Nicolas Williams, MDiv, NCC, had the good fortune of being raised by a committed single mother and his maternal grandparents. But in his 29 years, he has still had to deal with racial issues related to being a target—whether they came from the white community or his own African-American community.
Today, Williams, a 2019 NBCC Foundation doctoral fellow, hopes to channel his personal experiences into future work with pastors—often a key figure for African-American families.
“Pastors are pillars for a lot of needs in the black community via African-American churches,” Williams says. “They listen to a lot of stories. I’d like to support them in the work they’re already providing to the community and build a bridge between pastors and mental health.”
Williams’ mother had him while she was in college at age 22 and they moved frequently. He lived in Augusta, Georgia, Greenville, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina, before eventually settling with his mother at age 11 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He recalls an incident when he was 6 or 7 that led him to an understanding of the complexity of race even at that age.
“I remember we had next-door neighbors and we always played together and had a good time. One day, we were talking about a rap artist, and my grandparents didn’t let me listen to certain music. I didn’t know who the rap artist was, and they said, ‘Are you not black?’” Williams recalls. “I remember leaving the playground thinking, ‘What does it mean if I’m not black enough because I don’t know who this artist is.’ We never played together again after that.”
As Williams grew, he says he was sometimes told that he “acted white” because of the way he could articulate himself in school and with peers.
“I was just using grammar the way I was taught by my mom and my grandparents,” he says. “Why does that make me white, not part of the community I am a part of. I wrestled with that.”
Williams didn’t let his doubts affect his work in school, where he excelled, winning a Gates Millennium Scholarship that provided him a free college education at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, where in keeping with the Gates provision to promote STEM careers he studied biology. At the time, he was considering medical school and a career in psychiatry. But he also attended a job fair where he met with a Wake Forest University contact who, recognizing Williams’ deep faith, suggested he consider the school’s dual master’s program in divinity and counseling.
After college, Williams took a year off to be with his grandfather, who was ill, and he ultimately decided he liked the possibilities of the program in divinity and clinical mental health counseling, and he applied and was accepted into Wake Forest.
During his time at Wake Forest, Williams encountered another type of targeting, once being pulled over by police “for literally no reason. I got a little harassed. Eventually, they told me my taillight was out, but they kept me there for 15 minutes instead of telling me. And I had a do-rag on at the time,” he says. “And so here I am, a graduate student at a school like Wake Forest still getting pulled over.”
He also recalls a white person asking him how he managed to be accepted into the dual degree program, implying he had received a privilege because of his race. The context came through loud and clear, he says, because the person belatedly added, “I mean, not to say that you’re not brilliant.”
Williams, who grew up with a strong faith and church membership, accepts and discusses such issues openly, knowing that conversation is one way to break misperceptions—no matter the race of the person advancing an opinion. He hopes to turn this into his life’s work.
One of Williams’ Wake Forest professors, noticing a gap in counseling literature in representation of African-American men, encouraged Williams to pursue research and find ways to integrate his two fields of study.
“As a counselor and a person with an MDiv, I saw my training as providing an opportunity to be a bridge between these two professions,” Williams says. “I began to think about my responsibility as a black male licensed minister and how to mix together being of service as an advocate in the black community and for counseling.”
During his internship at CareNet Counseling in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Williams began working closely with clients of Habitat for Humanity, who were required to obtain hours of counseling before becoming first-time homeowners. Working with Habitat clients, who were mostly people of color, showed Williams the power he has as an African-American man to connect with those not familiar with counseling.
Seeing a person of color was significant for clients. If you see someone like you, it gives you a different level of comfort, safety, and trust,” he says. “People were looking to work specifically with me as a counselor of color at CareNet.”
The insights from his professors and the reward he experienced during his internship led him to consider the next step in his education, pursing a doctorate at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he is now a third-year student. His doctoral fellowship through the NBCC Foundation, he says, helps him not just financially, but with establishing connections with mentors, peers, and religious community leaders. His goal with such connections is to increase dialogue and work together to serve the community.
As Williams prepares for dissertation work, he is exploring the use of mindfulness interventions with African-Americans—how to use mindfulness with cultural sensitivity.
He also hopes to connect with African-American pastors to overcome the mistrust of counselors that he has become aware of within the African-American community at large.
“There’s that mistrust of counselors. What if they tell you something contrary to your faith or that compromises your faith?” he says. “Can I actually trust you with my congregants?”
What counselors can do, and what Williams hopes to bring to future work with pastors, is to “sit in space with clients, and value and respect their own spiritual identity. Hence, I’d like to explore what it looks like to engage spirituality and religion in counseling.”