April 3, 2023

Women in Leadership: An Interview with Regina Celestin Williams


SV@Home’s Executive Director, Regina Celestin Williams, is the recipient of this year’s Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) Rising Star Award. In honor of this recognition of her leadership and profound contributions to housing justice, we sat down with her to discuss the importance of women in leadership and empowering the next generation of women leaders.

Tell us about your personal story and how you got to be where you are today as SV@Home’s Executive Director.

My story is inextricably tied to affordable housing and the need for low-income families to access stable and affordable housing here in the Bay Area. I was born and raised in Richmond, CA, and grew up in project-based Section 8 housing. My professional journey began when I realized in undergrad that I had lived and benefited from publicly subsidized housing. Once I started studying Urban Studies in undergrad and learned what affordable housing was, I got inspired to go into this field that I had benefited from. Getting here to the policy side is reaching a new level of involvement because it’s not just implementation but shifting how we do this work, what solutions we look to, and who we center. It’s one thing to work within a framework and a totally different thing to transform and revolutionize it. It’s about having a greater platform to influence more folks and touch more lives. 

Was there a significance in returning to the Bay Area to do this work and influence the community in which you grew up?

I spent about a decade on the East Coast and what I didn’t experience in California that I was able to bring back is just how tied neighborhoods are to the identities of the people who live in them. What it means to be a part of a neighborhood fabric, to be reflected in that neighborhood, to have your culture reflected in that neighborhood’s identity, it’s so tangible in East Coast cities. Certainly, there are distinctions between the Bay Area or Northern vs Southern California and there are distinctions between being a Californian and not but that feeling of “this is my neighborhood” didn’t exist so strongly for me. I appreciate the possibility of that in San Jose and the cultural influences that shape this city. 

As a Black woman, I always think about how displacement has affected the Black community, especially in the Bay Area. I see the work that I do and that we do at SV@Home as anti-displacement work because of that. You can tangibly see how there’s been such a loss of Black culture and Black people in the Bay Area, especially in San Jose. 

The importance of being here and doing this work in the Bay Area is really about the sophistication of the affordable housing industry. There are so many folks who are leading the field when it comes to how we solve this crisis and so many larger nonprofits that are invested in building enough housing so that everyone has a stable home. I find that inspiring. And, so is being in this area that leads the country in how we address housing affordability challenges.

 A recent study revealed that in 2023, only 10% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women, not including the existing disparities in industries across the board. What are your thoughts on how we can continue to improve on this gap? 

There’s so much that you experience when you’re part of a marginalized group while trying to break through ceilings and accomplish something new. That’s the liberation piece, right? For women to have that statistic like ok we’re 10% of this type of leadership, there’s so much that you have to do to be perceived as a leader and be accepted by the other 90% that has nothing to do with competency. That weighs heavily and takes a lot of energy away from actually being able to achieve, attain, and do your job. Just not looking like the other 90%, trying to wrestle with if you can fit into that set of expectations of what leadership looks like. So, to me, empowering the next generation of women leaders is about emphasizing the value they bring without fitting into any other box or perception. It’s really about going back to authenticity and how you value yourself first. Recognize that what you could bring is what’s missing. 

That’s a big part of why I stepped into this leadership role. I feel like for every person, at some point, it becomes if not me, who? Then you start to think about ok, I can see the areas that could change for the better especially when it comes to equity and inclusion, but if it’s not me then who’s going to make that change? It goes back to really understanding what you bring and realizing that your goal in entering that space is not to do what the other 90% has been doing; it’s to be different and bring a different perspective and lens and create change. That’s what helps motivate me. In many conversations with folks from marginalized backgrounds, I’ve noticed we don’t recognize our value as much. There’s too much of us trying to fit into what already exists but that’s not the purpose of us being in this leadership space. It’s to make a change, to make other people uncomfortable, and to disrupt; that’s the point. 

I love everything about that. I feel inspired. But I completely agree, I think imposter syndrome is so real. You feel like “I shouldn’t be here, this space isn’t for me, or I’m not doing a good job” based on again like you’re saying, these standards that were created without us in mind. In talking with women who are even younger or earlier into their careers than me, I try to remind them to take up space, and that they do belong and deserve to be in these spaces. But it is hard to even remind yourself of that sometimes. 

It is, and I would reframe it for myself from imposter syndrome to feeling like I’m not doing enough. In this role, I always feel like I’m supposed to be doing more. But no, it’s just that what I’m doing is different. The things that I spend my time and energy on might not look like the others that came before me, but that’s time and energy that is important because it’s to change the space. So, I remind myself that even my work and the things I spend time doing have value. Even in creating boundaries of saying I’m not going to be here at 7 am or be in meetings until 9 pm, even that is about creating space for other women to me. To be able to come in, be healthy, and do this work because there are so many other things that take up space. That’s why women are the only ones that have the conversation about work-life balance, and it’s so strange but it’s because of the way that other things pull us whether it’s volunteering, spending time with family, or being in our religious institutions’ other things pull us and that means that when we show up at work it’s going to look different. 

Are there any women leaders who have inspired you throughout your career? Tell us about them and how they’ve inspired you.

Now that I am in this space, I think about it differently. I think about women leaders and women of color who I can identify with, get inspiration from, or get words of encouragement from. I think of Nikki Beasley, a leader in Richmond, my hometown, who has done transformational work at Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services where she works. Even more so, the conversations that I’ve had with her have been just really real and authentic. I think that’s what I’m inspired by, authenticity and not dampening your light. Showing up with all of the strength and intention and power that is being a Black woman in all the spaces you’re in. I feel and expect people to react and to respond and to change because that’s the whole point, again the point isn’t to just sit there and become a part of the system. The point is to elicit reactions and for folks to have to notice you and know that you’re there and have an experience of your presence in any given meeting or space. So she has said some things to me that helped me see the value in “taking up space”, and that I should take up a lot of space. I think people who are very authentic in how they show up are who I take inspiration from. 

Women’s History Month just came to a close a few weeks ago; what is the importance of this month to you personally? 

To be honest, I think for me it’s a reminder of the fact that it was recent history when women didn’t have full rights. We talk about history as if it was a long time ago, and it wasn’t that many generations ago when women didn’t have the right to vote and full rights to be able to advocate for themselves and take certain positions. The flip side of that is that there are just so many amazing, strong women that have helped me get to where I am today because of the work that they did to fight for full rights and equality. Yet, we still have a long way to go.

Any advice to any women who may be reading this and are on their journeys to leadership or in their careers in general?

Be kind to yourself, have grace with yourself, and be vulnerable in seeking out connections with other women because we really are stronger as a collective. We’re always going to have relationships and strong partnerships with men and folks who meet any other gender identity but being able to have that space where you can connect with those who identify as women and what that means as a struggle is really good for being able to withstand some of the challenges we face as we rise in leadership. The glass ceiling is glass because you don’t see it. You’re not aware of the different limitations and things that could be working against you, but as soon as you show that you could be a leader, then you start getting a lot of resistance and experiencing challenges. It helps to have other women to check in with, to touch base with because my first reaction was, “Should this be upsetting me?” “Am I really experiencing this?” “Maybe it’s just me and it’s not systemic.” It’s not, so you need that group of women to check in with to validate those experiences, regardless of the sector you work in. That’s when you find value in a collective response to change the system. You’re not alone, it’s not just your experience, find your collective group and be vulnerable in sharing your real experience.