Sunday, September 12, 2010

Gary Williams

Gary Williams' resume is likely more impressive than yours. It's a heck of a lot more impressive than mine.

He graduated from an elite high school and went on to complete a dual major at a boutique liberal arts college. He taught Latin to 7th graders at a prestigious Catholic school. He's traveled through Italy and the American West.

Locally, he's been an Americorps volunteer, a community organizer, a job coach, a grant writer, and an outreach worker. He volunteers with
Youth Dreamers. He chairs the board of Youth As Resources. He's a beast at ultimate frisbee.

Oh, yeah, and I forgot to mention - he's not quite 24 years old.


Imagine this: you're just out of your teens, one of only a handful of African-American students at Mercyhurst, a small liberal arts college in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, 350 miles from the west Baltimore neighborhood where you were born and raised.

You've just been made a residential adviser for one of the dorms on campus. One of the residents under your charge is a young white male named Andrew, whose grandfather was murdered by a black man, and who consequently makes no secret of his negative attitudes toward African-Americans...including you.

If you're like most people, that would be an extremely uncomfortable, if not downright terrifying, situation to be in. But Gary Williams is not like most people. Instead of avoiding or antagonizing Andrew, Gary saw this encounter as an opportunity to confront the young man's prejudices -- and his own.

"At first I didn't realize that he was watching me, my friends, my reactions," Gary recalls. "I ended up changing his notions" about African-Americans. As a result, a connection was forged between the two; the more Andrew got to know Gary, the more his opinion shifted.

"Mercyhurst had a lot of kids from the suburbs and rural areas," Gary continues. "There was this sense there that 'real people don't live in cities.' I always had this view of college that you had to have a wide worldview, but a lot of students there didn't. For many people at Mercyhurst, Erie (which has a population of about 130,000) was the biggest thing they'd ever heard of."

In conversation, Gary projects self-confidence, cheerfulness, and warmth. He speaks animatedly and with passion, laughs a lot, and listens attentively. These qualities doubtless went a long way toward combating the ignorance and racial bias he encountered in college. But his willingness to engage with his rural white peers also forced him to examine his own beliefs.

"Mercyhurst was a crash course in conservative white America," he chuckles. "I didn't know a lot about small town life - I once asked a hunter friend if he bought his deer meat from the store -- and it opened my eyes to my own prejudices about small town people."

He laughingly recalls his roommate and close friend Dustin, who "wore flannel shirts, jeans, boots, and had a gun rack on the back of his truck. We were the oddest pair at parties. But we destroyed each other's preconceived notions. For instance, he couldn't stand Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh."

At the urging of his teachers, Gary helped found Diversity 101, a student organization that addresses issues of diversity and inclusiveness on the Mercyhurst campus and in the wider community. He managed to fit his duties as the group's secretary and treasurer into a schedule that included writing for the school newspaper, serving on the college's communications board, and completing a dual degree in anthropology and archaeology. He fell in love. He traveled to Europe. Yet the wider his world became, the more he appreciated his hometown.

"I missed Baltimore," he says simply. "I left for college feeling like I knew all there was to know about Baltimore...[but] I realized after seeing other cities in the Midwest, Italy, cities in Europe, New York, that I liked the uniqueness and quirkiness of Baltimore. I fell in love with the city once I had left it. I knew the people, the values, how it moves, its heartbeat."

Gary was born in the Baltimore's Lexington Terrace projects. When he was 10 years old, his mother moved the small family to Pigtown, a blue collar neighborhood on the city's west side that derives its unusual name from the historic practice of herding pigs through the streets to meat packing plants. Although known as a white, working class enclave, Pigtown has always been home to people of many different backgrounds.

The diversity of his new neighborhood took Gary by surprise. "Pigtown was like a 'ghetto U.N.'," he says with a grin. "There were Hispanics, Vietnamese, blacks, whites...It was a big deal. I didn't know that there were poor Asian or white people. I was shocked."

Even so, Gary remembers times when his family didn't feel welcome in Pigtown. "The neighborhood association was mostly white. They used code to say that there were too many black people moving in. Mom always used to say that there are lots of nice people, but there are always going to be people who don't like us because we're black. In my mind, poor white people equaled racist white people."

Gary's mother countered that viewpoint through the relationships she forged with her neighbors. "My mom was best friends with a white woman named Ms. Louise, [whose] daughter was uncomfortable with Ms. Louise being such good friends with a black woman. When I go back to Pigtown, I always check on ms. Louise. She's like my grandmother."

