Melissa Williams ’89
Melissa Williams’ ’89 path to the Sierra Club and a career in environmentalism has had a few twists and turns, almost like the trip down a river — the French Broad River to be exact.

After graduating from Hamilton with a degree in English, with a concentration in creative writing/poetry and a minor in religious studies, Williams pursued journalism at Boston University before working at Baruch College as an assistant to the dean of arts and sciences. Still drawn to her creative writing interests, she graduated from Miami University with a master’s degree in poetry. 

Williams moved to Asheville, N.C., for a job as a government reporter and local news/Sunday edition editor at the Citizen-Times before joining the Western North Carolina Alliance, an environmental grassroots nonprofit. At WNCA, she began focusing on environmental issues relating to air, water, transportation, and public lands. She recalls office days where her team would paddle down the French Broad River or forage for mushrooms, ultimately sparking her interest in environmentalism. 

Williams was eventually promoted to communications director at WNCA, now known as MountainTrue, which led her to the Sierra Club in 2015. There she serves as acting deputy chief of communication for regional media and leads national media work on Duke Energy. She writes press statements and Op-Eds, pitches stories to reporters, and works with organizers, attorneys, digital strategists, and Beyond Coal campaign representatives to reduce the use of fossil fuels in favor of clean, renewable energy. 

“The joy from an official coal plant retirement in a community that has suffered from polluted air and water, and whose kids have suffered asthma and other public health ailments for generations, is hard to describe — but it’s amazing,” she said.

Williams noted that through her work at the Sierra Club, she seeks to make the world a better place through promoting environmental, racial, economic, and gender justice. Similarly, she wants to see a world where “humans treat each other, the Earth, and all species with humility, care and respect.”

“I’m still grateful to my [Hamilton] professors, who had rigorous demands and high expectations,” she said. “All of my teachers were excellent, but I have particular gratitude for John O’Neill, who was always kind, full of energy and truly enthusiastic about my nascent writing abilities, even when I was 17, and the late Agha Shahid Ali, who was wonderful, cheeky and wise, and whose poem ‘Stationery’ has provided the coda on my emails for decades: ‘The world is full of paper. Write to me.’”

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