This piece is part of the Arkansas Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics “That’s What Girls Do.”
It’s a sunny and crisp day up in Bella Vista, where old Northwest Arkansas is increasingly meeting with new Northwest Arkansas. I’m sitting in the cozy campaign headquarters of Celeste Williams, the Democratic candidate in Arkansas’s 3rd Congressional District.
The campaign’s office, and its message, reflects a lot of what is happening here — a coming together of the many elements of the district. The office space consists of three upstairs rooms in a historic building, one that predates the Civil War. Reflecting the times, it’s now known as the Artists Retreat Center. Team Celeste has been headquartered here for a few months now, and I’ve been with the team since last summer. Honestly, it’s pretty great to be part of the Celeste Williams campaign. It’s forward-looking, it’s energetic, it’s positive — a woman-powered team.
Williams is well-informed, thoughtful, and has an infectious and boisterous laugh. We have had a lot of great conversations in our humble, historical and cozy office. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know Williams even better this way. So, I thought what better way for you to get to know Celeste, too!
So, let’s dive in.
I’ve had the chance to get to know you really well. But a lot of people are meeting you for the first time, running for U.S. Congress. What should they know about you, and how you grew up?
I grew up in Goltry, Okla., a very small rural community, and my dad worked for himself as an electrician. My mom was at home taking care of my sister and me, and one of the lessons I take with me was that my mom always said that I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to.
I played every single sport available in high school, competed in curriculum contests, and worked on my neighbor’s dairy farm. I would get up before school and milk cows but mostly worked on weekends. I was never afraid of working hard. My dad would joke with me about smelling like the cows, and I’d just shrug, and say, “Hmm, smells like money” [laughs].
What was life like around your dinner table as a child?
Lots of discussion about current events, history. We’d play this hypothetical game, like how if certain historical events had gone differently how it could have changed the world we’re in today. While being required to attend these nightly family dinners sometimes annoyed the dickens out of me growing up, I think it was really important to have that time when my parents could talk to me about how school was going and ask me about my friends. It kept us tethered and connected when I was an otherwise free-range and independent child.
Family is still at the center of your life. You have your own children at your dinner table now. What’s it like in the Celeste Williams household?
I’m sure. You have four children. Two of your children you were able to adopt after being their foster parent. Tell me what made you want to become a foster parent.
I was always interested in fostering — and when I was in graduate school to become a nurse practitioner, I did a lot of physicals for kids coming into foster care and realized what a tremendous need there is in this state. I was looking at this huge issue and wondering how this problem can be solved, and I decided, well, I can help in my own way. And, so, Kirk and I became foster parents, eventually adopting two of our children.
Do you think you parent your kids in a similar way to how you were parented?
I think I parrot the same messages of empowerment from my mom with my kids, and I also talk about valuing one’s self. And I try to make sure they have the skills to be self-reliant, especially because their biological mother didn’t have that opportunity. All of my kids have seen up close and personally the damage that is done to families and children from lack of mental health care, job skills, good-paying jobs and lack of addiction treatment.
I think of a story early on when the girls came to our home. One of my girls was talking about not having any food in her former house, and my biological child said, “Well, why didn’t you just go get something out of the refrigerator?” She explained that there was nothing in the refrigerator, and nothing in the pantry — just ice in the freezer. It was a hard and sad reality for our daughter to convey and for our biological children to understand.
I’m sure these topics were difficult to navigate. How do you manage it?
We’re just honest about it all. They know what that reality was — they lived it. I think it is helpful for them to have open communication and full honesty, because they grew up in such a brutal environment. I think that honesty helps give them the words to talk about the things they’ve experienced and to have a safe space to say anything because they do have a lot of big feelings about it. They need to talk about it and express those feelings, and they also need space to be typical kids.
What’s a typical morning look like for you?
In the mornings that I work in my clinic, I’m up at 4 a.m. and out of the house before anyone else gets up. My wonderful husband, Kirk, takes the kids to school on those mornings.
On a typical campaign morning, I’m reminding the kids to brush their teeth a million times, getting myself ready as I direct the kids to get dressed — and the kids don’t always match — but, as long as we have on pants and a weather-appropriate shirt, we call it good. I drop off the littlest kids at their elementary school, run the older girls to intermediate school, and then I’m off to campaign headquarters. Well, sometimes I have time for dishes, too.
Most of my weekends now are filled with campaign events and meeting voters across the district, but occasionally, I have a glorious morning to sleep in. We have a late breakfast — usually eggs the kids have gathered from our chickens — with pancakes and coffee. I treasure those slow mornings with my kids and husband.
You’re a family nurse practitioner. What made you decide to go into that kind of work?
When I was at college at Southern Nazarene University, I was in a Christian Thought class, and I always had questions about why human beings suffer so much. And I’d ask questions, like, half a dozen times on the same theme, and I finally just realized I could play a role in ending that human suffering. That’s always been my purpose as a nurse — compassionate care, and reducing the human suffering that I see in front of me.
I think it just fit with my nurturing personality, which I think is sometimes mistaken for being overly kind [laughs]. When you work in health care, you have to be OK with being able to push people to do something that sometimes hurts, but is necessary for them to be well. I am nurturing and compassionate, but I’m also tough.
You obviously care a lot about people. You have a full, loving family. You have dedicated your life as a nurse to helping people in need of care. Why are you running for Congress?
I think it really goes back to that same core value of reducing the suffering that I see in front of me, and my practice is full of amazing, beautiful people, that often don’t have the resources they need to live happy, healthy lives. Whether it’s denial of health care services, inability to pay for prescription medicine, a job that doesn’t pay the bills — none of those are things I can solve as a nurse practitioner. I can be angry and frustrated about it, or I can try to change it. I believe you shouldn’t go broke if you get sick, and we all have a right to good health care. That’s why I’m running for U.S. Congress.
There are certain barriers you face as a woman running for U.S. Congress in Arkansas. What has your experience been like?
It’s been mostly positive. I feel like nothing that’s worth doing is that easy. If anything is a struggle or difficult, my answer has always just been to work harder. I’m doing this not just for myself, but for my girls, and for my son, and for my husband, too, and for all the families who deserve better.
While it’s not necessarily easy for a woman running for office, I think it’s safe to say we both love Arkansas and love calling Benton County home. What do you love most about Arkansas?
The people, of course, but also one of the things that drew me to Arkansas was all of the natural beauty in our state. I love hiking and paddling the rivers. I think it’s a great place for my kids to grow up, and, in many ways, I feel like I’m recreating my own childhood for my kids. Kirk and I are happy to call Arkansas home.
Stephannie Lane Baker, MPH, is a mother and community advocate in Bentonville who serves as communications director for the Celeste Williams campaign.