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Finding belonging in art and community: PhD graduate Pascale Ife Williams leads through connection

Professional portrait of Pascale Ife Williams on a white background
Photo by Chris Froeter

A healing justice practitioner, woven into the tapestry of her research. That’s Pascale Ife Williams, a December 2022 graduate of UW–Madison’s Human Ecology PhD Program in Civil Society & Community Research.

Beyond her degree title, Ife is a daughter. Her mother came from a family of French potato farmers, and her father from a Black working class family in Washington D.C. Together, Ife’s parents created a life for themselves in Chicago—the city where Ife became an artist, a mother, a creator of community and connection, and a boundary setter.

“From a young age, I had this sense that there were many ways to present information and connect to different parts of ourselves through the arts,” Ife says.

At 16, she became involved with a youth center in her neighborhood of Humboldt Park. It was a politicized environment that reaffirmed her own observations of the changing dynamics of the city. Creating art in that space meant discussing, disrupting, and presenting her own experiences. Ife’s first exhibit was a series of graffiti-inspired visual artwork that responded to concerns like gentrification within her community.

Four, circular pieces of art. Circular and wavy, painted black lines outline colors blue, tan, lime green and pink. Detailed elements on each circle include flowers and a face.
Artwork by Pascale Ife Williams

Looking back, Ife considers this period of her life as one of many catalyst moments that prompted her to explore the interactions of community, identity, belonging, and political analysis through the lens of the arts.

This began her community organizing career—first as a youth on Chicago’s westside working against urban displacement of Black and brown communities. The skills she used in this work weren’t learned in a classroom setting. Instead, Ife’s informal training came from being immersed in community and connecting with individuals she was raising awareness and advocating for—much of the time, these communities were her own.

“In my work today, I understand the critical role of imagination, especially for those who have been historically impacted by oppression in the U.S. settler-colonial context,” Ife says. “A lot of white supremacy dictation is to pull people away from the ability to even imagine themselves outside of the systems we currently exist in.”

Making the PhD program her own

Ife isn’t shy to admit that higher education was not a pathway she automatically thought would complement her community organizing experience. She was not drawn to Wisconsin or to UW–Madison. It was never her dream to be a Badger.

Rather, what caught her attention was the interdisciplinary Civil Society & Community Research program in Human Ecology that allowed flexibility to integrate her interests of the arts and women and gender studies. Her involvement in the P.O.WE.R Collective created space for belonging and radical community practice and scholarship. The faculty and mentorship from advisors and assistant professors like Carolina Sarmiento, made her stay. It was important to Ife to find mentorship through a woman of color.

Seven people stand in a group smiling at the camera. A mural of a map is in the background.
Ife Williams (far left) with a group of students at a P.O.W.E.R Collective event. Photo by Duke Virginia

“Carolina supported me in navigating the School of Human Ecology and certain challenges,” Ife says. “She was also steadfast with my interest and commitment to be both in practice outside of the school and to continue to pursue my PhD.”

The School of Human Ecology encourages students to enroll in courses outside of their degree program to round-out skill sets for a more holistic academic experience. Ife took full advantage of this approach and completed a cartoon drawing class led by Lynda Barry through the UW–Madison Art Department. While this course may seem outside of the Civil Society & Community Research purview, Ife’s advisor supported her choice and understood how such learnings connected with Ife’s goals.

Leading with creativity, Ife used drawings as a form of participant observation methodology in her thesis proposal research, “Me/We: Black Queer Praxis in Healing Justice, Creativity, and Care”. In her dissertation, Ife created original hand drawn images that introduced each chapter, as well as freestyle prose for the closing pages.

“My advisor, Carolina, not only approved this dissertation direction, but also encouraged me to do so,” Ife says. “Although this was solely my experience, I hope it is reflective of the expansive variety of research approaches that the Civil Society & Community Studies department and School of Human Ecology encourages and accepts.”

Advocating for herself and her community

When Ife first sat down with her faculty advisor to discuss her intentions for her graduate experience, Ife knew the boundaries she needed to set.

“I know my worth, and I know that my worth is above losing myself in or being completely unraveled by the stress of a PhD program,” Ife says.

Defining and honoring her limits helped Ife advocate for what she needed, such as childcare for parent students or pointing out that a Tuesday night class that ran to 8pm wasn’t accessible to her.

“I had to be really clear that the way some parts of the program were running was outside of my capacity for distinct and valid reasons,” Ife says. “If you’re willing to work with me, I’m willing to work with you, and the School of Human Ecology connected me with resources to remove childcare barriers so I could attend classes.”

Finding balance, time, and effort to complete a PhD program was challenging. Compounded with a global pandemic, racial unrest, and the everyday stresses of managing life’s priorities, Ife had to extend grace and patience to herself.

“It was really hard,” Ife says. “I almost gave up so many times.”

But, she kept going, and today, Ife is a doctoral graduate. Moving forward, her priority is “resting, sitting, and doing nothing”—at least for a little bit. She will continue to teach in Chicago and complete consulting contracts, all while planning for her next career role as a community-based researcher, teacher, and space holder.

A black and white, professional photo of Ife Williams and her son. They have their heads together and are both laughing with similar smiles and their eyes closed.
Ife and her child. Photo by Junta Jefas.