When it comes to mapping out a successful future, the fact remains that our youth can’t be what they can’t see. They can’t believe the sky is the limit when they’re constantly faced with seeming limitations based on background and past experiences, and they can’t dream big unless they’re reminded that dreams really do come true. What our youth need now more than ever is the reassurance that they have a future full of options and choices, and most importantly, the support needed to accomplish their goals.
Too often, our young men and women internalize this idea that the only path to financial stability is that of an athlete or entertainer. Sure, if that’s their desired career path, it’s up to us to help provide resources to help them hone their craft, but those aren’t their only options. There exist countless industries and career paths, and whether they choose to go the education route or immediately enter into the workforce, a promising future is within reach.
Marcy Williams, Founder and CEO of Kollege and Kareer for Youth (KAKY), started the organization ten years ago with the mission of equipping young students with tools needed to begin mapping out their future. Remembering the lack of resources available when she entered into the college application process, Williams dedicated her life to reaching back to Richmond’s youth and not only guiding them through the process, but also addressing the root causes of issues they face during adolescence. What she’s learned in her interactions with them both within the community and as Adjunct Professor at VCU, is that many challenges they face today are unprecedented, so they require leaders who can meet them exactly where they are and speak to their unique and specific needs.
“I know it sounds cliché, but technology is a big challenge our youth faces today,” Williams explains. “I didn’t have that challenge growing up. Thanks to social media our youth are exposed to so much more than I was at their age, from sex to seeing murders live and in color, and even learning intricate details about the state of the world. It’s scary for a young mind to consume, and makes it difficult for them to focus on the right things.”
Williams is a fervent believer in protecting their minds at all costs; the inundation of negativity quickly translates to a “why should I care?” mentality, rendering many of them hopeless and pessimistic about their future. This is why an organization like KAKY is so crucial for all youth, not just those in underserved communities. All youth have the entire world at their fingertips, internalizing everything from encouraging stories of kindness to harmful interactions that can confirm their belief that the world is indeed a dreary place.
Social media also makes it difficult for youth to define success for themselves. The problem lies not in the fact that they don’t know options exist, but that this social media-heavy culture provides limited views of what success truly is. We follow people who on the surface appear successful and happy, which in turn influences what we believe we need in order to obtain success and happiness. We’re not flooded with images of careers in STEM, community involvement, and lives of excellence; instead, we’re told that life is all about likes, followers, and being the source of others’ envy.
On the other end of the digital world is reality, which means mapping out a real plan for the future. For some, that future is college. For others, it’s the workforce. In both instances, KAKY’s focus is helping youth follow their passions and dreams, and helping them walk in their purpose. What Williams finds is that for a lot of young adults, college isn’t always the answer.
“KAKY started out as a big push to get kids to go to college,” says Williams. “But in my experience as a professor at VCU, I’ve learned that college isn’t for everyone. Parents get upset when I say that, but my focus is helping them decide which future is best for them. Maybe it’s a trade school or entrepreneurship; maybe it’s a community college or a series of workshops that help them develop. But I’ve learned that college just isn’t for everyone.”
While Williams sticks to her stance on higher education, she believes that half the battle is encouraging parents to commit to their child’s journey, even if that journey differs from the one they’ve mapped out for them.
“Parents have to understand that we cannot invoke our own dreams onto our children. We can’t use them to fulfill the dreams we couldn’t, and we can’t use them to maintain a certain reputation or level of credibility. Most importantly, don’t think your child not going to school is an indication of your failure. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a parent.”
Through events, outreach, and one-on-one counseling, KAKY helps both children and adults understand that before anything, children are individual people who are a sum of their personal experiences and outside influences. Their decisions will differ from their parents’ and they’re learning about themselves and the life they want all while navigating the pressures of this world. It’s up to the parents and community leaders to provide the support needed, and what you’ll find is that with that support, the children will succeed.
Williams’ own daughter is a testament to what our youth can do when the parents extend their unwavering love and support. At just 22, she’s a successful entrepreneur with a thriving business, all without a college degree. Williams’ brother also bypassed college, and is now a pastor of a church, following God’s plan for his life.
“College is important, but it’s not the end-all-be-all,” reassures Williams. “You do have a path that’s not dependent on college. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it does work when you have a plan.”
KAKY’s work extends beyond getting youth into classrooms and boardrooms. Williams places a special focus on where it all begins—in the community. She remains an overall advocate for the youth, addressing the systemic issues that plague many communities, especially communities of color. You can find her at school board meetings, leading outreach efforts, hosting toiletry and food drives, and serving the homeless population in Richmond’s Monroe Park. She also makes it a priority to assure the youth that despite life’s obstacles, they’re seen and understood.
“I go into the schools and embrace them, love on them, help educate them, and help them overcome challenges,” she says. “I also do work within the Department of Juvenile Justice to minister to and educate youth.”
With all of her efforts, Williams is a living, breathing example of treating the root cause instead of focusing on symptoms. She understands the problem is much deeper, and whether you’re attending to the here and now or focusing on the future, it’s all about being proactive and bridging the gap.
“It’s not all about career or college,” says Williams. “It’s about having an overall positive life experience. That’s why I’ve devoted my life to running KAKY full-time. Whether we’re taking college tours or having personal conversations in the community, I’m working to give our youth what they really need.”
To donate to Kollege and Kareers for Youth, or to sign up for future events, visit www.12KAKY.com.