#CCIspotlight: Austin Williams, Next Generation Men

Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.

The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week.  We hope their stories will inform and inspire.

Austin Williams, NGM

Tell us a little more about yourself. What was the source of inspiration for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?

I’m originally from Los Angeles, but I went to many different schools. My educational background is pretty colorful--I’ve been to private and public schools, Christian and Jewish schools, and that in and of itself gave me an interesting outlook on school. I was fortunate enough to have family members who worked in law or medicine who would constantly stress the importance of academics and who we could see on the day to day basis actually exercising these particular skill sets that we were charged to master in the classroom.

But come my high school years I fell into the same pitfalls that a lot of young men of color do. I didn’t really see my teachers as somebody who understood what I was going through--and my response to that was to not do my homework and not show up to class. I thought I was rebelling against the system. When it came time to apply to college, this attitude only ended up hurting me.

Ultimately, I was admitted into Morehouse, moved to Atlanta and ended up doing really well there studying political science. I applied to Teach For America as a backup plan, figuring that I would defer my law school acceptances, take a break and make some money--but once I got into the classroom, I fell in love with it. It was difficult. But also incredibly rewarding. It showed me there was a deficiency in culturally competent teachers who could understand these students and bring the best out of them.

Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?

I believe that the ultimate purpose of education is to show students where they come from and what they’re capable of being. Throughout their education, my students were not being exposed to the career paths that follow from success in school. Getting them to master a chemistry equation is really an abstraction, if they don’t see how that can allow them to become somebody of influence in the pharmaceutical industry. After my experiences teaching, I have realized that we can’t rely on students to be motivated by good teachers and the personalities. Sustainable exposure to careers and applications of their academic experiences is critical for them to understand the importance of education.

Even though they were educators through TFA in different Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County Schools, Next Generation Men co-founders Ian Cohen, Travis Salters, and Ben Sperling all observed very similar disadvantages of students in each of these schools. They saw that there is a great need for opportunities for exposure to postsecondary educational and professional opportunities amongst historically underserved populations. From this idea, Next Generation Men was born, with the goal of inspiring students through exposure to the skills and experiences necessary for college and professional life beyond. I joined the NGM team in August 2016 as the new program director. I have used my own experiences as a collegiate debater and teacher in order to challenge my students with critical thinking and encourage their personal growth.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Atlanta today?

Throughout my work, I have drawn upon my own experience progressing through the education system in order to change the way that things are done and the outcomes for young students of color. During my time as a teacher, I witnessed how the hierarchical school system imposed limitations on innovation in education and made it difficult for us teachers to be reactive to our students. I thinks that the challenge for education will be finding a balance between teaching in a way that is beneficial to students, without draining the passion from teachers. With one of the biggest challenges Atlanta faces today being low rates of socioeconomic mobility, I believe that education is the best way to empower individuals with a competitive chance to better their own lives.

How has CCI supported you in your work? Any unexpected challenges you’ve faced or advice for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?

Becoming residents at the Center for Civic Innovation has allowed the team at Next Generation Men to be engulfed daily in an environment of like-minded entrepreneurs with a diverse range of passions. Being surrounded by others who are constantly striving to live their passions inspires me every day.

What advice do you have for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?

Don’t take No for an answer. Expect No, and then take the time to reflect and figure out why you got No so that you can adjust your strategy.  

Next Generation Men continues to grow and have an impact on the lives of many students. In July 2016, after many months of planning, the group launched two Next Generation Women cohorts at Banneker and Washington High Schools. This year they also expanded NGM to two new schools, Washington High School and Creekside High School. You can learn more about their work here.

We are so proud of the team and can’t wait to see what they do next! For more stories of inspiring entrepreneurs, be sure to check out our blog. We’ll be updating with a new profile every week!