I started here at Grassroots.
4. My car, Honda CRV. Around here there is public transportation, but it’s hard to get around without having a car. I’m not sure if the bus comes to where I live, in China Spring.
5. My purse, currently a burgundy Dooney & Bourke tote. For me as a woman, it’s very important. It has a lot: business cards from people, ChapStick tins and hand sanitizer. I rotate purses throughout the year.