Shannon Marie Williams, a co-founder of Sex Workers Outreach Project and long-time social justice activist, passed away January 20. Williams passed away unexpectedly at Highland Hospital after being diagnosed with a brain tumor on January 18th. The sex worker community, SWOP community, and social justice community will deeply miss Shannon.
Born in the 60s in California, Williams later moved with her family to Indiana. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and began teaching upon graduation. Before taking a job at Berkeley High School, she taught at other high schools in cities including Martinez and New York City.
Shannon was arrested for prostitution in August, 2003, and her case became a rallying point for a newly coalescing Sex Workers Outreach Project.
“Her arrest, her story, it put SWOP on the map,” friend and former director of St. James Infirmary, Naomi Akers said in an interview with San Jose Mercury News. “Her arrest reignited her activism spirit, her social justice principals and gauged those which she had demonstrated for several decades up to this point…Once the initial trauma of the shock wore off she stopped and said, ‘This is wrong, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. This is a consensual act between two adults behind closed doors and has nothing to do with the classroom. This should be decriminalized.'”
Shannon has consistently been a leader in the sex worker rights movement and social justice movement since the early 2000s. “At her (family) memorial (last week) and going through her pictures for it I really saw how ingrained social justice was in the core of who she was,” Akers said. “She’d been engaged in activism since such a young age — had so many friends in so many social justice movements from antiwar campaigning to anti prison work. It was so amazing how many people were at her service.”
Shannon Williams on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers from Carol Leigh on Vimeo.
Comments from friends and colleagues:
(source – memorial fund website created to benefit her surviving children)
“In shock and deeply mourning the loss of an amazing activist, mother, and friend Shannon Williams. She was a person I was always thrilled to run into at conferences and events. Shannon was a role model for me in the movement, a firecracker with the sweetest and kindest disposition, a person who made the work possible for all those who have come into sex worker rights after her. I will miss her very deeply. Love and light to my friends and comrades on the West Coast, and her family, and loved ones. My heart is with you all. Rest in your glorious power, Shannon.” ~ Sarah Elspeth Patterson
“She is one hell of a person…a beautiful, courageous, generous and inspirational individual. I keep thinking of the last few times I saw her; she exuded both fierce energy and light. She gave more as an activist and friend in the sex workers’ rights community than I think most people realized. For those of you who don’t know her, do yourself, your community and your children a favor and become familiar with her legacy. May we all live at least half a life of bravery and beauty as she. Shannon, I will miss you.” ~ Amelia Aviles
“Shannon was a badass activist who never held back the truth, a sensual, joyful woman with an incredible laugh, a loving mother who was so proud of her three sons, and a fierce survivor who beamed with love and light and was, somehow, never jaded. As she transitions out of this life, I am overcome with gratitude for her, inspired to be more like her, and shocked at how fickle, unpredictable, and impermanent life can be. There really is no time to waste, and Shannon never did. May she find her rightful place with the Goddesses.” ~ Stephany Joy Ashley