Ruth Williams: West Hollywood’s bubbie – and fierce activist

Receiving from Rep. Adam Schiff, the 28th Congressional District Woman of the Year 2014.
April 28, 2014

Profile by James Mills, West Hollywood, California

In life, there are lots of people who talk about things that need to be changed. A far smaller percentage of those people actually do something to put that change into action.

Ruth showing off her latest award - the 28th Congressional District's Woman of the Year Award from Rep. Adam Schiff's office.

Ruth showing off her latest award – the 28th Congressional District’s Woman of the Year Award from Rep. Adam Schiff’s office.

Ruth Williams falls into the latter category. She’s a doer; she sees a problem and then takes steps to address it.

“I wish we had a couple more Ruth Williams [in town],” says her longtime friend, West Hollywood City Council member Jeff Prang. “She’s been a community advocate and leader for her whole life. West Hollywood is a better place because of her. I think it’s fair to say that Ruth Williams has been one of the most important people in the city’s history.”

Williams’ list of accomplishments would impress even the most cynical of people. In the 1970s when rents were skyrocketing, she worked with the Coalition for Economic Survival to lobby Los Angeles County to establish rent control.

And in 1983 when those rent control laws were going to be phased out, one of the first meetings to discuss forming the city of West Hollywood was held in her living room on Lexington Avenue.

Then after the city was incorporated in 1984, she helped draft the city’s rent control laws, serving as one of the city’s first Rent Stabilization Commissioners.

When street prostitution along Santa Monica Boulevard on the city’s eastside was escalating, she created ACES (Alliance of Citizen for the East Side) to fight it, the result of which was a dramatic downturn of males hustlers in that part of town.

Later, recognizing that the eastside was lagging behind its city’s Westside, she formed a foundation which lead to the creation of the city’s redevelopment agency and the Eastside PAC (Project Area Committee) and then served as one of the PAC’s members, the outcome of which was many new businesses and construction projects coming to that part of town.

Ruth with Heidi Shink at an NCJWLA function.

Ruth with Heidi Shink at an NCJWLA function.

Williams chalks her civic mindedness up to passion for the area she first experienced in 1949, when at age 11, she moved here from Pennsylvania with her mother.

She thrilled at the vibrancy of the area then and adores what the city has become.

“I love West Hollywood because of who we are, the diversity of the community, the compassion of the community, the examples we’ve set for the whole country, for the whole world,” says the 76-year-old Williams.

“We are this little island in the middle of this huge metropolis. It’s such a teaming, live, vibrant, loving, caring, outreaching community. There’s none other that exists like it. How can you not love West Hollywood?”

At the same time, she modestly tries to dismiss the large part she played in shaping the city she loves.

“It’s nice to think that people have confidence in me,” says Williams, a mother of three and grandmother of three. “Maybe it’s because when I give my word, I keep it. Or if I say I’m going to do something, I follow through. Or maybe if I see a need, I might instigate it.”

With the NJCWLA board.

With the NJCWLA board.

She’s also quick to note that she wasn’t always so involved or responsible.

“I used to be a really wild rebel, believe it or not,” she says. “I rode motorcycles with friends, hitchhiked around city. My mother kept asking me when am I going to be responsible, ‘Ruthy, grow up, grow up.’

“Well, I grew up to be this responsible person.”

Today she is WeHo’s bubbie, everyone’s favorite grandmother (shhh, don’t tell her we referred to her age).

Public safety passion

Public safety is another of her passions. The area was very safe for her as a young girl and she’s worked hard to maintain that sense of security. She has served on the city’s Public Safety Commission since the late 1980s.

In fact, it was a result of Williams and then City Council member Steve Schulte talking about forming a police commission that the Public Safety Commission was created (the city’s contract with the LA County Sheriff’s Department didn’t allow for creation of a police commission, so Public Safety was created to provide oversight).

An award given her for her work with the local Democratic Party.

An award given her for her work with the local Democratic Party.

