Firestarter and changemaker Terri Broussard Williams gives herself grace as she champions the light in others.
This is a story about a woman whose life is lived in the service of her community. So much so that many times she forgets that she, too, deserves the same light she spreads to others. This is about connecting with the self. Reevaluating what it means to be present and how to tap into the most human parts of ourselves.
This is the story of Terri Broussard Williams. An aria in four acts.
Act I: Growth
This is the story of one woman’s journey to blooming. Nurturing the most important parts of herself in order to fully blossom into the woman she truly wants to be. Through conversations over the course of almost a year Terri Broussard Williams grows ever more contemplative. More intentional about her energy and time. “I’ve been nonstop. But I’ve also evolved as a person, and I’m caring for that person in a very different way,” she says.
In her pursuit of helping people find their fires, Broussard Williams neglected her own spark. But the powers that guide and maneuver our lives have an immensely dark sense of humor. In September 2019, while visiting Washington D.C., she attended a reception at one of the Smithsonian Museums. A guest lifted what she described as a “large piece of furniture” in search of their cell phone. In a cruel turn of fate, the corner of the loveseat landed right on her head.* “When it came down it pushed my head into my spine,” she recalls. At the time of that conversation, she had been in therapy for almost a year after the accident.
When death literally tickles its suggestion into your spine, it’s hard to ignore the chill. However, Broussard Williams continued to try to push through the nagging unease. “That morning I needed to report something time-sensitive to my organization,” she recalls. “I made that call before I went to the hospital. Again putting work before self. The person who was in leadership at that organization at the time was so rude, so insensitive and hung up on me.”
She remembers this as a time of revelation.
As she sat waiting in the ER, she had a moment of silent contemplation. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “I was just like, ‘God, I hear you. Help me figure it out. Show me the way.’ I knew at that moment in the hospital that I had to change my life, and I decided right then I needed to change employers.”
This woman of great will was nearly blindsided by her own need to push forward despite the toll it was taking on her. Stuck in a never-ending cycle: working as a lobbyist while working on her Master’s at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as writing her debut book. “I was running myself into the ground,” she says. “I would work 18 hours every single day for months on end. And I was wearing it like a badge of honor. You’re on this hamster wheel, outputting, but you’re hollow inside, you’re not fulfilled. I was running like that for three solid years,” she continues. “I depleted a lot of what was inside of me that made me who I was.”
She recalls living in limbo, a constant feeling of floating in space. “When I was in that mode I was living unconsciously; I was living on auto-pilot. My father passed away in 2017,” she reveals. “That was the first time I started understanding what [living unconsciously]was.” There’s a bit of heartache in her voice when she retells the story nearly a year after the initial conversation. “I was everything to everybody else and nothing myself. When I was living in that unconscious state,” she says, “I would compartmentalize my feelings from what was in front of me because that allowed me to keep pushing. Since then I know I can’t do that.”
Act II: Purpose
This is a story about purpose. “From a very young age, I always knew that I wanted to help people,” she says.
Broussard Williams has stood steadfastly in that purpose. Moments of doubt? Almost nonexistent, especially growing up. “Someone asked me the question, ‘Why do you think you’re wired the way you are?’” She puts it like this: “If I brought home all A’s, my parents would say, ‘Okay, are you going to make them again next week?’ Or if I won an award, they’d say, ‘Did you thank them for that award? Did you tell them how you were going to help the next person get that award?’ It was always, good job, but there is something greater. That’s always just been my lens of how to view the world.”
However, even the most self-motivated have memories of learning how to shore up their strength to combat nascent questions about their capabilities. Broussard Williams recalls the first time thorns of self-doubt nettled their way into her mind as a young producer working at WIS-TV in Columbia, SC.
Doubt and Determination
“I know exactly the moment,” she says. “I made a mistake. I didn’t properly put quotes around the sound on tape, where they would tape the audio. [My director at the time] was looking at the script, and she said, ‘I told the news director to stop hiring kids! I need real help!’
