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Sierra Leonean-born Frederica Williams scores big in America

6 December 2019 at 19:43 | 7614 views

By Kwame Cumalé Fitzjohn

As 2019 draws to a close, it is perhaps pertinent to spotlight the landmark record of Sierra Leonean-born Frederica Matilda Williams (pictured) as President and CEO of Whittier Street Health Center, Boston’s top Health Center. This year, also, marks the 17th anniversary of Williams at the helm of Whittier which the Center, appropriately, celebrates.

To boot, in 2018, the Whittier Board of Directors named its six-story, 78,000-square foot, $38 million health facility The Frederica M Williams Building in honour of Williams. Completed in 2012, the building is a glass-sheathed, silver LEED certified, state-of-the-art structure with brightly painted walls and expansive views across the city.

Williams in exclusive interview with Kwame Fitzjohn

"It’s been a long journey, and I am thrilled every day to be here and serve the community," said Williams. "The mission of Whittier is my life mission as well, so it’s personal."

The Frederica M Williams Building
Williams showed grit, dogged will, sheer resolve and stick-to-itiveness in a 10-year effort to construct the Frederica M Williams Building, the first permanent home in the 86-year history of Whittier. In 2001, the Center was on the verge of insolvency operating at an annual loss of about $600,000. In 2002 Williams took the reins.
What did it take for Williams to make her now nationally distinguished health center a reality? Toil, tears, sweat and love: what began as a vision, developed into a project which would take weeks, months and years of extensive and complex property negotiations as the dream manifested itself into a concrete oasis of healing. The ambitious project was cobbled together through Williams’ business acumen and determination to raise funds.

Frederica Williams (center in red), at naming of building in her honour

Williams worked tirelessly with the architectural team and maintained oversight of the building’s contractors. She helped put the finishing touches on the building’s decor, selecting furniture, furnishings and art for the Center’s walls, creating a warm and inviting environment for the patients.

Road to completion of project fraught with serious problems
Six weeks before the completion of the project, 5 floors of the building were flooded and suffered severe water damage requiring extensive repairs. Despite disruptions, Williams forged ahead - the building was completed 14 months ahead of schedule and $640,000 under budget.

Six months after the Center opened, the building suffered another setback when a Massachusetts Transportation Authority Bus plowed into the front of the building. Undeterred, Williams made sure that repairs were carried out quickly without disruption to patient services.

A thriving Whittier Street Health Center
Today Whittier is flourishing under Williams’s insightful leadership. In addition to fostering an environment of proactive health care, she has brought sound financial stewardship to the Center.

The Whittier Street Health Center Frederica M Williams Building

Williams clearly has inspired many to join her cause, evidenced by the fact that revenues increased nearly 60% under her direction. Since she began at Whittier, the number of people served increased from 5,000 to 30,000 in 2015.

In this 17th year of leading Whittier, Williams is also being acknowledged for her other accomplishments at the Center which include:
• Building a $1.2 million, 6,600-square-foot fitness center at the Health Facility for patients and staff
• Opening a new satellite clinic in the surrounding neighborhood
• Hosting New England’s largest men’s health annual summit
• Providing residents of public housing with on-site access to health screenings
• The creation and expansion of a community garden for patients
• A state-of-the-art cancer clinic — as part of a partnership with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

William’s ever-expanding vision is constantly shaped by the needs of the people she serves. For just over a year now, the Center launched a Mobile Health Van that provides outreach services to the homeless across Boston, more particularly focusing on the areas most affected by the opioid addiction epidemic.

The Frederica Williams story
Williams is the third child of the late Matilda Effeh Williams, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and Emeric A. Williams, Sr., former deputy general manager of the Sierra Leone External Telecommunications. Both parents were committed to imparting values of compassion, generosity, social justice and humility, Williams recalls. She commends her parents for building a strong foundation of hard work, faith, love and hope that has steered her in life.

A graduate of the Freetown Secondary School for Girls, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the London School of Accountancy, a Graduate Certificate in Administration and Management from the Harvard University Extension School and an MBA from Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass.

Williams moved from London to Boston in 1984. Prior to joining Whittier, she worked at various hospitals and rose to become Senior Vice President of Administration and Finance and Chief Financial Officer of the Dimock Center, a large health care and human services facility in Boston.

She lives in Boston with three sons.