Then in 1992, when the city held a ballot initiative to consider creating its own police force to replace a then somewhat homophobic and unresponsive sheriff’s department, she successfully campaigned against it, creating a Save our Sheriff group.

“Public safety, to me, is the backbone of West Hollywood,” says Williams who attended Fairfax High School and now serves on its alumni association. “If you look at a city that has a population of 35,000 people that grows, triples at night, triples on weekends. And you’re looking at a small [sheriff’s] station like we have; you’d think we’d have hundreds of officers out there.

“Yes, there are crimes that occur; it’s going to happen. But look at the overall picture of how the residents, the community, the sheriff all work together. If you look at our monthly crime statistics that we get to see that it’s just a tiny amount compared to the population.”

She does wish she could get more people involved with public safety, conceding that the transient nature of the community leads to people not being so involved since they “haven’t established their roots here.”

“It’s not just about Neighborhood Watch,” says Williams, who reports friends are encouraging her to run for City Council in 2015, but hasn’t yet made up her mind (she also ran, unsuccessfully, in 1984, 1990 and 2001). “People come out when there’s a reason to come out. I want to find out why, what can we do to get people more involved other than a 5.1 earthquake.”

Jimmy Palmieri produced Tweakers Project, a seminal film documenting the devolution of the meth addict.

Jimmy Palmieri produced Tweakers Project, a seminal film documenting the devolution of the meth addict.

One person she did help to get involved is longtime resident Jimmy Palmieri, who currently serves on the city’s Human Services Commission and previously was on the Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board.

“I love her,” says Palmieri, who also serves as head of the Tweakers Project, an anti crystal meth group. “I don’t know a single person who could say a bad thing about her. She’s a such compassionate woman; she’s done so much for so many people.”

Palmieri first met Williams following the 2002 gay bashing of actor Trev Broudy when he went before the Public Safety Commission to ask them to do more to spread the word about protecting yourself.

“After the meeting, she came up to me and told me to stick around, to get involved with the city,” Palmieri recalls. “She said I had a lot of good energy that the city needed. She was the first city official who paid attention to me.”

Professional activist

 

ncjwla700As if all this volunteer activism isn’t enough, Williams is also an activist in her professional life. Although she worked 40 years in the entertainment industry (“the stories I could tell,” she says), in the late 1990s, she worked for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and then in 2001 took a job as director of advocacy at the National Council of Jewish Women (543 N. Fairfax Avenue, at Clinton).

NCJW is an area social services provider as well as a grassroots organization which advocates for progressive ideas. Williams helps find topics for its workshops and speaker series (she’s especially excited about an upcoming one of human trafficking, noting that its “happening in LA more than you know”), plus organizes events such as NCJW’s annual transgender job fair and yearly clothing giveaway, which last year gave 90,000 articles of clothing to more than 5,000 people.

She’s quick to note you don’t have to be a woman or Jewish to utilize the services NCJW offers.

Ruth Williams speaking at a press conference called by the NCJWLA and the City of West hollywood in 2009 when the Stupak amendment threatened women's choice.

Ruth Williams speaking at a press conference called by the NCJWLA and the City of West hollywood in 2009 when the Stupak amendment threatened women’s choice.

“For God sakes, we’re human beings. If we can’t be there for each other, what the hell are we doing here,” she says. “[What you’ll find that NCJW has] an overwhelming respect and understanding of what each one is going through regardless of what your color is or whether you’re homeless or not homeless, Russian, Italian, pink, purple, whatever . . .

The NCJWLA is the biting edge of the social services ax – and wholly community-based, she says. “I want to drum it through people’s heads that [NCJW] doesn’t get its money from huge organizations or big grants. We get our money from our thrift stores [Council Thrift Stores with eight locations in the LA area].

“That money translates into helping the person who needs help. Whether you’re a man, woman or child, gay, straight, transgendered, whatever you are, if you need help and you can’t pay for it, come to us. We’re here and we’ll help you.”

