Violence permeated Anthony Williams’ childhood. One uncle had been killed, another had been executed, a third was on death row, and his father is serving two life sentences for murder and armed robbery.

With this background, and the absence of a positive male figure, the odds were great that Anthony would be sucked into the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™. Instead he went on to graduate from college and become a productive, caring adult in his community. He attributes his success in life to his mother and father, a series of teachers, and the Children’s Defense Fund.

Anthony spent his early years in St. Louis. “St. Louis was violent and everybody had to be violent, or get taken advantage of. It was the way things were.” He wasn’t around the men from his father’s side of the family because they’d already been incarcerated by the time he was born. His father was jailed when he was an infant. “The males on my mom’s side didn’t take part in crime but they fought a lot. It was about being tough and not letting anybody push you over even if it was family. That’s what we saw coming up.”

His mother shared her childhood memories of a strong, moral family upbringing, giving Anthony a sense of what life could be. He visited his father in prison and regularly received letters from him. “He always said, ‘Be a leader, don’t follow anybody. Don’t be like me.’” Anthony knew early on that he wanted to pursue a different path, though he did not know what that would be.

When he was 10, he and his mother moved to St. Paul, where she worked as a housekeeper. The schools were more diverse and the education better, he said. “I can name a teacher at every grade level who encouraged me to stay on the right path, and empowered me to be a leader.” Anthony works with young people now and recognizes that he “sees a lot of students who can’t name that teacher who believed in them, somebody you don’t want to let down.” His high school experience helped him to realize his potential for helping others, and motivating his peers.

The Beat the Odds award made college a real possibility for Anthony. “I had the expectations but not the means.” Being connected with CDF changed Anthony’s life in further ways. The CDF-Minnesota office asked him to get involved with Freedom Schools and “that was a life changing event.” It helped him further understand social issues and their impact on the community. Freedom Schools National Training gave him a lasting lesson in leadership. “Learning about Ella Baker and her willingness to lead from behind, and not seek the spotlight has molded me into the person that I am today. Meeting inspirational people like Marian Wright Edelman and others impacted my life tremendously.” Anthony was involved with Freedom Schools for 13 years, beginning as a Servant Leader Intern, and working over the years as Site Coordinator, Project Director, and Executive Director. In 2013 he started his own mentoring program for middle and high school aged males providing cultural understanding, leadership development, and peer mentoring.

Anthony graduated from the University of Minnesota and now coordinates the GED program for the Minneapolis public schools adult education program. He believes that in order to save the child, you must empower the parent. “We who believe in freedom cannot REST, and with what our children face today, can barely afford to blink.”