As teenagers shuffle through the crowded hallways at Clark Montessori
, the bell rings to signal the end of the school day. It’s Nia Williams’ favorite sound because it also signals the beginning of her day with the track team.
The 22-year-old’s tight black curls cascade around her face, lightly bouncing as she hugs the students on her team who are meeting up for practice.
“You ready for today?” she asks students like Devon. The junior say he can't stay for practice because he doesn't have a ride home. Williams assures him that she will take him home.
The cold weather and impending snowfall pushes the group inside for practice. Suited up in their running gear, nearly 30 students file into the gym, where the ‘Home of the Cougars’ wall mural, which is written in large white block letters with a royal blue cougar, stands as a warning to competitors.
Williams wastes no time telling the students that it’s time to start warming up. Her team takes to the hardwood naturally. They run sprints; they lunge; they high-knee. In a syncopated rhythm, their feet glide across the polished floor.
“What are we going to do today?” she asks the teens. They decide on relays, and as they line up into position to start sprinting down one side of the gym and back, Devon shouts encouragement to his teammates, jumping up and down, clapping and repeating: “We don’t lose!”
It’s the kind of encouragement that Williams, a recent Xavier University
graduate, receives from her own mentor that she hopes to pass on to the students during her first season as track coach. The effort is just the beginning of her work to bridge a gap that once loomed large before her, too.
It takes a community
Williams explains that she didn’t get to where she is today without the support of Cheryl Nuñez, who is Xavier’s chief diversity officer. Nuñez not only oversees the university’s strategic plan for diversity, but she takes it upon herself to encourage those with whom she works.
“Student success is an ultimate measure of the work that I do,” Nuñez says. “I try to balance a focus on policies and processes with attention to the students that they’re ultimately meant to serve.”
According to Williams, if the success of her students is the measure of Nuñez's own success, then her rating must be off the charts. Williams met Nuñez during a Summer Service Internship program after her sophomore year of college.
“Mentor is a small word to describe her,” Williams says. “It feels like I’ve known her forever. She offers me professional, spiritual and mental [stability].”
Every time Williams felt like giving up, Nuñez pushed, encouraged and advised her. “She believes in you, and that’s a blessing,” Williams says.
No matter what Williams was going through, she says, Nuñez offered her time, her attention and her help dealing with everything from academic and professional issues to personal relationships.
Williams’ mother suffered from a degenerative disease during her daughter’s high school years, so the young woman longed for a motherly touch. She got that and much more with Nuñez. Though Williams studied away from her home in New York, Nuñez always made her feel at home.
“If we envision a better world, we must challenge and encourage all young people in order to draw upon the idealism, fearlessness and new ways of thinking that are their inheritance,” says Nuñez. “This task is especially important in relation to young women and young people of color, who have much to teach us about what that world should look like, but whose voices are too often disempowered. I feel a special responsibility for supporting the development of young women like Nia on the basis of our shared experiences as women of color.”
“She doesn’t make life seem easy, and doesn’t have all the answers, but you learn from your experiences,” Williams says. “It’s a genuine relationship—open, honest, something that everyone longs for.”
Williams vividly remembers her graduation day and the words Nuñez said to her. “When you walk across the stage, you’re going to feel a sense of power and what you can become…empowered,” she says. “You’ll feel sexy, a different kind of sexy; humbled and empowered.”
Williams says Nuñez has taught her that empowerment isn’t about giving power to someone, but in recognizing your own power.
Nuñez, says Williams, is a critical and radical thinker. She challenges those around her to think about race and poverty and service in new ways. Her outlook helped steer her protégé toward a job in the nonprofit education sector.
“I’ve encouraged Nia to bring this lens to her work in the community, in order to be able to define for herself how best to align her values and actions with the ends that she seeks," Nuñez says. “I simply feel I have a personal stake in helping her to be the person she is called to be and a responsibility to support that in all the ways I can.”
All of her encouragement has inspired Williams to achieve her goals, like graduation, and still helps her in her current full-time work as the communications director at Strive
—a partnership in public education goals that are measurable within the urban cores of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, with collaborative action and data. Since June, Williams has been working to figure out the achievement gap and changes that could fill it, especially working within the community and its youth.
