Nancy Williams A Woman for All Seasons
by Leo Adam Biga
All these descriptors and more apply to Nancy Williams, Omaha’s champion of maximizing solutions to meet tech talent gaps, food deserts and workforce needs.
She’s traveled a long road from homegrown agronomist in rural Louisiana to Ivy League academician and Nebraska corporate chemical ag salesperson to nonprofit tech guru, social entrepreneur, and food justice advocate.
Her life’s work is developing self-sufficiency of people and economic resilience of communities. When she was chief information officer at Boys and Girls Club of the Midlands that mission got expressed building the tech talent pipeline via award-winning programs. At No More Empty Pots (NMEP), the nonprofit she co-founded in 2010 and leads today, that mission is expressed in developing sustainable food systems and entrepreneurs. NMEP operates a subscription program called Community Harvest that provides farm fresh produce through curated CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, prepares nutritious plant-based meals, and offers recipes, meal plans, et cetera. Volunteers tend a rooftop garden at NMEP’s 8501 North 30th Street Food Hub. Next fall, NMEP will open a greenhouse.
Much of what Williams does around food draws on her communal agriculture background. Her family raised food for themselves and others. She participated in 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) competitions. Reared by doers, connected to the land and community, she knew no limitations.
“My maternal grandmother grew food, picked food from local farms, kept it in the back of her truck and dropped it off to people. I never understood how she kept it fresh all the time in Louisiana, but she did. And she worked as an extension aide in our parish,” said Williams. “My paternal grandmother had her master’s degree, plus 30 hours. She was a Title I teacher and assistant school principal, a beautician on weekends and did taxes during tax season.”
Surrounded by strong Black women achievers and growing up the oldest of six siblings, Williams said she naturally cultivated the attitude of, “Yeah, of course, we can do that.” It’s why decades later she joined other Black women in forming NMEP, where she’s implemented all her skills.
“It was only a few years ago when I started to feel like this is a culminating activity for all the lived experience. I grew up in a rural community, so I can speak to that. I am a Black woman, so I can speak to that experience and how that influences what I choose, how I choose, and the impact of choice. There is the experience of working with families, studying horticulture and plants formally, working in sales, working in STEM and technology.
“All these things uniquely prepared me to be able to do the things I have done with No More Empty Pots. I’ve had great mentors and advisers along the way that have helped fill gaps so I can more fully realize my potential with the lived experiences I have.”
She credits husband and wife Louisiana public educators, JoAnn, and the late VC Knighton, who taught biology and vocational ag, respectively, as “the two most influential” figures in her school years.
“Mrs. Knighton was brilliant in science. She just had a special way of helping young people understand concepts, meeting students where they were and giving us opportunities. She was the one who helped me connect to a love of science and know how I could take that curiosity and apply it to a discipline.
“Mr. Knighton gave us a chance to experience achievement. We competed in FFA contests. There was rigorous preparation for these. It was intensive. We competed at the state, regional and national levels. Our team placed number three in the nation my sophomore year. I had the team’s highest score.”
That experience, she said, “helped us understand what kind of commitment leads to that level of achievement and really helped frame what does winning look like.”
Racists didn’t appreciate Black students excelling in science, which Williams took as another of “all the things you go through as a Black person trying to achieve at something that people don’t think you should be achieving at.”
While a few haters resisted her achievements, more people supported them. Parents and other community members held dinners, car washes and other events to raise funds for her and her teammates to travel and compete.
“It was a village of people that supported this effort. It helped me realize what collective action could bring about when a group of people decide they want to do something. It taught me how you pull people together and inspire them to want to do it.”
At VC Knighton’s urging she decided to pursue college ag studies. She won scholarships to attend Louisiana State University, where she earned her bachelor’s in plant and soil systems with a concentration in horticultural sciences.
She received a fellowship to prestigious Cornell, where she studied for a masters. Her curiosity about the way things work attracted her to micro-computing, for which she had a knack.
Her tech proficiency grew while interning for Dupont, who hired her as a sales rep serving Butler, Colfax, Dodge and Saunders counties in Nebraska. On some sales calls she discovered she was the first Black person farmers ever met.
