BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Andricka Williams still nervously laughs at the thought of herself as an activist for social justice.

"I guess I am," she said one day in mid-June, chuckling at the thought.

Williams, 36, had just returned to Baton Rouge days earlier from Oakland, California — her second trip ever on an airplane — taking part in a community dialogue on violence led by Dallas-based nonprofit Urban Specialists.

Williams first attended such a dialogue in Dallas in February — after her first plane ride — to represent the family of Alton Sterling as the mother of his three youngest children. The organization brought together victims of violence, from police brutality to attacks on police. Their goal is understanding and, most importantly, peace.

"I try to be a part of this movement," Williams said, discussing her recent partnership with Urban Specialists. "I try to keep my mind too much off of (the shooting). . I just try to let people know there's still hope."

On July 5, 2016, Baton Rouge police responded to a phone call about a man in a red shirt who had threatened him with a gun outside a convenience store on North Foster Drive. Two white officers responded to find 37-year-old Alton Sterling, a black man selling homemade CDs in front of the store, matching the description from the call. After a brief scuffle, one of the officers shouted Sterling was "going for the gun!" That same officer fired six shots, killing Sterling, and the other officer found a loaded .38-caliber revolver in Sterling's right pocket.

Part of the deadly encounter was caught on cellphone video and shared worldwide on social media, prompting protests about police brutality against people of color. But while Sterling's name became a hashtag, Williams mourned quietly, away from the spotlight.

Williams spoke publicly for the first time in January 2017 — more than six months after the shooting — in a short segment on a local TV station calling for peace, but otherwise avoided the headlines.

After the Department of Justice declined to pursue federal civil rights charges against the officers in May 2017, Williams stood stoically alongside other Sterling family members and their attorneys, but did not speak.

This March, when Attorney General Jeff Landry announced he would not file state criminal charges against the officers, and about a week later when the Baton Rouge Police Department terminated the officer who fired the fatal shots, Williams again remained in the background.

But two years out, Williams is stepping into a role she never would have imagined for herself. And while she is still frustrated her children must grow up without their father and doubts they will ever get the justice she believes they deserve, she is proud to join Urban Specialists on its mission to reach the people of Baton Rouge.

"When people can take pain (and turn it) into purpose, people can connect with that," said Paul Franklin of Urban Specialists, who is leading the group's expansion into Baton Rouge. "Andricka is a special case; she's family. . She represents strength, perseverance and integrity."

On a recent morning, Williams travels a neighborhood north of LSU that the Urban Specialists group would like to spruce up. Along streets intersecting with Highland Road, her SUV stops frequently so she can document overgrown or vacant lots.

"We're just building bridges in the community," Williams says. The first leg of the Urban Specialists plan involves connecting with the elders of the community, cleaning up the neighborhood and building trust.

When she spots an older gentleman, Williams approaches him with her clipboard and pen. She sports a T-shirt reading, "The Answer is Us."

From his front porch on West McKinley Street, Willie Washington, 67, hesitates to speak, but then he opens up to tell her about an empty lot two doors down — how he tries to do the upkeep but struggles with some of the brush. Williams listens patiently, then turns to her clipboard.

"I've just got four questions," Williams says to Washington, asking him for his name, contact information and then about the problems and the needs on his street. She writes down the information.

"We'll be coming through here cleaning up," Williams tells him.

Before leaving, she mentions that she is the mother of Sterling's children, boosting her credibility in a skeptical community. Washington's eyes immediately widen and he extends his hands, grasping her right hand with both of his.

"They understand I've been through a lot and I'm out here for a reason," Williams said. "Doing this here it really helps me relieve a lot of stuff off my chest."

Williams remembers when she and Sterling had their water and electricity shut off at their home after they had both fallen on hard times. She lost her job; Sterling would find work at times, but was often let go soon after employers found out about his criminal history.

She remembers living out of a car at times. She remembers when they had nothing.

So when she watches her three children running around the all-purpose room at Martin Luther King Jr. Christian Academy, she beams — grateful for an education trust bestowed to her children through an online fundraiser started by actress Issa Rae. It raised almost $700,000 in just five days; a foundation administers the fund for the benefit of Sterling's three children with Williams and also two other older children who have not used any of the money raised.

"I thank the Lord that's paid for, that is set," Williams said. This past year she was able to transfer all three of her children from public school and Head Start programs into the private school. She credits teachers at the academy for her children's recent academic improvement.

"They can work with them one-on-one," Williams said.

She said Alton Sterling Jr., now 7, went from frequent detentions at his old school to making honor roll at the end of this year. And Josiah Williams, one of her 4-year-old twins, has made huge leaps, finally speaking, despite his developmental delays. The other twin, daughter Journee Williams, whom she calls her "diva," has thrived in the small environment, she said.

The children are also enrolled in the school's summer camp, an opportunity Williams said they wouldn't have had without the kindness of others.

The Foundation for Louisiana says it is happy to aid the family after Sterling's death, including his older children Cameron Sterling and Na'Quincy Pierson.

"For me it was a dream out of a nightmare to help her shape her strategy, really for the well-being of the children," said Flozell Daniels, president and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana. "There is a silver lining: it is where these young people are being supported."

Daniels said Rae, the actress, first wanted the funds to be saved exclusively for the children's college, but after discussions it was determined the children would benefit from a good education foundation now.

Williams said she wants to ensure the money is available for her children to go to college. With the children's education set, she would like to attend college herself and is awaiting a financial aid package from Southern University. She'd like to study criminal justice and perhaps work as parole officer.

"I want to go back to school. I just want to make myself proud, I want to make my kids proud," Williams said.

In north Baton Rouge, it's difficult to avoid reminders of what happened two years ago. Often on field trips from school, the bus passes the Triple S store where Sterling died and a mural looms over the scene. The family visits a counselor to address their continuing grief but Williams hopes her strength will pull them through.

"They know who their daddy is," Williams said, who often keeps his memory alive through Facebook posts, family photos and trips to the cemetery. "They don't have their daddy anymore, they just have me. I can't give up."

___

Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com