Nicholas Williams, the Oakland Parks & Rec Director, embraces and demonstrates the diversity that made Oakland great in the first place.
Some of Nicholas Williams’ fondest memories are of spending time with his father, a public school teacher, at Oakland public parks, where he learned how to ride a bike and throw a ball.
Now Oakland’s director of the Department of Parks, Recreation, & Youth Development, Williams has deep roots in the city. He was born and raised in East Oakland, and his brother still lives in the family home. But after graduating from Bishop O’Dowd High School, he left the city to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he received his degree in sociology and criminal justice.
Then he was drawn to a job opportunity with Atlanta’s Park Pride organization, which in turn led to a five-year stint managing the city’s parks and recreations operations. When a chance came to move to Minneapolis as assistant superintendent of recreation at what he describes as “the best parks and recreation system in the country,” he took it.
Oakland came calling, though, in 2016, and, “I was ready to share my knowledge,” Williams said.
That knowledge, combined with his leadership abilities, innovative thinking, and “sheer hustle,” has led, in just three years, to many positive changes, said Jason Mitchell, Oakland’s director of public works and a close colleague. “He’s not just a visionary. He can pull a team together and get [a project] executed,” Mitchell emphasized, pointing to the dynamic success of the two-year-old Town Camps program. In its pilot year, the citywide summer camps program served between 400 to 500 kids. This year, attendance doubled. Mitchell added that because of Williams’ prowess in developing public/private partnerships that helped fund the program, no child was turned away for inability to pay. “These exposures are so critical. These kids are getting experiences they’ve never had before,” he said.
In order to attract today’s youth, Williams said, “We have to have a youthful presentation, that is relevant, grounded in technology, and listens to the views of youth.” He listed five aspects of key youth programming at Oakland’s rec centers: reintroduction to nature, where kids can “again be part of the natural world;” cultural and arts experiences; physical fitness, including swimming lessons by the fifth grade; technology; and “robust atfer-school programs.” Under his direction, certified teachers are now available at rec centers to help kids with homework.
“Nicholas is very passionate about his work with youth,” said DB Bedford, who met Williams through a mutual interest in emotional intelligence. “He is an authentic and genuine guy who is always willing to support and lend a helping hand.”
Young people are not the only ones using the parks and recreation system, and Williams is well aware of their needs as well. He describes the innate need to be outside as “a natural relief from the urban environment.” Whether it’s walking, biking, participating in adult sports leagues, or just enjoying Lake Merritt during a break from work, the parks and rec centers can be refuges and outlets. Adults who recognize this are often the first to offer time as volunteers, Williams said.
Then there are the seniors, who are able to go on senior trips and participate in daytime programs through the rec centers. Many also volunteer in the “grandparents for a day” project. “Older adults can provide [youth] with a level of wisdom,” Williams said.
Oakland’s parks and rec system deals with the same challenges most big cities’ systems do: competition for civic funding and prioritizing the need for green spaces alongside the need for more housing and business growth. “Oakland is facing classic urban issues of the unhoused, public safety, and infrastructure,” Williams said. But that is exactly where his ability to reach out to corporate and other private sector partners pays off.
“These partnerships are critical,” said Mitchell. As talented as Williams is, “no one person can do it,” he noted. And, crucially, it’s not just about money, but finding volunteers willing to spend time and energy on the programs and projects, allowing the community to see them as a priority.
Remarkably, Williams also finds time for other community-centered activities. He is a member of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, which helps “black and brown young men not survive, but thrive, and learn to overcome barriers when they are trying to move the needle,” he said.
He has also co-founded his own social justice group, Everybody’s Cool, showing how to “unlearn” bias, “highlight the good that people are doing, promote doing ‘cool acts’ that help people, and focus on kids before hatred is poured into them,” Williams said. (Find out more at EverybodysCool.com.)
“I believe Everybody’s Cool is a revolutionary way of embracing the human experience and looking at diversity and inclusion,” said Bedford. “Nicholas not only thinks outside of the box, he’s able to kick the box out of the way.”
Family is not forgotten. Time spent with his wife, Renee, and children Marshe, Nicholas Jr., and Cameron remains precious. And he looks forward to continuing to contribute to an Oakland that “embraces and demonstrates the diversity that made Oakland great in the first place.”