After leaving Dupont she did contract training for companies and adjunct teaching at UNO before bringing her tech savvy to the Boys and Girls Club. “I had baseline tech skills but I didn’t have administrator-network skills. I developed those while I was there. They were patient, open and supportive of me learning on the job.”
An AIM Institute leadership development program she completed proved validating and empowering that she possessed the tools to lead.
“After that I stopped asking for permission so much. I stated being more declarative in my statements and direction of what I thought needed to happen and how it could happen. It totally transformed how I was doing my work at the club and the impact it was having on the youth. What I valued beyond that was the respect from other technologists in the community and in the field for what I did and how I did it. I was included, not othered in this.”
She now serves on AIM’s board, one of several boards she contributes to.
Even though tech became a major emphasis, she took time to direct City Sprouts, a community garden, urban farm, and educational resource center, from 2001 to 2004.
In 2009 she was among a group of activists who organized summits to identify pressing community needs. Feedback led to NMEP. After its founding she served on the board before recruited to become its first and still only president-CEO.
Williams raised millions of dollars to build the NMEP Food Hub, which houses a cafe, community commercial kitchens and a culinary certificate program now on its 18th cohort. She’s raised more dollars yet in partnership with Seventy-Five North to activate the dormant greenhouse on the Highlander Village campus. Expected to open in fall 2023, the greenhouse will integrate urban ag growing, distribution, education, and technology.
The self-described workaholic is in the process of transitioning NMEP’s leadership to others. She feels the nonprofits in good hands because of the team she’s developed and their commitment to filling gaps and meeting needs. The pandemic provided a litmus test when in 2020 NMEP adapted to prepare a high volume of fresh, healthy meals for at-risk individuals across the metro and beyond. The organization partnered with several nonprofits in this effort.
“Over a hundred thousand pounds of produce was sourced from over 40 different farmers, over 50,000 meals were distributed and over 26,000 people served,” Williams noted. “I am most proud that staff, stakeholders and community all leveraged this resource and pivoted to be responsive.”
Meanwhile, NMEP’s eight-week culinary certificate program continues churning out graduates. Its current cohort is learning African cuisine. Its next cohort will train in farm to school food preparation.
Williams is a recognized leader in the food systems and urban ag arenas. Earlier this year she received Food Day Omaha’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Now an Omaha icon, she was unsure about making this her new home when she moved here in 1993.
“But it’s proven to be a place where we can realize our potential. Our kids got a good education and I’ve been able to do things here I don’t think would be possible other places because of the resources available in Omaha. It has its challenges like any place, but it also has tremendous opportunity. I’ve been fortunate to benefit from that to do No More Empty Pots with community.”
As her work’s evolved, so has she.
“I was for a long time just in the mode of getting things done. Only recently I’ve taken the time to do reflection, intentionally meditating, so I can be more present and slower down. I really started doing that because I couldn’t fundraise and lead people without being more present. It was an evolution I had to get to to do the job. But it turns out it had some very personal benefits as well. So, I hopefully get to be a better human in that process of becoming a better leader and fundraiser,”
Williams sees potential with Omaha’s emerging Black leadership ranks. She advises would-be leaders invest in themselves.
“Many people who are in that space don’t believe they can have the things they want for themselves. They can’t see it as possible yet. The first step is to believe they can have it for themselves and then do the work they need to do to get there.”
It’s never too late, she said, to pour into oneself.
“Self-awareness and self-worth are where the work is. It’s not with the people outside of us. We can influence people but the only people we can control is ourselves. When each of us does our own work, the work is done. If I give to myself first and my cup is full, then whatever I give to everyone else is going to be more because I’m starting out from a place of abundance. That is what I’m proselytizing now – self-compassion to get at self-love to get to self-care.”
She plans to stay at NMEP through 2024 or early 2025, with a one-year buffer should things not go to plan. Promoting from within is a distinct possibility.
“We intentionally support the leadership development of all staff,” she said.
What will Williams do when she does move on?
“I will work on rural development, strategic consulting and food systems projects.”
She also envisions creating a platform that gives people agency through their stories.
“I want people to see themselves and own their stories, then share those stories, especially with their families. I believe that will help us own our power and see each other.”