If you ask Joe Williams, he’s just a white kid raised without much on the Navajo Nation who made a living as an engineer and helped as many people along the way as he could.
But ask the board of directors for Rotary International, a 1.2 million member global organization, and it will tell you Williams is a rare and exemplary embodiment of Rotary’s mission to solve real-world problems through service. It is a quality Rotary International validated this year when it awarded Williams its exclusive “Service Above Self Award.” No more than 150 Rotarians worldwide are given the award each year, according to the organization.
“I was so surprised when this award was given to me, which is so exclusive,” Williams said. “I said to myself, ‘I’m not worthy, I’m just doing my job, I’m just doing what I do, I’m just a Rotarian.’”
Williams became a Rotarian about 25 years ago after a late-friend saw his passion for peace and conflict resolution – core principals of the organization – and asked him to join. What happened next was “magical,” Williams said.
“I had no money, but I had two good hands, I had the willingness and I had the knowledge of how people can interact with each other in a positive way, even if there’s conflict,” Williams said.
Williams’ compassion and keen vision for addressing problems in a way that engages people in what they need, where they’re at, and giving them the resources to meet those needs makes him an “exemplary” Rotarian, said friend and Durango Daybreak Rotary President Richie Fletcher. The two have traveled the world together in service for Rotary, including to Nepal to install solar lights along the Great Himalaya Trails.
“Joe’s a huge doer,” Fletcher said. “And that inspires me to do more.”
An upside down, bicultural worldWilliams grew up watching the 1960s civil rights movement on television from his home on the Navajo Nation, a minority in his community. When he saw black people blasted with water from fire hoses in humid southeastern cities, “I would say, ‘Mom, we ride in the back of the bus,’” Williams said.
But when he got to school in Bloomfield, cultural and societal dynamics flipped and he became a part of the majority. Navigating the different social and cultural expectations between a Navajo-majority and a white-majority community challenged him to find parallels between the two worlds, recognize the difference in values and the similarity in needs, Williams said.
A girl in high school asked him to mediate a dispute between two families over water rights. When Williams asked why she asked him rather than a professional, she said, “You don’t understand: You’re the one who understands both sides of the story and can talk about it without offending either side.”
The worlds workWilliams couldn’t get to Durango soon enough, he said. Growing up in the Southwest, he visited the city as a kid and had fallen in love with it. He moved Sept. 10, 1983.
He bought a bankrupt carpet cleaning business, moved to the natural gas industry and integrated himself into the community. By 1994, he was a Rotarian. Within a few months, he joined a committee awarded $300,000 to treat intestinal parasites in low-income communities in Mexico City. So he went and helped cure 1.2 million people, Williams said.
But that wasn’t enough – there was still a need, he said. So he and a small committee in Durango secured a grant to start a program mirroring Tri-County Head Start – an organization that, in part, serves breakfast to schoolchildren – in Mexico City.
They served 51,000 kids each year for the first two years, he said.
“I’ve been all over the world for Rotary,” Williams said. “I used to be a big dog in Rotary – foundation chairman, managed lots of money and lots of huge projects. Our organization is cut to the chase, no bull----, let’s get it done, we got work to do. It’s really nice.”
Williams’ life has come full circle – he’s back on the Navajo Nation, working to supply power to the thousands of people who don’t have it. He made 90 trips to the reservation in 2018. He met with the president of the Navajo Nation, but time has taught him politics and bureaucracy are often inefficient at solving real-world problems, Williams said. The most effective way to help is to do it himself, he said.
He grew up with the Navajo name “na’ ashjéii hastiin,” meaning Spider Man. Spider Woman, in Navajo tradition, is recognized in Navajo tradition as the giver of the ability to weave and farm. Spider Man, according to tradition, crafted Spider Woman’s loom – the quiet, subdued one who provides the tools to create.
“I can help an elderly person out to the outhouse without breaking their hip. I can make sure that those kids of single mothers, that those kids can do their homework to help literacy,” he said. “I can make sure, if someone is a silversmith, they have the light to work their craft. If they’re weavers, they have the light to light their loom so they can weave.”
The idea behind the work is a hand up, not a hand out, Williams said.
“Durango Daybreak Rotary, we’re a hands-on club, that’s what we’re called,” Williams said. “We redistribute firewood to every elder who needs it in the winter. We love to do that stuff. Some people like to write a check, but for us, it’s find a need, physically go and address it, solve the problem and, when you walk away from that problem, spiritually you’re enriched, culturally and intergenerationally, at times.”