Aaron Williams, AB ’08, is many things: a Kansas City native, a WashU graduate, a construction project manager with LEED accreditation and a portfolio that ranges from St. Louis to Doha, Qatar, and above all, a community leader. His civic and nonprofit involvement is a major part of his resume, serving organizations like 4theVille, Sumner High School, and Northside Community Housing.
Williams was educated in the 18th and Vine District of Kansas City, Missouri, attending public high school at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy. “There was a sense of pride that was instilled in me as a student at Lincoln Prep,” said Williams, “it made me want to reinvest into the historic Black community.”
As a child, Williams had watched new communities pop up around him. “I always wondered,” said Williams, “Who did that? Who made those decisions? How do I become a part of them?” These questions drove him into the field of architecture and fueled his desire to study at WashU.
His aspirations were to create spaces for African Americans that were reflective of their cultural values, to challenge the Eurocentric status quo. “I was really excited by hip hop architecture,” said Williams, “this idea that we can apply the same principles from hip hop — that a scratched record can be made into art rather than damaged goods — to studying architecture, how people shape space, how they gather.” Williams emphasized that WashU delivered a holistic educational experience that included not only design and philosophy, but also finance, programming, and business. “My experience at WashU taught me that the creative process is iterative,” said Williams, “and that the beauty of the design is more in the process than in the finished product.”
Williams’ interest in process over product is also what makes him excel as a community developer. “My goal is to help expand the social infrastructure of a community and create a beautiful, culturally relevant place,” said Williams. His involvements stretch from design, to organization and networking, to pursuing funding and resources, so that a community can build up to advocating for itself. “The purpose of all this,” said Williams, “is to build a healthy, resilient community.”
In 2020, St. Louis’ Sumner High School — the first Black high school west of the Mississippi River — was in danger of closing. Williams jumped in right away. “4theVille spoke up, the arts community galvanized behind us, and the district asked us to submit a recovery plan,” he said. The arts-based plan was adopted by the Board of Education, and established a series of art- and design-based programs — including a community design hub in partnership with the Sam Fox School’s Office for Socially Engaged Practice. The hub, Sumner StudioLab, connects Sumner students, WashU, and the Ville community. Having grown up in a similar neighborhood in Kansas City, Williams knew there was a better way to care for the community and to engender pride and appreciation among students and community members. “I’m positioning the community at large to do this work for itself,” he said. “It’s not about me, it’s about the community and what it means to people.”
Photo Credit: ©2019 PeterAaron/OTTO, Source: Kieran Timberlake (project architect)
Photo Credit: ©2021 Tyler Smalls, Source: Northside Community Housing
Photo Credit: Unknown, Source: Rise Community Development
Aaron Williams is a leader in the St. Louis area community development and design-build industries. Williams came to Washington University as an Ervin Scholar with an unwavering commitment to the Black community. While at WashU, he founded the Campus Y Field Day and received the Touissant L’ouverture Award for his commitment to the community.
Williams is a senior project manager at Penn Services, LLC, where he manages building enclosure and structural steel projects. He has worked on healthcare, energy, infrastructure, institutional, and hospitality projects in the U.S., Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, including new facilities on the BJC Medical Campus, Olin Library improvements, and the expansion of WashU’s Danforth campus.
Williams is deeply involved in advocacy and community development, promoting equitable land use, design, and real estate practices. He co-founded 4theVille, a community organization safeguarding the Ville neighborhood and catalyzing preservation through tourism, art, and economic development. He serves in leadership roles with Rebuilding Together, The Ville Collaborative, WashU’s Divided City, Northside Community Housing, Inc., St. Louis’ Economic Development Tax Board, and the Urban Land Institute.
Williams is a member of the St. Louis neighborhood stabilization advisory committee and vice chair of The Ville Collaborative. He co-founded the advisory board for Sumner High School and is helping lead the school through a recovery process to prevent future threats of closure. The work Williams does both in and outside of The Ville catalyzes innovative solutions for land use challenges in under-resourced communities.
Williams earned his bachelor of science in architecture from Washington University in 2008, along with certificates in project management and construction administration.