“It stung because I moved across the country,” she says. “I moved there without knowing a single soul. She was also a Black female,” she continues, the surprise of that fact evident in the way her voice elevates in pitch. “That was the first time I ever remember an adult Black female not wanting to be an example and not wanting to be a role model. I learned really quickly I have to rely on myself. What got me here is what got me here. So I kinda got that fire in my belly and never backed down and never looked back.” There’s granite in her tone. A concrete edge to the words that underscores her resolve.
Faith and Fortitude
It’s hard for someone with this much brightness in them to go unnoticed. Natalie Glover, founder of LumenKind, has known Broussard Williams for a couple years now. Upon first meeting she understood Broussard Williams’ exceptional sense of self.
“One of my favorite things about Terri is her ability to fully surrender and yet be in deep action/motion/impact,” Glover says. “She often uses the words ‘faith and fortitude.’ I find this trait stunning and powerful. I also know that this is a choice she makes and a capacity she systematically develops within herself. I’m inspired by her elegant stance—one of trust and letting go while owning and fueling her fire within.”
Broussard Williams’ unerring desire to serve comes from an upbringing steeped in the Catholic church. “My grandparents helped build the church,” she says. “When it burned down, my parents led the capital campaign to get it restored. So I have a lot of priests and nuns in my family.”
It’s a legacy that binds her to principles that she never really gave up. However, she knows more than most how swift and harsh life’s lessons can come. “When I came home [from college], my grandmother’s cousin’s son was the priest at our church. He was just this beautiful homilist.” A short pause, then: “He recently got sick, [and he]passed away on my birthday.” There’s something in the tone of her voice. Though solemn, it isn’t full of regret. More than anything, there’s wisdom wrapped in a layer of sadness. “It was a reminder to double down on the things important to you,” she says. “But it was also this reminder that sometimes we become so myopic in the way we tell a story or the way we carry meaning that we might forget something so significant in our lives.”
Act III: Will
This is a story about a woman of exceptional will. “Friend, it’s your time. The universe knows you are ready. Your life has prepared you for this very moment.” (Terri Broussard Williams, Find Your Fire: Stories and Strategies to Inspire the Changemaker Inside You)
When she sat down to write Find Your Fire, Broussard Williams had already had nearly 15 years of starting her own. As the first Black woman national director of Strategic Partnerships and Alliances, Government Relations at the American Heart Association (AHA), she transformed an already powerful organization into a vehicle for inclusion and change. It’s fitting, then, that she would go on to become a lobbyist, the gravity of which was never lost on her. “Thank goodness I had a strong gut, and I had people who were teachers in my life,” she reflects. “When I think about the power I had as a lobbyist, negotiating legislation that would impact a whole state, if I did not have that anchor or [did not think]about community first, that could have been a disaster.”
She’s always had the wherewithal to see any project through to the end. Oftentimes taking lead, thus taking all the burden of the end result on her shoulders. However, Broussard Williams possesses a laser focus that propels her to seek out opportunities to not just spark change. This woman wants to incite an inferno.
Find Your Fire
“My first impression was that she was an impressive woman in every way,” recalls Cordell Carter, II, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Program. “I met Terri in the fall of 2017 at a criminal justice reform event in DC,” he continues. “We worked on the same criminal justice reform initiative and are part of a Black-Jewish leadership consortium. She joined my board at the Aspen Institute in 2019 and has been a stellar board member and supporter of the work of civil discourse.”
It should come as no surprise that life has expanded Broussard Williams’ purpose far beyond the steps of City Hall. With the release of Find Your Fire, which debuted as a #1 bestseller on Amazon, she has tapped into the global consciousness.
Writing lengthy Facebook posts inspired Broussard Williams to start a blog, which took on a life of its own. “One person emailed me and said my blog article literally saved their life,” she says. “They had been really depressed, having postpartum issues, and it was what they needed to get help. The very next day I got an email where someone said they were in a job they did not like and they wanted to start a business. They quit because of my blog article.” She pauses. “I remember thinking, ‘Wait a second. I need to put a legal disclaimer on my posts,” she says with an open laugh. “But I just sat with it,” she continues after the laughter dies down. “It just became clear that it was something that was inside of me.”