Awards
Since joining Whittier in 2002, Williams has received dozens of awards recognizing her work as both a woman-of-color CEO and a driving force behind Whittier’s expansion and success. Her awards include:
• The 2010 We Are Boston Gala Award: Along with honoring Attorney Victoria Kennedy, the wife of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, Boston Mayor Tom Menino was thrilled to honor Williams with the Community Pioneer Award
• Williams named 2010 Executive Director of the Year by the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers:
Every year, the League hosts the largest gathering of the Massachusetts health center community to recognize individuals for their outstanding service to communities and the health center network
• The 2011 Pinnacle Award by the Women’s Network of the Boston Chamber of Commerce:
Williams received the Award which honors business and professional women who have demonstrated excellence in entrepreneurship, management, and lifetime achievement
• The White House Communication Agency’s 2012 “Honoring Exceptional Women Doing the Extraordinary”: Williams was one of six women honored in Washington, D.C. at this event

Williams with former President Barack Obama

• 2015 & 2016 Boston Business Journal Power 50:
The power players in Boston are the ones getting things done and leading change in the Boston economy. With that in mind, Williams made the Boston Business Journal Power 50 list two years in a row!
• Whittier named by the Boston Globe as one of the top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts from 2014-2019: Whittier has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts by the Boston Globe and The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Institute for five consecutive years

Board memberships
Williams currently serves on the Boards of Trustees for, among others, the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, Boston Health Net and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute: The Dana–Farber/Harvard Cancer Center is the largest National Cancer Institute (NCI) designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the nation.

Williams with Governor of Massachusetts Charlie Baker

She is a Fellow of the National Association of Corporate Directors and a member of the International Women’s Forum. The International Women’s Forum (IWF) is an invitation-only women’s organization whose mission is "to support the women leaders of today and tomorrow.” The IWF has been described as "highly influential." Notable members have included Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Sandra Day O’Connor, Coretta Scott King, Betty Friedan, and Katharine Graham.

Williams also serves on the Advisory Boards of the Joslin Diabetes African American Initiative, African Health Foundation and the African Community Health Initiative.
Further, she is a trustee of Eversource Energy, the largest utility system in New England.

Williams clearly has a passion for community involvement, this past summer she served as Grand Chief Receiver at the Krio Descendants Union (KDU) Global Thanksgiving Service in Boston – she is a member of the Krio ethnic group.

The Whittier Street Health Center Journey
The mission of Whittier Street Health Center is to provide high quality, reliable and accessible health care and social services for diverse populations that promote a culture of wellness and eliminate disparities related to race, ethnicity, and income level. The community institution attracts and maintains quality staff to provide high end health care to the patients they serve. No one is turned away because of their inability to pay.

Most importantly, and perhaps the most unique feature of Whittier is the philosophy of providing total care for the whole person. Patients are not viewed in terms of medical conditions and disease states. Instead, the Center strives to provide services and programs that support holistic health.

The healthcare industry faces challenges (perpetual financial difficulties are common for these institutions). Williams remarks: “At a time when access to healthcare is being threatened with the looming repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, we at Whittier promise to safeguard Boston’s most vulnerable populations and will ensure that they continue to receive the care they need and deserve”. Whittier is a private, independent non-profit and is also a federally qualified health center generating approximately 57% of its revenues from donation, grants and contracts.

The progressive magazine, In These Times writes: “Williams could point … with well-earned pride to her accomplishments running a health center with a $25 million budget, over 30,000 patients a year, some 40 programs, and a perfect score on its most recent federal audit measuring statutory and regulatory compliance; and building the new facility, which no one had managed to do before. As one of the city’s few women of color in top management positions, she is a highly visible, much-awarded champion of women in leadership. She sits on corporate boards, appears on notable-leader lists, and cultivates friendships with local politicians and powerbrokers … it cannot be easy to be a powerful black woman in a Boston still reckoning with racism and sexism.”

Of her achievements, Williams says:
"The Whittier building project was a family mission with prayers and words of wisdom and encouragement from my family, and the love and support of my sons who sacrificed time with me and pitched in to support the vision for the Whittier building."
"I am grateful to have a loyal team of dedicated colleagues at Whittier. It is the Whittier team’s care and respect for patients that make Whittier a warm and welcoming place for everyone who comes through our doors."
The story of how Whittier Street Health Center has been shaped by Frederica Williams is a shining example of how one person with tenacity, passion and determination to do good can do so, against many odds, achieve an astounding result and provide health benefits that Boston’s underserved communities will be reaping for generations to come.

“What will you be known for after your death? What will the world say about you? The world only celebrates those who maximize their potentials to create and leave legacies behind for future generations to come. These ones, though they die, continue to live in the hearts of those they impacted. They live on because of their principles, their products, their inventions, and their achievements. One generation after another testify to the legacy that such persons have left behind.” - Clement Ogedegbe

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