At Gas South, our purpose is to “Be a Fuel for Good,” which is why we believe in equitable education for all children. In 2020, we had the opportunity to partner with Next Generation Men and Women (Next Gen), a local Atlanta non-profit that helps minority youth excel in education.
Through an exposure experience, we gave students the opportunity to step into the role of a senior level Gas South employee to learn about how to heal the negative effects the pandemic can have within the workplace. The students were able to gain real world experience, while learning how to increase employee productivity and make great networking connections.
Gas South’s Community Affairs Coordinator Aulona Graham-Simms asked Next Gen’s Executive Director, Phil Olaleye questions about the importance of their work and what a truly equitable Atlanta should look like for all kids to be successful. Check out highlights from the interview below.
Aulona Graham-Simms, Gas South: Tell us about yourself and Next Generation Men & Women
Phil Olaleye, Next Gen: Opportunity is a part of my personal and professional journey. Growing up in Stone Mountain, the son of Nigerian and Colombian immigrants, I traveled almost two hours, taking two buses one-way, just to attend a quality public school. It was this experience that underscored the power of education and how it can help a young person rise above his circumstances. It also affirmed how unequal access to a quality education and opportunity is for low-income, Black youth. I went on to study Public Policy at Duke University and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and have dedicated my career to supporting youth, workers, and families through service in the United States Peace Corps and leadership roles with the City of Atlanta and now Next Generation Men & Women (Next Gen).
Next Gen addresses racial inequities in education by closing the same opportunity gap that stood in the way of my future success years ago. We partner with under-resourced high schools to create student cohorts that begin in the 9th grade and remain together until graduation. Teachers and College Mentors guide students through a curriculum rooted in personal identity, post-secondary exploration, professional & leadership development, and college & career planning. Cohorts meet twice a week, after school, and take monthly trips to local colleges and companies to engage with different careers and professionals. Currently, we serve 300 students (100% Black and brown) across 5 high schools in Atlanta Public (Carver STEAM, Maynard Jackson, South Atlanta) and Fulton County (Banneker, Creekside) School districts and partner with 65+ local companies and colleges.
AGS: What brought you to this particular work and why is it important?
PO: As a Black man, whose life was transformed by education and mentorship, this work is personal. There’s no better investment than in our young people. I’m blessed to see their talent and gifts on display each and every day. Our students are beautiful and inspiring. However, too many Black youth in Atlanta are victim to economic hardship and structural racism. Real opportunity should not be determined by race, class or where you call home. All young people deserve the best that we have to offer. Unfortunately, we are falling short — especially for our Black youth.
This reality gives way to the worst outcome for any young person: a loss of excitement and hope for what’s ahead in life. Once that belief is gone, it’s hard to recover, graduate and find success in career and future plans. We can break the cycle of poverty gripping our Black youth and families by restoring systems that provide real, quality educational opportunity. The gap between affluent and low-income youth, in terms of educational enrichment and support, is too wide — and we’re losing our most precious asset in the process — our youth.
AGS: Your organization sits at the intersection of many equity issues: Race, public education, college preparedness and the opportunity gap. How does Next Gen’s model help provide solutions for students dealing with these inequities?
PO: The state of Education is a microcosm of the world we live in. The equity challenges facing our students, educators and families — poverty, race, opportunity — can’t be solved alone and in a vacuum. Solutions require compassion, collective impact and enough resources to reverse decades of hardship and pain. Our program model understands that it takes more than college and career planning or culturally relevant curriculum to create student buy-in and excitement regarding their future. Seeing is believing. Similarly, visiting different workplaces and college campuses grows a student’s imagination and belief, but doesn’t provide support and resources necessary to develop socially and emotionally, and execute a plan toward achieving one’s goals after high school.
One person or one approach alone can’t realistically help students triage the many inequities that make their development and success so challenging. So, our model literally builds a locally sourced and diverse community in support of Atlanta youth, including: families, educators, college students, professionals, colleges and companies. We call it our “Village”, taking after the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child”. And through four years of exposure, mentorship, and support, students develop a stronger sense of self, set informed goals, and build the skills and agency necessary to be successful after high school — college and career.
AGS: Purpose driven work can be rewarding and taxing at the same time. Where do you personally draw your strength and inspiration from?
PO: My father instilled a work ethic and drive to never settle. My mother opened my mind and heart to the world to be curious and kind. My guidance counselor and Ms. Brenda saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. They both are responsible for planting the seed to apply to Duke and walking me through the application on the submission date with a few minutes to spare. Perla and Edwin, my Peace Corps supervisors, showed me what it was like to lead decisively with heart and value community voice. My siblings, friends and partner Sabrina are patient and supportive in more ways than I can count. My Next Gen team goes hard every single day, to create real on-ramps to opportunity for the youth we serve. We’re not just building community here in Atlanta, but a model to replicate in other parts of the country where a lack of opportunity is holding back youth and communities from thriving. My “why” is clear and my “village” keeps me grounded and moving forward.
AGS: In 100 years, what do you hope is true about the City of Atlanta and the students who are educated here?
PO: I hope that every child born and raised in Atlanta has a clear path to a quality education, opportunity, and support. Atlanta is not a small legacy — this is a big legacy city and we need to raise the level of expectations. We have more than enough resources and talented women and men calling Atlanta home who can answer the call. But too many people feel like we’re not aiming high enough or aren’t in this fight together. We can do this. We can deliver on our great promise. But it can’t be done alone. It requires all of us to expect more and do more — especially those in a position of power. If we get this right, we can unleash a world of unimaginable benefits for our City, State and World.