Heather Williams moved to Chicago after graduating from Ball State in 2002.
Surprisingly, she felt limited in a metro area with more than nine million people. She struggled to find work that paid the bills and was also rewarding. So, she returned to Muncie, population 70,000.
Muncie was an unexpected land of opportunity. She earned two more degrees, immersed herself in the local arts scene, met new friends, and launched an award-winning career in urban planning and development.
“This is where my people are,” she said.
Williams is an associate director in Ball State’s Office of Community Engagement. She manages that office’s Building Better Neighborhoods program. The program is a partnership between Ball State and the Muncie Action Plan. A main part of its mission is to encourage Muncie neighborhoods to organize into associations.
In urban areas like Muncie, neighborhood associations are critical to a city’s health, quality of life, and sense of pride. They host cleanups, build playgrounds, advocate for better streets and sidewalks and more.
‘Power to affect change’
“Change must come from the people and not top down,” Williams said.
People have power, and when they gather together to exercise that power to affect change, they will make a difference.
Thanks in large part to Williams’ efforts, Muncie now has a whopping 27 active neighborhood associations.
Muncie neighborhoods are earning recognition beyond city limits, too. In 2018, the Whitely Neighborhood Association on the city’s east side earned a Neighborhood of the Year Award through Neighborhoods USA for developing a food pantry, community garden, and nutrition program.
Williams said she loves that she gets to help neighborhoods tackle their biggest challenges and chase their biggest dreams.
“It’s very rewarding to see your work unfold and how it’s making a difference in the lives of others,” she said.
From student to community leader
For her BA, Williams majored in history and minored in Spanish. She earned an MBA in 2006 and a master’s of urban planning in 2009.
“There isn’t a building on campus I haven’t had a class in,” she said.
She found her calling in urban planning. It combined all her passions: history, art, culture, economic development, creativity, and making the world a better place.
Williams has been leading Building Better Neighborhoods since its start in 2014. Before that, she worked in a variety of planning and zoning positions in Muncie city government. At City Hall, she helped lead efforts to eliminate blight and rehabilitate historic housing.
Williams hopes more people will choose, like her, to live in Muncie and that the neighborhoods keep getting better.
“There is space enough for everyone to find their own niche, and the community will wrap around you and welcome your efforts,” she said.
“I think that is really unique to Muncie and makes this city special.”
To learn more, go to muncieneighborhoods.org.