MRPL Student Feature: Interview with Rev. Erica N. Williams, M.Div.  

By: Rev. Erica Williams, MRPL ‘22 

Editor’s Note: Halfway through this inaugural year of the Master of Religion and Public Life (MRPL) degree program, we asked our MRPL students to share their experiences with the program so far. In this post, Rev. Erica Williams shares with us her reflections on the MRPL Program, her work as an organizer and activist, and her project Set if Off Movement, which was founded by Rev. Erica to empower poor and working-class communities around the world.

Stay tuned because we have more MRPL student features coming soon!  

Rev. Erica N. Williams is a faith leader, organizer, international human rights activist and community leader.  She has dedicated her life to helping liberate those who have been marginalized and oppressed by the unjust systems in society, as summed up by the Gospel of Luke 4:18-19. This Fall, Rev. Erica began the Master of Religion and Public Life program at Harvard Divinity School. Rev. Erica is the Founding Pastor of Set It Off Movement.  

Photo Courtesy of Erica Williams

Tell us about yourself. Aside from your bio, what should we know about you?  

I was born in Riverside, California and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan – I always let people know that California created me and Michigan made me. I was raised by my mother and grandparents. I lived in a home that was rooted in a deep love for God and the community where I was taught to love others and to speak up against injustice.  

What were you doing before HDS? What led you to apply to the MRPL degree program?  

I was serving as a national social justice organizer for Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, an organization dedicated to continuing the work started by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I needed time away from doing front line work in the movement, and I wanted to dedicate some time to study and learn new things that would help me become stronger in the fight for liberation for Black and poor people.  

The MRPL program was just what I needed. It has provided me with the space to meet other justice-seeking leaders and to think collectively of new ways of being in the world.  

All MRPL students work on a year-long project as a part of their degree. Tell us about your project. What are you working on?   

My project, Set It Off Movement, is an international, interfaith, intergenerational movement that seeks to empower, educate, and emancipate poor and working-class communities around the world. This ministry connects spirituality and social justice to build the power of the international proletariat as we fight for systemic transformation. It uses tools from womanist theology and will uplift the voices of Black women. 

Set if Off Movement was born in 2013 when the chart-topping movie “Set It Off” was brought to my attention by the Spirit. The film stars Queen Latifah, Jada Pickett Smith, Vivica Fox, and Kimberly Elise as four black women from the ghetto in Los Angeles, CA. The women are low-wage workers, dealing with systemic racism, police brutality, homophobia, and gender violence. The four women, whom I would describe as lionesses, decide to rob a bank to secure money so that they can live to see another day. They study and survey their prey and know the right time to “set it off.” Ultimately, the film showcases the plight, fight, and insight of poor and marginalized communities around the world.  

As a faith leader watching the film, I wondered where the church was amid the madness, and I found it distressing that the creator of the film did not mention religion one time. I think that is because, too often, the church is more concerned about getting to heaven than ending the hell people are living in here on Earth.  

The ethos of “setting it off” was seen throughout biblical times through the lives of many women, such as midwives Shiprah and Puah, Queen Vashti, and Rahab. It has also been exemplified throughout history in the lives of women such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Angela Davis. I plan to use this film as a foundation to build a movement that creates a world were Black Women and Girls have the resources they need to thrive. It will fill the gaps that have been abandoned by the church and society. A collective of organizations from around the country will be organized to support all Black women and girls which includes trans, gender fluid, non-binary, and genderqueer persons. The primary goal of the movement is to heal the spirit, situation, and the system concerning the welfare of Black women and girls.  

My time here at HDS in MRPL has provided me with the space and time to wrestle with the vision the Spirit revealed to me in 2013 so that it can become manifested in the Earth for such a time as this. 

You’re halfway through your degree program, how have your studies impacted your outlook on your professional life already?   

I have come to appreciate theory in a new way. There is a lot of information already out there that can be used to help devise plans for the people’s revolution. Harvard has given me access to a lot of things that I did not know were available, including theory, networks, and healthcare. I plan to share the tools that I have gathered at HDS to share with movements around the world.  

What about the program has been life-giving? What has been challenging?   

Meeting the AMAZING people at HDS and the larger Harvard community has been wonderful. I have gained life-long friends, and my life has been forever changed by being here. I have also enjoyed the reading materials from my courses.  

The challenging part of last semester was feeling like I did not have enough time to work on my project. I had five courses and after being out of school for over five years, it was a challenge to adjust.  

What advice do you have for prospective students exploring the MRPL degree program?  

Make sure that everything you do at HDS is moving you towards your project. You are only here for a year, and it goes really fast. Make the most of it! 

What is your favorite quote?  

My favorite quote is by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it reflects my mission:   

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged,” King said. “I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, `Do something for others.” 

What is your favorite coffee/hangout spot/place to visit in Boston/Cambridge?  

My favorite coffee/hangout place is Tatte (the location close to campus). My favorite place to visit is Slades Bar and Grill – a great place for Black Culture in Boston. 

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