Crystal Williams began her career in the arts as an actress, working in Washington, DC. before moving to New York to pursue a career in the arts. Once in New York, she transitioned from theatre to performance and poetry, becoming a regular at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the mid-90s where she earned a spot on the 1995 Nuyorican Slam Team, which competed in the National Slam in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her highly anthologized performance poem, “In Search of Aunt Jemima,” was the only poem of that competition to receive a perfect score and it continues to be regularly performed by new generations of young women more than twenty years later.

Since her early New York days, Williams, a poet and essayist, has published four collections of poems, most recently Detroit as Barn, finalist for the National Poetry Series, Cleveland State Open Book Prize, and the Maine Book Award. Her third collection, Troubled Tongues, was awarded the 2009 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Award, the Idaho Poetry Prize, and the Crab Orchard Poetry Prize. Her first two books, Kin and Lunatic, were published by Michigan State University Press in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Her work has regularly appeared in the nation’s leading journals and magazines, including: American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, PEN: America, The Indiana Review, The Sun, Tin House, Ms. Magazine, Ploughshares, and Callaloo. Likewise, her poems appear in numerous anthologies, including: Angles of Ascent: The Norton Anthology of African American Poetry, American Poetry: The Next Generation, Efforts and Affections, and Rainbow Darkness.

Most recently, Crystal Williams was one of ten poets commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to write poems as a part of the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series exhibit. In early 2016, she joined Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, in a conversation about “Cultural Equity,” which was a part of the “Equity Series,” a collaboration between the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and MoMA. Additional honors, awards, and fellowships include: a fellowship from the MacDowell Arts Colony, an appointment as the Distinguished Visiting Professor of University Writing at DePauw University, a “Master Poet” residency at Indiana University, a Literary Arts fellowship, an Oregon Arts Commission individual artist grant, and a Barbara Deming/Money For Women individual artist grant, among others.

An ardent arts advocate, Williams regularly engages in leadership positions within the arts community and has served on several arts boards and selection panels, including as a board member for Write Around Portland and The Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center; on the Oregon Poet Laureate Selection Committee; as a judge for the 2015 Donald Hall Poetry Prize, Regional Arts and Culture Council Literary Arts Fellowship, and the Oregon Arts Commission Individual Fellowship; on the Governor’s Ad Hoc Committee to Reduce the Achievement Gap; and on the editorial board for The Writer’s Chronicle.

In 2011, Williams was appointed to the Oregon Arts Commission and in her role as a state-wide arts commissioner and advocate, worked to broaden access in the arts and help arts and philanthropic organizations operationalize their goals to become more diverse and inclusive.

Raised in Detroit, Michigan and Madrid, Spain, Crystal Williams holds degrees from New York University and Cornell University. She was on faculty at Reed College in Portland, Oregon for thirteen years before moving in Fall 2013 to Bates College where she was a Professor of English and a senior administrator. In late 2017 she joined Boston University as its inaugural senior diversity officer, where she is also a Professor of English.


Advocate & Advisor

In October 2017, Crystal Williams joined Boston University as Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion.

She began her administrative career at Reed College where soon after her appointment as an assistant professor, she became a faculty activist, envisioning a more inclusive and diverse institution, catalyzing a collective of faculty members who shared the same goals and objectives, and working collaboratively and strategically over the course of several years to effectuate significant institutional change. The results of that work was her appointment as Reed College’s inaugural Dean for Institutional Diversity, where she developed the footprint for a major new office of the college, and worked closely with the President and Dean of the Faculty to initiate a series of strategic endeavors to further diversify the faculty as well as lay the groundwork for the creation of a new teaching and learning center, among other endeavors.  

In Fall 2013, Williams moved to Bates College where she sat on the cabinet and served as Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives. At Bates she was charged with helping to develop institutional strategy, major initiatives, and positively affecting climate. Reporting to the President, she worked closely with her fellow senior leaders in the areas of admission, academic affairs, advancement and alumni relations, student affairs, and human resources. Williams’ work called her to develop, new, institutionally significant programs, catalyze people; operationalize ideas; leverage organizational inflection points; systematically address and improve institutional culture; and build organizational capacity.

Specifically, she worked on faculty development, faculty, staff, and student recruitment and retention, alumni development, administered major institutional grants, and conceived of and oversaw the implementation of distinctive institution-wide programs. In 2014, she co-wrote a $1 million dollar faculty diversity grant funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which resulted in positive outcomes in the area of faculty recruitment, an expertise of Williams’. She also spearheaded Bates’ acceptance into the Creating Connections Consortium and oversaw the design and development of the 2015 C3 Summit at Bates, which hosted more than 250 attendees. Under her vision and leadership, the Office of Intercultural Education was nearly doubled in size and moved to a central location on campus, and significant programs such as Bobcat First! a year-long, first-generation-to-college cohort program, an institution-wide storytelling program called The Dinner Table, SPARQ!, a multi-pronged program to support LGBTQIA+ identified people and their allies, and an on-going college-wide conversation called Lingua Franca were all envisioned and implemented.  Further, Williams envisioned and oversaw the development of the Bates Alumni Mosiac (BAM), which engaged alumni and parents from diverse backgrounds both on campus and via regional events across the nation.

During her time at Bates she co-chaired he national organization Liberal Arts Diversity Officers, a consortium of more than 24 liberal arts colleges, and served on the executive committee of the Creating Connections Consortium (C3).

Additionally, Williams serves as a regular advisor to senior leaders, organizations, and colleges across the nation, specifically with regard to recruitment, retention, inclusive climate development, and organizational capacity building in the Arts and in Higher Education.