What began as a Facebook support group for friends lamenting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election quickly became a women’s rights organization with more than 3,000 members.
In the process, it transformed a fourth-generation Lehigh Valley resident with an interest in activism into a leader of her community.
Vanessa Williams, the founder of Feminists Improving Equal Rights in Communities Everywhere, or FIERCE, was shocked when her online social circle exploded into a social justice group eager to take action and engage in conversation surrounding local and national issues.
Barely two days after Williams created the support page, she decided to organize an anti-hate rally at Bethlehem’s Payrow Plaza. About 150 people attended, including some members of the city council.
A year and a half later, FIERCE is co-hosting marches and empowerment events with over 1,000 attendees across various racial, cultural and political identities.
Despite feeling as though the opportunity merely fell into her lap, Williams quickly settled into her role as an advocate for women’s rights.
“I’ve always felt like I was a feminist,” Williams said. “I go back to my mom and the values she taught me. My mom was actually an accidental activist, which is kind of how I think of myself.”
Williams said her childhood home was located near the Lehigh Valley Airport. When there was discussion about changing flight patterns, her mother spoke up because such changes would mean more noise in the sleepy town of Catasauqua.
“She got upset, got some neighbors together and fought for more than 10 years for a soundproofing program,” Williams said. “I didn’t realize at the time, but she was showing me how to do all of the things I’m doing now.”
Brina Jones, Williams’ sister, said it was unsurprising that Williams followed in their mother’s footsteps.
“We were raised to believe that we could do anything,” Jones said. “There was never a discussion about something we couldn’t do or weren’t capable of. As the younger sibling, I really saw (Williams) take that and run with it.”
Williams continues to spread an ‘anything is possible’ mentality.
Elizabeth Morasco, a member of FIERCE and a field organizer of NextGen PA, a non-profit organization fighting for climate justice, affordable health care and immigrant rights, among other causes, works closely with Williams to organize community events.
Morasco said Williams’ genuine nature is what has made FIERCE so successful and has helped Morasco get her footing as an activist in the area.
“Nobody thinks (Williams) is running FIERCE for an ulterior motive, to bolster her resume or use it to eventually run for office one day,” Morasco said. “This is just a very sincere action that she has taken.”
Williams, alongside other members of FIERCE, gives her time to anti-bullying organizations and youth homes. Theydonate feminine-hygiene products to girls who cannot afford them and books to children who attend underfunded schools.
Despite its involvement in a variety of causes across the Lehigh Valley, FIERCE still receives push back.
“One of the arguments I have heard from the very beginning from people who aren’t familiar with us is, ‘Well, if all you’re doing is going out in the street shouting, why are you wasting your time?’” Williams said. “My argument is, that’s not all we’re doing. That’s never been all we’re doing.”
Although FIERCE members do more than participate in demonstrations, Williams said attending marches is significant because it allows individuals to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves.
“Marching is important because it fills your cup,” Williams said. “It lets you know that you’re not by yourself, it lets you know that you’re not alone, you’re part of a movement, and it gives people energy to keep going. It gives them a well of energy to pull from.”
Although Williams is the driving force behind her organization, she doesn’t credit herself with creating that energy.
In her eyes, it is the variety of individuals — the women of different religious backgrounds and sexual orientations, the immigrants, those who identify as transgender and even men, too — who continuously renew the vitality of the non-partisan organization.
Heather Harlen, a member of FIERCE, said Williams is not afraid to engage with those who are unlike her.
“Often times, advocacy and activism can be the white person’s, ‘I’m doing this and this is right,’” Harlen said. “Well, not necessarily. You need a lot of other points of view in order to serve the whole population of the Lehigh Valley. (Williams) listens to those points of view.”
Harlen said Williams makes an effort to listen and learn not for superficial reasons, but because she is passionate and compassionate, and genuinely interested in connecting with others.
“She is the organization,” Harlen said. “She is fierce.”