This series aims to highlight Southern women who are forging their own paths and making change in their community. We ask them a bit about this and that to gain a glimpse into the lives of women all around us who are shaping the fabric of our future.
Mollie Williamson is the Executive Director of Girls Rock Columbia in South Carolina.
Where do you call home?
Columbia. I was born and raised in South Carolina, but only moved to Cola at 18 for school. I lived in Philly for a few years after graduation, but whenever I was homesick this was the city I was homesick for. So here I am, back in the place I love.
Describe your work life.
Haha, oh man. How much time do you have? My work life is pretty all over the place. On any given day I might be working with our interns at the coffee shop, sitting in my room in a pair of sweatpants doing budget spreadsheets, organizing our incredible volunteers, loading/unloading/testing/sorting musical instruments and gear, or leading a roomful of campers in a scream circle.
At Girls Rock Columbia, our motto is “Your voice is your most powerful instrument.” Often, folks look at youth as if they’re pre-people—like they have so much potential to “be somebody” when they grow up. We work really hard to create fun and innovative ways to show girls and trans and gender nonconforming youth how possible it is for them to be advocates and activists in their communities today and all the different platforms that exist for them to do so. We’re not a music program; we’re a social justice program that uses music as a vessel.
I’m the only employee (working with a dozen brazen organizers and a slew of the most dedicated volunteers you could ever hope to find), so a lot of my job is figuring out where people’s strengths are, making sure not to burn out the folks who bust their butts for our organization, and essentially thanking everyone I know all the time for giving so much to this thing we’ve created.
Share an accomplishment that makes you feel proud.
Helping to create the first-ever social work position at the Richland County Public Defender’s office. In 2013, someone I cared about was incarcerated as a result of an untreated mental illness, and there were so many instances where having a social worker would have made the situation better. I was considering going back to school to finish my Masters in Social Work at the time, and somehow convinced my friend Dino, a Public Defender, to let me work with him to create a social work internship position for myself in his office. During that year, I coordinated a network of services that clients could access when they came in contact with the legal system that would help address their needs and prevent recidivism (things like housing assistance, employment opportunities, substance abuse and mental health services, etc.) and loosely structured what a full-time social work position could look like. The attorneys there were so great—they really value the health and well-being of their clients. Aleks Chauhan gave me the opportunity to help write a grant that later successfully funded the position, which was incredible. It’s always kind of nuts to realize you can create change from scratch.
What is your favorite Southern saying?
“I’m not the hook to hang your mood on.” Is that a Southern saying? My dad might have made that up. If it’s not already a Southern saying, this is my motion to make it one.
Does religion play a role in your life?
Only if you count saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. I grew up and was confirmed Irish Catholic but am now a pretty staunch atheist. I can still appreciate the feeling of being connected to a community, though, and of being a part of something so much larger than oneself. The martyrs of Catholicism are pretty powerful, too. Agnes (the patron saint of women) was my confirmation saint—she was condemned to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel after rejecting taking a suitor. As she was dragged, her hair grew and covered her nakedness and all of the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. I mean, that’s pretty brutal. I still wear my medal sometimes.
Tell us about an influential Southern woman in your life.
My mom kicks so much ass. She’s Canadian and moved here as an adult, but she’s been here over 40 years, so she counts. She was the Canadian national champion in gymnastics and went to the World Games, did community mental health care in Chicago during de-institutionalization, was a substitute teacher (and once sprayed the students in a shop class with a fire extinguisher when they said sexist stuff to her), started her own business (a gymnastics center, Upstate Gymnastics, that still thrives), and has shaped the lives of so many young women—who still come to visit her, decades after she’s coached them.
My mom raised me in such a way that I never considered whether there were things that women couldn’t or shouldn’t do. She’s smart and compassionate, and she gives great advice. One piece of advice she gave me that’s stuck with me: “If someone you know is going through something, don’t say, ‘call me if you need anything.’ You call them. Check in on them. People need help, even when they’re not asking for it.”
Another great quote from her (earlier this year, at age 71): “I’d much rather be called a slut than unfunny.” She’s going to kill me for sharing that. Here’s a picture of her in her heyday:
Has there been a defining moment that set you on your current life path?
When we first started GRC [Girls Rock Columbia] I didn’t really know any of the other organizers, and I thought everyone was so different than me. They all seemed to have professional jobs and be very put-together. We were doing a bunch of fundraising planning and organizational structuring (things I had zero knowledge or experience with), and I felt so small and useless. I told my friend Kristin (one of the founders) that I thought I should probably quit. She told me, “Look—you’re so important to what we’re trying to do, but your part comes later. If you just stick it out for a little while longer, you’ll see how much we need you.” Damn, am I glad we had that conversation. Girls Rock has been pivotal for me in so many ways: it helped me explore my strengths and gave me an avenue to develop new skills. It helped me figure out how to take an idea and work through it step-by-step to make it a reality. It helped me meet people where they’re at. It gave me the confidence to be a leader.
I later discovered that I had a deep affinity with so many of the women that I thought I had nothing in common with, and that nobody is really all that put-together.
Share a Southern family tradition and tell us why it remains important, or why you have left it behind as an adult.
Every Christmas, my mom stays up and writes the best/worst gift tags late into the night: “To: Mollie From: Mary, JoJo, & Lil Bit (Mary, Joseph and Jesus)” or “To: Kathleen From: Mr. Peepers, the man who watches you through your windows. Nice jammies.” You have to read them out loud before you can open your present. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that this was not the norm in most households. I had to start collecting the tags because my friends didn’t believe me. Maybe this isn’t the sort of thing you’re looking for, but it’s how we do things in the Williamson house.
What does being a Southern woman mean to you?
Being fierce. Being resilient. Things still aren’t great for women, in this state particularly. The Southern women I know are all claws and teeth—even the quiet ones, the ones that look like belles, the soccer moms. Especially those women. Southern women have powerful, fiery hearts. They do the legwork. They’re change-makers in our community.
BONUS QUESTION: Dukes, Hellmann’s, or Miracle Whip?
Hellman’s for nostalgia, Dukes for credibility, Miracle Whip for the garbage.