Yolanda Williams

Berkeley, CA, 2011

(click the play button to hear story)

Radio Production by Christopher Hoff

Image of Yolanda WilliamsPortrait by Emile B. Klein, oil on linen, mounted on panel, 12×18″

(Click image for hi-resolution)

“Write… Yolanda deserves it.”  That’s what Emile texted me.  Just write.  But who is this Yolanda Williams, this crack-addict, this prostitute?  Who is this woman in the picture and, really, why does she deserve it?  Hell, does she deserve it?

Yolanda Williams grew up in Berkeley; it seems like she never really strayed far from San Pablo Ave, not in her youth, not in her days as a crack addict, working the street, not now.  Her mom and step-dad, loving parents, homeowners, raised her right and protected her: she always got her thirty minutes on the tennis court at San Pablo Park.  Her mother made sure.  She was “swift, quick, with a mean backhand, and a mean serve.”  Guess what?  Yolanda had a happy childhood.

But things happened.  She had a girl first. Quit school.  But she had a job, had a husband.  Then she discovered crack.  She lost her job.   Not wanting to rely on others or steal, she started prostituting.  And she worked hard, too!  Yolanda doesn’t do things half-assed:  she took tennis seriously as a kid, she took her job seriously when she was raising her child, and she took prostituting seriously, often walking San Pablo alone.

After awhile, her family stopped talking to her.

It wasn’t all bad, though.  One client worked as a janitor, cleaning up the bars on San Pablo— all the way to Oakland!— late night.  Not always, but if business was slow, Yolanda would make the rounds, helping him clean, no charge.  And then there was Mel, homeless in a leaky RV with leopard-print curtains and “funky feet.”  A good man, Mel was a savior to prostitutes who needed a place to sleep, never asking for sex or money.

Things weren’t all good either.  She grew tired of being “raped and robbed, kidnapped.”  Tired of jail.  Yolanda had a “money addiction” and a “crack pipe for a pimp.”

For 20 years, maybe 25 even.

Then something else happened.  Yolanda’s mother got sick, emphysema, and someone needed to care for her.  Yolanda was “not the daughter she needed… not the daughter she raised.”    That’s it; it was time to quit.  She needed to be a good daughter again.  So she quit.  Prostitution.  Crack.  Done.  And you know what?  Her family started talking to her.  She got a job.  She tutors kids.  Things are so much better.  And Yolanda deserves it.

Written by Nick Newman. Newman works out of New Orleans, LA.

Open the story further, listen to NPR’s Snap Judgement

11 Responses to “YOLANDA WILLIAMS”
  1. B says:

    Very beautiful portrait, Emile.

  2. Tired / tired no more / now wide awake / Yolanda proclaims / “I got plans ya know” – jrg

    We’re glad Yolanda.
    Beautiful portrait; sight, sound, and soul. Welcome back!

  3. Emile! Your work, the portrait, the interview, Yolanda, this is all quite extraordinary. Thank you for sharing this with us. karen

  4. Tim Holton says:

    Love it, Emile. Love it! Painter and subject—both such admirably courageous people helping to join the world. Keep on, both of you. Keep on!

  5. francis o toole says:

    great emile

  6. johnny says:

    Amazing. So much personality staring out of the portrait. Such a strong, positive image. Huge sense of story behind those eyes. With the other media, you really feel like you spent some time with Yolanda.

  7. Alex says:

    I love you Yolanda and the world loves you – God bless you!

  8. Tangela griffin says:

    Yolanda is my mother. Im very glad to have her claen & apart of my life again. Thank u Emile 4 the beautiful portrait. Thanks again to everyone 4the nice comments. one love 🙂

  9. tangela griffin says:


    • emilebklein says:

      It makes me very happy to hear it Tangie, I think of you and your mother (and the rest of the family) quite often. I hope that in hearing Yolanda’s life story others see that they too can change, and understand the powerful character of your mom. What an honor to know you both.

  10. may redd says:

    Keep up the good work dont let nothing stop u from ur goals

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