Person of the Year

Working for ‘Common Folks’

City Commissioner Williams-Cox started advocacy work on Southside

City Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
City Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox celebrated winning a second term.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

As aide to City Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox, Towanda Davila-Davis usually is the first person to hear a constituent’s complaint.

Not many differ from the hypothetical Mr. Johnson that she presented. Davila-Davis has come to know that not much she might say to the person on the other end of a phone call would suffice.

“When the people call, they don’t want to hear me,” Davila-Davis said. “They want to hear her voice to know that this commissioner called me back. That’s important to her.”

Callers like Mr. Johnson or Miss Lilly, another hypothetical name, are the “common folks” that William-Cox makes her priority, her aide said.

“They just want to hear her voice and to know that they matter to somebody in the city and this commissioner called them back” Davila-Davis said. “That is what makes her smile.”

For more than three decades Williams-Cox has been advocating for marginalized individuals and the Southside community. She began advocating in 1989, after she and her husband, Tommy, moved to their current home on the Southside.

Each day she found more reasons to make her voice heard in an attempt to bring change to her community.

“I found it important because I’m just a sucker for the underdog,” Williams-Cox said. “I saw so many inequities. Once you see what you see, you can’t (not) see it. I began to enlighten people to understand that they had to do something to try to bring empowerment.”

Williams-Cox is in her second term on the City Commission and serving as Mayor Pro Tem. She has become such a prominent community advocate that she’s developed a reputation for picking up the mantle for others.

Williams-Cox’s work has earned her the honor of Person of the Year by the Capital Outlook. It’s an annual recognition that includes a business, a church, a civil rights advocate, a pastor, a family and individuals. 

“I’m humbled,” she said of the honor. “I’m shocked because I don’t even think about that kind of stuff. I just do the work to solve problems and try to give people what they need. I’m very appreciative. I’m honored.”

Ask her why she doesn’t have a problem with her constituents insisting that they speak to her and not her aide, Williams-Cox would respond in a matter-of-fact manner.

“I don’t have time to play games,” she said. “I’m not about the politics of all of this stuff. We’ve got people who are really hurting. I hate to see people suffer so I’m trying to do the work and trying to help people get what they need to be successful.”

Williams-Cox emerged from teenage motherhood and waded her way through a Gadsden County education system in her native Quincy during the early years of disintegration. After graduation from Shanks High School, she headed to FAMU and earned a bachelor’s of science and data processing technology.  

Her first job out of college took her to Palm Bay, where she worked as a computer programmer for a government defense contractor. That lasted a year. 

Marriage to the man she met at age 17 and earning a master’s degree in business administration from Nova Southeastern University followed. Soon after she and her husband now of 37 years had the second of three sons. 

Raising her children on the Southside of town ignited a passion in Williams-Cox to make life better for others, especially those with children at the Rickards High School, where her sons attended. 

She worked as a athletics booster and as a member of the  school’s advisory council. The involvement put her in a place to see to inequities in facilities, education and opportunities.

She intensified her call for change at Rickards.

Her contention was fueled because “Kids on the Southside deserve the same quality of education as the kids on the other side of town,” Williams-Cox said.

She and other parents listened to plans to bring change that never came. It prompted her to make an unsuccessful run to represent District 2 on the Leon County School Board.

Her community work didn’t stop. Williams-Cox followed her sons’ athletic trek and became an administrator in their little league baseball program at Capital Park. She became president of the park and in 2000 headed up the park’s Junior Major League.

When it was time to find uniform sponsors, Williams-Cox made the pitch. Other baseball parents followed her lead.

“During that time, nobody objected to working with Dianne,” said Lewis Thurston, who currently leads baseball at the park. “She was a proven leader. She just had a knack for attracting individuals that didn’t have a problem working with her or supporting her. I think they saw the passion that she had.”

Being a leader in a male-dominated sport didn’t slow her down either, Thurston said. 

“For her, it was just natural. There was no distinction about ‘oh, you’re a female why are you being a president or why are you out here with baseball,’ ” he said. “You did not see that with her. She was out there for the kids and so she didn’t run into any challenges. If she did she did not back down. She fought from day one for Capital Park baseball program.”

Williams-Cox became the messenger for the Southside, taking the issues to the City Commission when stores stared moving out and businesses were closing. She seldom missed an opportunity to tell commissioners from the audience section what worried her community.

Surprisingly, she didn’t jump into politics at the city level, instead seeking a seat in the House or Representative with the last of two attempts being in 2016.

Davila-Davis, who was campaign manager when Williams-Cox ran for a school board seat, said she has questioned why her best friend insists on public service. She’s heard a couple of responses but none sinks in like a reference to a martial arts fighter.

“You’ve got to be like the kung-fu man and bleed on the inside,” is an attitude that Williams-Cox insist on.

During the last three years, Williams-Cox has become central to a voting bloc on the board that includes Commissioner Curtis Richardson and Mayor John Dailey. However, she said there are issues that the trio agrees with Commissioners Jack Porter and Jeremy Matlow on.

There are “things we totally agree on,” Williams-Cox said, adding that they are “five learned people with five learned experiences.”

From where she sits these days, Williams-Cox said she has a good view of issues like the economy and affordable housing. Lurking close behind is poverty, which leaves the families she serve with tough decision to make, she said.

“They are just trying to make ends meet,” she said. “They are making dinner-table and pocketbook decisions. 

“As I sit on that dais, I remember that I used to be on the other side. I never forget that. I have flashback sometimes.”

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