Constance Williams was born in 1945 to New York subway motorman Elliott Williams and his wife Beulah. Constance grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and attended Public School 144, where she excelled. "When I was growing up, the school was maybe 80 percent black and Puerto Rican," Rice stated, "but I was one of only two African American children in the honors program. White kids said I had no right to be in their class, black kids said I was acting uppity. So I was always fighting." Rice further recalls that she was "always using my fists to prove I belonged; father was so upset" (The Seattle Times).
Using the address of one of her father's Masonic lodge brothers, she qualified for admission to high school in Flatbush, New York. The long daily commute was justified by the better education she received there. A patron of her high school was composer Leonard Bernstein who inspired her to try out for the school orchestra, for which she played first clarinet.
Constance Williams graduated from Queens College in New York in 1966, and in 1967, she got married and moved to Seattle with her new husband. The marriage did not endure, but Constance made Seattle her home and she enrolled at the University of Washington where she earned a master's degree in education. She became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in higher education administration from the UW's School of Education.
It was while instructing a college course that she met community activist Norm Rice. They were married in 1975 at the Mount Zion Baptist Church with the Reverend Samuel B. McKinney as celebrant. Norm Rice went on to be elected to the Seattle City Council in 1978 and Constance managed communications for Metro. In 1984, she started her own business, CWR Public Relations. Both Rices gained visibility in Seattle politics and business through the 1980s, with Constance prominent in education issues.
She became chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at Shoreline Community College, assistant executive director for the Washington Education Association and director for Western Washington University's Center for Urban Studies in Seattle. She helped establish 101 Black Women, a network of African American women leaders. In 1989, Governor Booth Gardiner appointed her as a trustee at The Evergreen State College
A Leader in Education and the Media
In 1989, Seattle voters elected Norm Rice mayor, so, to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, Constance closed her business to become a full-time volunteer. She did not stay out of work for long. In 1992, she was appointed vice chancellor for Seattle Community College, where she managed public information and legislative affairs. Both Rices achieved such visibility and respect that each was mentioned briefly as a candidate for Congress in 1992.
That same year, Constance helped found the Northwest News Council, a forum to examine bias in the media. This devolved into the Washington News Council whose mission is to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy, and balance, and by creating a forum where members of the public and news media professionals can engage each other in examining standards of journalistic fairness.
Opening Doors for Others
Constance tells a story about her father encountering a homeless boy on the subway and inviting him into their home. He told her, "See how important it is to open doors for others? You've got to open doors" (Pacific Magazine).
Her civic work in Seattle focused on opening doors for minorities, for women, and for the poor. She organized the Health and Nutrition Project in Seattle, which recognized the value of proper eating habits and the importance of meals to families. Once a week, underprivileged families attended a Friday night dinner, then stayed after for information on nutritional eating. By sharing a meal, families could share experiences and values. Rather than attempt to handle all details herself, Constance used her wide range of contacts and her leadership skills in building collaboration and cooperation.
First Citizen of 1993
In 1993, the Seattle King County Association of Realtors acknowledged Constance Rice as Seattle's First Citizen, stating, "An inspiration to our community and a model of civic devotion, she worked avidly to open doors for the less advantaged and close the gaps between divergent groups. She has strengthened and enriched our community by dedicating her life to 'Building Bridges'" (SKAR Website). Evangeline Anderson, president of the association stated, "She has an impressive talent for motivating community volunteers, as well as those in the business sector to commit to public responsibility" (The Seattle Times).
In 2000, Constance Rice helped found in Seattle the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation USA and became its first executive director. The foundation aids the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. Named after Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Peace Centre "nurture[s] peace by promoting ethical, visionary, and values-based human development" (Foundation Website). The foundation, now based in New York, raises money for a leadership academy, a library for best practices in non-violent resistance, and a learning center for anti-apartheid in Capetown, South Africa. She also helped found the Strategic Education Center, which builds and operates schools in Swaziland.
Rice volunteers as the Western Area Vice Director for Links Inc., an international service club of women of African descent. Links raises money and builds schools in South Africa, distributes Mama Kits to expectant mothers in Africa, and raises money for anti-cancer programs.
Rice also gives her time to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Benefits Guild Organization, Service to Youth, and the Seattle Chapter of Links Inc. In 2002, Seattle University awarded her an honorary doctorate. She is currently employed as the Managing Director for Prevention and Family Support for the Casey Family Foundation in Seattle.