One of the first things you should probably learn about Lya Williams is that her name is pronounced Lee-Uh and not Lie-Uh. Another thing you should know is that she cares deeply about the future of public education in the Johnston School District.
Williams has thrown her hat in the ring for a second time as a candidate for the Johnston School Board after previously running in 2021. That first race did not go how she wanted, but two years later, she is back and more motivated than ever.
The Johnston School Board election is Nov. 7, and Williams is one of eight candidates in the race vying for four open seats.
If elected, one of her top priorities would be protecting intellectual freedom and fighting back against book bans—something she has some experience with.
Williams was inspired to take action after seeing Republican members of the Iowa Legislature attend various Johnston meetings to protest books in schools, including “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, one of her personal favorites.
“That book is a perfect spin of my life,” said Williams, noting that her upbringing was similar to that of Starr Carter, the book’s main character. “Up until this point, there hadn’t been a book written fictitiously to just describe the Black experience of the two worlds we got to live in, code-switching.”
In the book, Starr is a Black teenage stand-out athlete who attends a predominantly white and elite private school, but who lives in a lower-class Black neighborhood, actively code-switching based on which environment she’s in. When Starr witnesses a white police officer kill a friend of hers who was also Black, she struggles to reconcile her two worlds and navigate the fallout.
Williams helped organize parents and students to speak out against banning “The Hate U Give” and another book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexei, at board meetings in November and December 2021.
“We made sure the students were heard this time—the teachers had already [used] their voice—so here is the students letting you know, ‘No, we don’t agree with the two books being removed,’ and reinforcing that we need this book because a book is a mirror into another world.”
While Johnston students won that battle, the Republican-led legislature this year passed SF 496, a law endorsed by Gov. Kim Reynolds that imposes many new restrictions on Iowa public schools, including a section that bans certain books in schools.
Protecting intellectual freedom would not be Williams’ only goal on the board.
A civil engineer by trade who spent almost 15 years working at the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service office, Williams wants to see expanded science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) opportunities for students. Williams especially wants to expose more of the district’s students of color to opportunities in the agricultural sector.
“How many city kids know about agriculture stuff?” Williams said. “There are so many different avenues. Like right here in Iowa, Iowa State has agricultural mechanics. [There are opportunities] with John Deere, Pioneer and things like that.”
As a board member, Williams would also like to change how members address each other and the public. She wants board members who disagree to be able to have difficult conversations about topics some members may not feel as comfortable with.
“What I’m trying to say is it’s not blue or red, it [should be] purple like the Johnston Dragons,” Williams said. “At the heart of it, this city was established to attract people. That’s why we are here because of the schools for those of us that do have children—it’s an attractive area—but if you want to maintain that, this community can’t go back to the old way I keep hearing about.”
No matter the outcome of the election, Williams said she plans to keep working with whoever is on the board to continue to make the Johnston School District a desirable place for families seeking a quality public education.
“I do hope that, win or lose, that there can still be conservations had and not such a closed-mindedness to things,” she said.
AT A GLANCE:
Name: Lya Williams
Position: Johnston School Board candidate
Education: Graduated from George Washington Carver High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1994; earned a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro in 1999.
Experience: Spent 15 years working for the US Department of Agriculture as a civil engineer; director on the Iowa Unity Coalition Board; member of the Coalition of Parents for Equity and Anti-Racism, the Johnston Parent-Teacher Organization, the Johnston School Improvement Advisory Committee, and Johnston’s former equity committee.
Family: Husband, Anthony; son, Amir, 10.
Interests: Bullet journaling, movies, listening to and making podcasts, finding humorous yet informative TikToks, graphic design, cooking, traveling, and knitting (a sweater she made was featured in Modern Daily Knitting).
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