Experiencing discrimination made her an activist

Williams traces her dedication to helping others and social justice back to the anti-Semitic prejudices she experienced as a young child growing up in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, a small town 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Thus, she works hard for the Jewish community as well as the gay community and transgender community (she cites transgender activist Drian Juarez as one of her idols, saying, “I’m in awe of what she’s done”).

Ruth Williams in a light hearted moment in between heated protests.

Ruth Williams in a light hearted moment in between heated protests.

Ironically, Williams thinks she could be doing more and berates herself when she periodically takes some downtime for herself.

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Should I be doing more?’ There are times I would like to be more hands on,” she says. “Friends have criticized me for being too reclusive, not reaching out enough. It’s hard for me to ask for help; I’d rather give.”

But longtime WeHo resident Norman Chramoff, who first met Williams in the 70s while pushing for rent control in LA County, says she’s a loyal friend.

“Ruth’s commitment to our friendship has been astonishing,” says Chramoff. “My parents adored her; she is family. I actually don’t remember a West Hollywood without her.”

With all that she’s accomplished, is there anything left on her bucket list?

“My passion, my dream, I would love to build a shelter for women,” she confesses. “I would name it after my mother, The House of Lillian.”

Recently, Rep. Adam Schiff, made tribute to Ruth Williams, one of his 28th Congressional District Woman of the Year 2014

Ruth with Lee Saltz at an NCJWLA function. Courtesy NCJWLA.

Ruth with Lee Saltz at an NCJWLA function. Courtesy NCJWLA.

The text of his speech honoring Ruth follows:

I rise today in honor of Women’s History Month. Each year, we pay special tribute to the contributions and sacrifices made by our nation’s women. It is an honor to pay homage to outstanding women who are making a difference in my Congressional District. I would like to recognize a remarkable woman, Ruth Williams of West Hollywood.

Ms. Williams is one of the original founders of the City of West Hollywood. Incorporated in 1984, West Hollywood has been her home for over sixty years. Her history of activism and volunteerism in West Hollywood is astonishing. She has served as a member of the Eastside Redevelopment Project Area Committee since its inception, is a former board member of Good Neighbors, and has organized the annual Fourth of July Picnic and Holiday Food Drive for many years.

With a strong commitment to public safety issues, Ms. Williams helped create the original Disaster Volunteer Core Committee, worked tirelessly with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to create neighborhood watch groups, and served on West Hollywood’s Public Safety Commission. Ms. Williams also founded Citizens for Seniors and helped draft West Hollywood’s first rent control ordinance while serving on the City’s Rent Stabilization Commission.

Rep. Adam Schiff represents the 28th Congressional District, of which West Hollywood is part.

Rep. Adam Schiff represents the 28th Congressional District, of which West Hollywood is part.

As Director of Advocacy at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA), Ms. Williams has first-hand knowledge of the need for providing social services in the community. She strives to educate the community about current issues such as child abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence, teen bullying, and human rights, as well as advocate for domestic violence shelter funding. Many of the NCJW/LA programs under Ms. Williams’ leadership have received statewide and federal recognition.

In addition to Ms. Williams’ work in the community and with NCJW/LA, she is also active in the Hollywood National Organization for Women, is a former Chair and life member of the Fairfax High School Alumni Association, current Vice Chair of the Fairfax Business Association, and is involved in various political organizations. Ms. Williams has received numerous awards, including the 2010 Los Angeles County Older American Recognition Day Award, a City of West Hollywood Senior Advisory Board Award, and a city proclamation to recognize March 15, 2013 as “Ruth Williams Day” in honor of her 75th birthday.

I ask all Members to join me in honoring an exceptional woman of California’s 28th Congressional District, Ruth Williams.

 

Receiving from Rep. Adam Schiff, the 28th Congressional District Woman of the Year 2014.

Receiving from Rep. Adam Schiff, the 28th Congressional District Woman of the Year 2014.