Founder and Executive Director

Lula M. Gilliam

I am a self-defined renegade change agent, an in-the-trenches social justice warrior fighting to upend generational childhood poverty. My entrance into the world was during the racist Jim Crow and Civil Rights Era at the Charity Hospital in Vicksburg, Mississippi – the site of a famous Civil War battle.

I grew up on a graveled road, in dilapidated housing with no running water and outhouses (outdoor toilets), across a creek in Redwood, Mississippi. My family was required to work the lands that we lived on (sharecropping). Poisonous snakes and other dangerous creatures were constants in our everyday living. I often marvel at the fact that through all the challenges, barriers, and hardships, I have lived to tell my story!

My parents and the village of extended family members and friends taught and encouraged their children to acknowledge the love of GOD, power of family, education, a strong work ethic, and community as a passport to positively change our outcomes. One of my heroes growing up, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on my 11th birthday. Through that horrific incident, as well as a host of others, my destiny was shaped to serve those that are usually left behind and forgotten – poor children and youth – disproportionately minorities.

After high school graduation, I left the South and headed for California with the promise and intention of seeking a better life. Two older siblings, Elve and Lillie, welcomed me into their homes. I later met Renee Toler, who would become my mentor and change my life forever. She told me that I was “UC Berkeley material,” and I believed her. I pursued undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where I worked my way through college. I have a dual degree in Mass Communications and Sociology from UC Berkeley.

By far, my greatest accomplishment and gift to the world is my daughter, Kai Williamson. I raised her as a single parent, and she is truly an amazing and accomplished young woman. By the time she was twenty years old, she had obtained both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgia Institute of Technology. Today, she is a small business owner of an interior design firm, Studio 7 Design Group in Atlanta, Georgia. When I became too ill to continue at the helm of YES, Kai put her life on pause and stepped in as Executive Director for five years to ensure that essential programs and services continued for the young people YES serves until my health improved. Her belief system stems from her childhood experiences, which is that every child deserves a chance to succeed and should have the same opportunities that she was blessed to enjoy.