Act IV: Present
This is a story about being present. “The one thing that connects all my professional experiences is one simple tenant,” Broussard Williams says. “I want to be a person or a vessel that gives people information so that they can make decisions for themselves and their community. I feel when we give people that information, and we give it in a responsible, unbiased way, they choose to do good with it.”
From a very young age, I always knew that I wanted to help people
Thinking back on moments in her life that have signaled the need for a shift in perspective, it’s no stretch to imagine Broussard Williams neglecting her own inner peace in lieu of giving other people the tools they need to live in theirs. For a time she worked very closely with a breathing coach. While she still utilizes the practices, she’s committed to going to therapy, at the suggestion of a couple close friends: lawyer and host of late-night talk show State of the Culture, Eboni K. Williams (who became the first Black cast member on reality TV series Real Housewives of New York City), and Alicia Smith, senior director of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.
“They were huge advocates for me, telling me, ‘Just go to therapy. Invest in yourself in that way,’” she says candidly. “For so many Black women, Black people in general, we don’t go to therapy. But it’s something that I’m truly enjoying.”
Terri Broussard Williams Steps Up
She recounts an encounter that in the past would’ve sat with her. “I was talking to a Black man about racial equity. He asked me what my ethnicity was.” The audacity of the question drips with incredulousness. “Then he followed up with, ‘Where did you go to undergraduate school?’” Her retort certainly attests to her growth as a result of investing in therapy. “I said, ‘I’m a proud graduate of Louisiana State University, but I’ve spent an appropriate amount of time on the Yard,’” the AKA** blasting through the inflection in her voice.
In the end, she was able to laugh it off. “I thought I was not bothered by him,” she says, letting go of all pretense. The kind of code switch shared between people with similar backgrounds. “But,” she says, a serious note coloring the syllable, “sometimes when we keep our composure we get questioned.”
And when Broussard Williams was tested, she passed with flying colors. Unsurprising for a woman who’s had to enter into spaces where she’s constantly questioned based on her appearance.
Movement Maker Marks
She’s also found an incredible confidante and partner in Natalie Glover. The two had a chance meeting at an event organized by a mutual friend of theirs right before Broussard Williams was to take what Glover calls “a trip to celebrate a milestone birthday.”
Broussard Williams’ connection to Glover manifested several opportunities for her to dig deeper within herself to hold herself accountable for her own peace. This mutual need for peace resulted in an ongoing collaboration. Once again allowing Broussard Williams to align herself with an opportunity to help others.
“Together, we brainstormed and created the Movement Maker pack of Mindful Marks,” Glover says. “The aim of this co-creation is to help Firestarters find their fire and stay focused on their calling. Terri carefully chose four Mindful Marks and developed specific intentions for each to align with the intelligent and actionable method shared in her book.”
Broussard Williams attests to the importance of inner peace.
“I moved here in 2008,” she recalls. “By 2009, I was working on a board. In 2010, I chaired my first gala. I stopped chairing galas in 2017, 2018-ish. My last years with the AHA I was traveling so much I couldn’t do that. So I would just stay home on the weekends. Or I would feel guilty and create things to do because I hadn’t connected with people.
“Then I had my accident,” she says softly. “I’m in the house since September 2019. I had the greatest question in front of me: ‘What is that reset? What does it look like?’ Well, I’m calling it the Great MeSet. I have to do it so I’m present. If I’m not present, I can’t learn all the things I’m learning about others. I can’t see that next step to really begin to understand what’s in front of me and who I’m becoming.
“You gotta take a moment and step back and think about all of [your]life from this very fulsome approach,” she continues. “We might find more richness in our own story that we just forgot because of how we told the narrative. The way we were moving so fast in life or the way we weren’t even connecting with ourselves.”