Another role model for Gary was an older woman named Ms. Edith, whom Gary remembers for the active, fearless way she would engage everyone in the neighborhood. "She spearheaded a fundraiser for a playground," he recalls. "There was a place called 'the Hole' where there was lots of drug activity. Ms. Edith talked to the dealers there and convinced them to give to the tot lot."

His eyes mist over at the recollection. "I learned patience and perseverance from her. She would just listen to people; she wouldn't judge. She lives and breathes loving everyone...she greets everyone with hugs."

Although he is self-effacing about his academic achievements, claiming that he's "never liked sitting in class," Gary was a star student. He attended high school at Baltimore's prestigious Friends School, where he developed an affinity for ancient studies, especially Latin.

"It's a systematic language with clear rules," Gary explains. "Latin expands your vocabulary. If you see an unfamiliar word but can see the Latin root, it can help you figure out what the word is."

Latin even helped Gary get into college. "I couldn't afford SAT prep," he says. "The SAT used huge words, but since I knew the Latin roots, prefixes, etc., I found it easy to deconstruct them."

"I love the Greek Orthodox concept of theoria," he continues. "That is, applied knowledge: how does this work on a day to day level? When I see stuff come up, I think, do I see myself doing it? Will it enable me to use the skills I already have, while at the same time push me to learn something new?"

This practicality led Gary to join Youth As Resources (YAR), a youth-led philanthropic organization that distributes small grants to Baltimore neighborhoods and nonprofit organizations that do good work with scant resources. Young people comprise the board of YAR, which reviews proposals and comes to consensus about the allocation of grant funds. In the process, YAR members learn how to think critically and work together to solve problems.

"I feel comfortable with divergent views and conflict," says Gary, who currently chairs the YAR board. "If we always agree, then there's something wrong with the group process. It's important for everyone to be involved. Creating buy in gets people to take ownership."

He encountered a similar group dynamic during his recent stint with Public Allies, an Americorps-funded leadership development program that places young people in stipended internships with nonprofit organizations. Public Allies are divided into five-person teams that provide peer support and make joint decisions - an environment in which Gary thrives.

"Team members take big picture ideas and break them down into a manageable plan," he says of the Public Allies model. "We're able to be visionary, but break it down and relate it to people's everyday experiences."

Gary's Public Allies placement was with Job Opportunities Task Force, where he helped provide employment counseling to jobless East Baltimore men training for positions in the construction industry. His experience working with job seekers opened his eyes to the array of social and economic obstacles that stand between low-income Baltimoreans and the American dream.

"Baltimore is 65 percent African American, but African Americans aren't getting college degrees," he says. "There should be opportunities for people who don't go to college."

One such opportunity he is interested in exploring in more depth is micro-lending, the practice of distributing small loans to entrepreneurs with limited means who wish to start businesses in their communities. Inspired by the success of micro-lending initiatives by the Grameen Bank and other institutions overseas, Gary hopes to someday implement a similar approach in Baltimore, one that would benefit low-income women in particular.

"Women's economic well being and education level really determine their children's future and the economic health of their families," he says, going on to lament the high barriers to entry that face African-Americans.

Gary cites the experience of a hairdresser he knows who sought to strike out on her own. "She worked three jobs and was borrowing money from friends in order to start her own salon. And she had support from a huge network of family and friends! What about the people who don't have that kind of support?"

"Micro-lending is a dream of mine," he says with feeling. "Not just giving people money, but helping them with their business plan and financial planning." To realize this dream, he would plans to draw heavily on his past experience as a funder. "I like the way YAR gives its grants: it works with grantees to build their vision."

While he builds toward that goal, Gary continues to manifest theoria in his work. Currently that work includes serving as a site coordinator for the the Choice Program, an initiative of University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Shriver Center that assists young people caught in the juvenile justice system.

Throughout his wide-ranging academic and professional careers, Gary has continued to be guided by the values instilled by his mother, and by his love for Baltimore and its varied communities.

"People talk about how each neighborhood feels like a different city," he says with a smile. "But they all interconnect."


  1. As someone who knows Gary personally, I just want to express how proud I am of him and his accomplishments. He has always been someone who looks at the world and its individuals with an open mind, and even more so with an open heart. It is great to see him use his talents and gifts to give back. Keep up the great work.

  2. Hi, I'm with the Public Allies HQ in Milwaukee WI. I don't know Gary personally but his story exemplifies what P.A. is all about. Bravo, Gary!

  3. This story was very nice to read, especially about Gary. I know Gary to be a kind-hearted person and I was greatly impressed with his work with JOTF. He exemplifies greatness so I only expect more great things from him in the future!