The Strive Partnership is determined to improve academic success in Greater Cincinnati’s urban core. According to Williams, its work spans the “cradle to career” continuum, and is focused on “achieving collective impact through collaborative action, building a culture of continuous improvement by using data effectively, and aligning our community’s leadership capacity and funding what works.”
Strive’s goals for every child include:
1. Preparation for school
2. Support inside and outside of school
3. Success academically
4. Enrollment in some form of post secondary education
5. Graduation and then entrance into a meaningful career
To measure progress, Williams says they have eight shared outcomes for student success, which are tracked and reported annually.
Now Williams, who interned at Strive before graduating as a history and philosophy major, has a passion for education and what it can do for young people, like the energetic members of her track team.
“Getting younger people involved lessens chances of [those youth] being incarcerated,” says Williams, whose job at Strive revolves around communications and community engagement. She manages all of the organization’s social media outlets, along with its web content.
“[Strive’s] goal is to maintain a consistent and meaningful message about supporting students every step of the way, from cradle to career,” says Williams.
Beyond the message
In addition to communications, she leads Strive’s Race and Equity Taskforce, a new initiative focused on the achievement gap between students of color and students who live in poverty and their peers.
Williams reveals that there are racial and socioeconomic gaps that exist in education, such as white students outperforming those who are racially diverse, including African-American and Latino students—as well as an academic gap between the wealthy and economically challenged students.
“One of the things I admire most about Nia is [her ability to stay grounded],” says Nuñez. “She holds true to a set of cultural, spiritual and moral values that inform her calling to serve others and to work toward justice. She is open to diverse ideas and perspectives, is bright, hardworking and flexible in the face of challenge, and more committed to doing right than to being right. These are among the many assets she brings to Strive and to her role as a coach. In both contexts, she understands that her effectiveness begins and ends with authentic and mutually empowering relationships with others.”
Williams hopes to close the achievement gap for young girls of color in particular, one statistic and one conversation at a time. Whether she is coaching at Clark or piecing together collaborations focused on minority kids, she knows mentoring from both sides. She clearly sees all that Nuñez did for her helps the kids she coaches, even if it's just when she listens to stories about bad breakups and heartache.
“Being able to coach is the best thing—to form relationships with them, that’s how you get involved with the community,” she says. “I think it addresses [the gap] at the grassroots level. Having real, authentic relationships with students creates a level of authority and trust, which makes it easier to encourage them to take school seriously and think about their futures.”
Paying it forward
Through her lens, Williams sees achievement as a combination of grit, tenacity, persistence and the presence of a person you can count on.
She also knows first-hand that when it comes to education, the one-on-one approach can make a lasting impact. She hopes students on her team will transfer their efforts on the track—their long, powerful strides and challenging, endless steps—back into the classroom. Because like mentoring, track is about long, powerful strides of continuous improvement and hard, meaningful steps.
Back at practice, Williams runs the perimeter of the gym with her team. “Good job! Good job!” she pants. They slow down and gather in the middle of the gym floor.
“How does everyone feel?” she asks.
Nodding, laughing and full of smiles, the young athletes take their seats around the large blue Cougar paw in the middle of the basketball court. Sitting in a circle, they start their cool-down stretches. Williams sits in the center of the circle and talks to them not only about running, but also about music they like.
As practice ends, Williams puts her fist out in front of her, and the teens, one by one, throw their hands into the middle of the tightly formed circle. “1-2-3, Cougars!” they shout.
Hanging from the rafters in the gymnasium are banners that read, "State Championships in Track & Field" and other well-played sports. But no matter how many banners, ribbons and trophies her team walks away with, in Williams’ eyes, her students are already winners for taking the first step toward their future.
Jessica Noll-Korczyk, a regular contributor for Soapbox, is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated freelance multi-media journalist, full-time PR guru, photographer and social media aficionado. Armed with her master’s degree from Columbia College Chicago, she has contributed to several news outlets nationwide, including Fox News, Nancy Grace, MSNBC, People and Story Magazine. She is currently the Community/Media Relations Director for 4 Paws for Ability.