Positions of Change
Armed with this new perspective, she once again sought ways to offer her wisdom and voice to meaningful causes. Her upcoming role elevates her history as a lobbyist for the underserved and underrepresented. “I transitioned to a role at a tech company that focuses on social justice and social impact,” she says. “The stuff I get to do now is so transformational. There are things I’m getting to work on that I feel are carrying on the legacy of the social justice and civil rights leaders that I love and follow. Working on voting rights. Protecting this fundamental right for all of us.” The passion in her voice resonates. She understands her responsibility as a Black woman in a position of actionable change at a notable company to not only embrace but honor the sacrifices of those who came before her. “It just hits different,” she says brightly.
Broussard Williams also dedicates herself to a new calling: teacher. She’s taken a position at the Texas A&M Bush School Center for Nonprofits and Philanthropy as an instructor of the Social Justice certification program. “I’m teaching the part on policy and partnerships,” she reveals. “You have to really assess and understand what’s in front of you, become a cultural ambassador, then build a coalition to help you and get your hands dirty in that community. Then you can teach or take action for change. It’s been fun thinking about how to lay that out, writing the syllabus.”
Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
We’re living in an era of unrest and uncomfortable growth. An era that will force many to confront harsh truths that have gone buried for far too long. Broussard Williams is determined to keep the flame of decades-old fires burning, and in that providing light and warmth for a new generation of changemakers. “It’s not just what you are doing as a party of one,” she insists. “How are you taking everyone else along?
“We [have to]get people comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she says. “But also get people to reset how they think. This is not about you being the leader. It’s about being a leader of many, and doing it in service of the organization, the community, the movement. Even with all the dollars out there right now, there are still people hoarding dollars,” she says, the impassioned champion of communities speaking from her podium. “If you are a nonprofit accepting money without outcome measures and you don’t report back out what you do with that money, shame on you! You’re part of the problem too. You shouldn’t be out here with your hands out, but with your hands open to help to solve problems.”
Rap pioneer Rakim said, “I used to let the mic smoke. Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke.” Ladies and gentleman, Terri Broussard Williams.
Epilogue: The Magic Will Find You
This story is grand, winding and exquisite. But it certainly doesn’t stop here. So much of who Broussard Willams is has manifested because of her unrelenting drive, ambition and fearless pursuit of her purpose. She keeps every lesson learned in mind. Lessons she hopes will inspire others to seek out and fulfill their own purpose.
Born into a family that valued excellence, nurtured in the spirit of helping others. Terri Broussard Williams’ passion for bringing light into the world at one point almost dimmed hers. But she is nothing if not intuitive. Her gut leads her in one direction. Her faith allows her to go there without hesitation.
Just Keep Moving
“The hardest part is the first step,” she says. “The magic will find you. People will show up, and they’ll show up when you least expect them. You just gotta trust yourself. There’s no way as a first-time lobbyist when I was walking up those stairs to City Hall, having never met a lobbyist before, that I didn’t have a fear, right? But I knew I could learn. I knew I was gonna work hard every day, and I knew that I was just gonna smile at people. I met my very best friend that first session. I passed two bills my very first session. I met some of my biggest cheerleaders, and they were the ones who told me what to do. Even now they’ll show up for me.
“Life is like a set of stairs,” she says. “You always know you’re heading toward the top. But it’s not until you get to that rooftop that you see it. I really think the more I have conversations with people who traditionally would not have been in my path, or the more I take a chance on myself, the more I see. I truly believe every day I live, the universe, the people around me and God are preparing me for something much greater. Every day I pray for protection from drama and to order my steps so that I can live professionally with purpose, I can be happy, I can show up [how]I’m needed.”
*The print version of this article inaccurately described the loveseat as falling from the second floor, which is not the case.
**The print version of this article described Broussard Williams as a “former AKA.” The wording is unclear, thus inaccurate. In Black Greek culture, once accepted into a fraternity or sorority, said member is part of that fraternity or sorority for life. Therefore, Broussard Williams is still and always will be an AKA, regardless of direct participation in every aspect of Greek life.