Julie Williams: Holocaust museum docent wants to be agent of change against discrimination

Julie Williams leads students on a tour of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center of St. Louis earlier this month. Photo: BILL MOTCHAN

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As Julie Williams speaks about her volunteer work, the message emblazoned on the wall behind her at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center says as much as she can about why she does what she does. 

“Change begins with me,” it reads. 

“This is really the purpose of everything that we do here,” said the 55-year-old Cincinnati native. “We talk about how to fight hate, discrimination and bias every day.” 

Williams would know. She’s been a docent at HMLC for a full decade and even sits on the docent advisory committee. It is a role that allows her to make change happen every day as field trips from schools across the area bring busloads of eager young minds to learn, not just about one of history’s most tragic chapters, but also how they might be able to apply the lessons of the past to the realities of the present. 

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Sometimes, the responses are surprising. She still remembers one young man of junior high school age who raised his hand to tell her that his grandfather was involved in the neo-Nazi movement. She invited him to speak a bit more afterward and was careful not to denigrate his relative.

“I just wanted to be able to share with him our message about hate, bias and discrimination,” she noted. “That child sent a really beautiful thank you note to our speaker and really seemed to understand and get the message.”

Getting that kind of feedback is a part of the job Williams loves. A physical therapist by trade, she has a master’s degree from Washington University in health science but it is the science of preventing bias that seems to animate her the most by allowing her to express her Jewish values. 

The daughter of an insurance underwriter and a hospital administrator, Williams didn’t grow up Jewish. 

“I was raised Catholic with a capital C,” she said noting that she attended religious elementary and high schools before doing her undergraduate work at St. Louis University. “My parents were really good, really strong people. They believed in honesty and compassion and being accountable for your own actions.” 

Her journey to Judaism began when she started dating her future husband Scott who was Jewish. The first service she attended was an outdoor affair at Neve Shalom during Sukkot where Rabbi Jim Goodman led the proceedings in which Tibetan monks did chanting exercises. 

“The chanting just resonated in your body almost. It was so incredible, a beautiful experience,” she remembered. 

Her interest in teaching tolerance also resonates on a personal level. One of her three daughters, now age 23, is both transgender and autistic and often suffered bullying and harassment while at school. That led Williams to testify before the Missouri Senate’s Education Committee in opposition to a proposed “bathroom bill.” She’s also lobbied lawmakers in support of the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act to protect LGBTQ citizens in employment, housing and services and helped put together a panel as a presenter at Washington University’s Spectrum Conference. 

Locally, she’s offered testimony before the Pattonville School District regarding the “school to prison pipeline” and policing issues. 

“I shared my daughter’s story and how I was nervous for her that a police officer could misunderstand her or she could get agitated and the police officer could feel it would be necessary to restrain or detain her,” Williams said. 

Williams addresses policing matters through her other volunteer efforts as well. Since 2015, she’s been a part of West County Community Action Network, which speaks out on everything from racial justice to voting rights, issues that came to the forefront of the national and local debate in the wake of unrest in Ferguson. 

She still recalls a group of sixth- and seventh-graders from that troubled community who visited the HMLC on their first day back in school after protests and riots wracked the North County municipality. 

“When I talked to them about discrimination and bias and about violence, they really got it,” she said. “They understood and they felt heard when they were here.”

Dan Reich, curator and director of education at the HMLC, said that Williams displays strong educational and leadership qualities.

“She’s an exceptional docent with incredible rapport with younger people and a passion and a heart for this material,” he said. “She is someone who certainly doesn’t work for recognition but walks the walk and talks the talk in everything she does.” 

Williams has taken that philosophy to her work with the Islamic community as well. She has co-chaired the Jewish & Muslim Day of Community Service since 2017. She also acted as master of ceremonies for the Interfaith Iftar, held in July of that year. 

Williams’ brother-in-law Steven Lauter described her as a giving person who is always eager to lend a hand.  

“Her purpose is really to help make the world a better place and help all the people of the world live more harmoniously in peace,” he said. 

For Williams, that harmony begins through teaching tolerance at places like the HMLC where one can learn the power an individual has to affect social change and prevent tragedy. 

“We talk about how, at every level, you can disrupt it by speaking out, standing up for people and just having a sense of integrity, not going along with discrimination and bias,” she said. “Each one of our visitors has that agency within them. They don’t have to be a trained soldier to make a difference. They can make a difference in their own communities.”  

Julie Williams

Age: 55

Family: Widowed; has three children

Home: Unincorporated St. Louis County

Fun Fact: Williams has competed in

triathlons and marathons.