NEW Alum Petrina Williams: “I Chose Joy.”

Petrina Williams, with her son Jordan Alexander Williams

The words “remarkable” and “survivor” routinely apply to NEW alumna. Even so, Petrina Williams breaks the mold. Like many NEW alumna, Williams, now a NEW board member, has been through challenges that would fell the rest of us. Yet as she talks about her experiences with matter-of-fact honesty, she radiates happiness and a joy for living. For example, her outgoing voicemail message, where you can practically hear her smile, invites you to “Have a great day—on purpose!” No doubt, it is that upbeat attitude that has carried Williams through life. And what a life it has been. 

Williams, who struggled with substance abuse, was incarcerated for “778 days.” It’s a number shared with the swift clarity of someone who has had time to commit it to memory. Possibly because her last stint, where she was facing a second felony charge, was the final and effective wake-up call she needed. Especially as a mother. By then, she already had a fractured relationship with her first child, and had lost custody of the second. During the intake exam in her final incarceration, she found out she was pregnant. She was immediately put on treatment, and gave birth to her third, healthy, child. She calls him her “sober” baby. “My son knows I was handcuffed to the bed during his birth,” she says.

And yet, it all started out very differently.

Bright, determined, and independent, Williams was an overachiever, and at Spelman College by 16. But what Williams had in talent and smarts, she lacked in a support system. Alone, away from home, overwhelmed, and without any coping mechanisms, she made bad choices. The pattern continued into, and through addiction. She dropped out of college, and drifted.

One of the first things that NEW provided was a community. It’s one of those things many of us take for granted, but having grown up with a single mother, Williams had learned early to depend on herself as much as she could. “At the end of the day, it was just me and my mom.” But at NEW, she had others. And for the first time, other women were not competitors. They were in Williams’ corner. “They didn’t judge, they offered a lot of love, and care, and support. They held my hand until I could walk by myself.”

And there was a sense of purpose, and possibility. One of her favorite memories was of a support group where the coordinator started every meeting with a joyous “Dumela!” It’s a South African word for hello. But it was a note of cheer that Williams responded to, and it stayed with her.

Echoing what other aluma have also said, Williams says NEW gave her the space to hit the reset button. She knew something had to change, and asked herself what she could do differently. But the question is particularly hard to face for new arrivals at NEW, because in Williams’ words, “I no longer trusted myself to make good decisions.” Part of that, was learning self-respect. “I was worthy. But I had to learn that,” Williams said. “I had to learn what was normal, and wholesome, and healthy.” With that came better choices. This was particularly true of her relationships with her children.

Williams’ overriding concern upon leaving jail and finding shelter at NEW was to repair relationships with her children, do right by them, not fail them, and if possible, reunite with them. That required a lot more than confidence and good choices. That required staying the course, attending meetings, being responsible. It meant, “Doing what I needed, despite what I felt like.”

Again, the community at NEW helped her persevere. Williams put in the work. And she expanded her horizons to match the early potential that got her to Spelman earlier than the rest. “I was looking for a career, not a job,” particularly since she got back custody of her youngest and was now the primary breadwinner. “My kids know they have a safe home with me. I have no secrets from them, and know they can come to me with anything.”

More than anything, Williams says, “I chose joy. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” She’s clear-eyed about choosing well, though. “You only have control over some things, and you have to make the best informed decisions.”

Williams brings that invaluable perspective to NEW’s board. Everyone empathizes with the clients NEW serves, but to have lived their experience gives Williams a sharper understanding of the situation. It means she’s been a reality check when NEW has risked mission creep. Like the time she advised NEW against joining in a rapid re-housing initiative. “It’s not what we do, it doesn’t work with parenting or kids in the mix.” As an aluma who was reunited with her children while at NEW’s New Transitions program, she should know.

Today, Williams is a proud homeowner, complete with a white picket fence. She has full legal custody of her youngest, and enjoys much better relationships with her two older children. In addition to being a parent and working a full-time job, Williams is working towards her Master’s degree in Social Work. It is a happy outcome, befitting a woman who has prevailed with determination and never stopped smiling. But “the seeds for my success,” she says, “were all sowed at NEW.”

It’s been a challenging time for all of us as we adjust our days, our budgets and our expectations to COVID-19. And now, add a city and country grasping for footing after the death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer and we all feel even more out of control, unstable, and concerned about the future. Here at NEW we know that one way we can process our own feelings is to think about the needs and feelings of others.

We need you. The women need you. Your community needs you. Now more than ever women and children in DC need a safe and stable place to live.