Friday, July 31, 2015

Sharing Nuru At ÜberConf 2015 in Denver Colorado

Last week was a pretty amazing week for me personally, and for Nuru as well! Among the awesome highlights, Jamie and I had the privilege of sharing Nuru with an incredible group of some top notch software developers at ÜberConf. This was the fifth straight year we were invited to share Nuru’s story at this conference, and every year it just keeps getting better.

For some, it seems like a strange connection to be made between software development and ending extreme poverty, but the more time I spend around this group of men and women, the more clear the connection is to me. You see, these men and women who attend the conference believe strongly in integrated approaches, building on best practices, rigorous testing, and using metrics to evaluate the quality and impact of solutions. These beliefs align perfectly with Nuru’s approach to addressing extreme poverty, and because of that, I believe we all end up having a deep respect for one another’s work.

A philosophy, a lifestyle, and a work ethic of continuous improvement, failing fast and adapting and iterating quickly defines this community as well as our culture at Nuru. For me, being able to share Nuru with a room full of like-minded individuals is an amazing gift! The folks who attend this conference, the speakers, and the organizing team have all become incredible advocates for Nuru. In fact, each year, the conference provides attendees with uniquely designed Nuru shirts. It’s pretty amazing to me that the day after the shirts are made available each year, at least three out of five attendees are wearing them. In addition, people who have attended the conference in previous years will wear Nuru shirts from those years during the week as well.

This year was extra special with regard to sharing Nuru because it was my fifth year sharing at this conference. These folks have believed in and supported Nuru from our earliest efforts. I remember sharing with the attendees in 2011 that they had helped Nuru impact the lives of more than 10,000 people. And now, in 2015, I was able to share with the more than 700 attendees that Nuru has now been able to help more than 80,000 men, women, and children lift themselves out of extreme poverty permanently.

The folks who organize and share at this conference have been incredibly generous to Nuru, and they have become some very dear and treasured friends for both me and Jamie. It almost feels like a mini-reunion each year as we share updates from life, vocation, and mission. And this year, the conference is giving an incredibly generous $40,000 donation to Nuru to help further our work in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Every time I have an opportunity to share with the wonderful people who have helped move this mission forward, I am inspired and encouraged, but when I get to share with our friends at ÜberConf, that inspiration goes even deeper. These incredible people have been huge advocates for Nuru and they use the conference to help connect even more people to our life changing mission to end extreme poverty in remote rural areas.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mr. Williams Goes To Washington: Meeting President Obama At The White House

Wednesday afternoon July 22 around 430PM  I started to make my way through our nation’s capital to the place where the President and his family made their home.  I had the added comfort of not going alone too; one of my coworkers, Beth Atherton had received the invitation to the reception as well. Honestly the entire experience felt a bit surreal. From the invitation, to the airline flights, and the suit shopping, to the encouragement of friends and family on social media I was a bit overwhelmed. I made my way through multiple identification checks and security checkpoints, and then began making my way up the steps to the White House.

Walking through the space, my mind was filled with gratitude. I had gratitude for the opportunity of course, but more so gratitude for all of the folks who had poured into my life, all of us unaware that an opportunity like this would ever present itself. I was also grateful for the words of my friend, and Nuru’s founder Jake Harriman who had recently shared in a speech that as a Marine, he fought for “the idea that is America, a nation that stands for the freedom of human rights and lasting, meaningful choices for everyone, everywhere.” Here I was, in the place where every US President had made his home, in the place where global leaders for the last 200 years had met with these Presidents and talked about the past, current events, and a pathway for the future.

I made my way from room to room and was just simply amazed that regular citizens would have an opportunity to walk through a place of such hallowed tradition and leadership. I looked on the walls at portraits of former Presidents. I sat on chairs that were more than 200 years old, chairs that were sat upon for discussion, debate, and contemplation as leaders thought through decisions that would affect future generations of our country and the world.

As I walked around, I started conversations with a few of the service members on duty to learn more about the space. I walked around looking at the dining ware of former Presidents, photos of historic moments for our nation and the world, and I thought—what a privilege—I don’t belong here—this is out of my league. But then, at the same time, I thought, that is the beauty of America. For all of our faults, (because we are not a perfect utopia), we are a nation where a small town boy from West Virginia, and regular folk from everywhere have a stake in shaping the future, by voting and by serving. I met a woman there named Peggy who had been on staff for more than 50 years. She started two days after President Kennedy was assassinated. She was incredibly humble and joyful, and I absolutely loved talking with her. She told me that her time in the White House had been filled with amazing experiences, every day, and that she had the privilege of meeting some pretty amazing people during her time. As I listened to her share, I thought, “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to meet this amazing lady. She has spent more time in these hallowed halls than any of the Presidents she has served under. What a gift.”

An individual stepped forward to make the announcement that we should make our way from the State Dining Room to the East Room. There was a podium toward the front of the room with the Seal of the President Of The United States on the front, and a rope that was probably 5-10 feet away.  There were multiple video cameras throughout the space, and Beth and I made our way toward the rope and waited.

As we waited we both found ourselves striking up conversations with others around us. Among those around us was a Lumbee woman who had been doing some amazing work for small farmers in the American Indian community. I shared with her my own Shawnee heritage and tribal involvement, and we had a truly engaging conversation about the Native American issues particularly related to tribes on the East Coast.  As we talked, I thought, what are the chances that I would end up standing next to another Native person in the White House…while celebrating the signing into law a renewal of the African Growthand Opportunity Act. The world is small indeed.

Just a few moments later, President Barack Obama made his way to the podium and gave a short address. And as he spoke, he kept looking my direction, and making eye contact. The first time it happened, I thought, “Is he looking at me?” and then, it kept happening. It probably helped that I was close to the front, and at least a half-foot taller than many of the people around me. After his remarks, the President made his way to the rope and began making his way across the front row shaking hands. I had let a couple of people in front of me, and thought, “I may have just missed an opportunity to greet the President.” But as he made his way to my side of the room, he extended his hand back past the front row of people, grabbed my hand, and said very genuinely, “Thanks so much for coming!” My mind raced for the right words to say to our nation’s Commander-In-Chief, and I humbly spoke as we shook, “Thank you for having me, sir.” He then proceeded to shake hands with others, and quietly left the room to prepare for his trip to the African continent.

As the room began to empty out, I made my way back to the dining room and chatted with Beth, my coworker, about the experience. It was pretty amazing all around. I had also captured a photo of Beth and President Obama exchanging a quick greeting as well. We made our way through the entrance hall to the State Dining Room where we were able to enjoy a short conversation with two older Catholic sisters who had committed their lives to serving their African neighbors. It was a beautiful moment to listen to stories from two women who had been faithful to a vocational calling to serve.

This entire trip and opportunity will be a cherished and special memory for me, and I am thoroughly filled with gratitude for the opportunity I had to spend time in the White House. I remember as a young child, always being told on field trips that I was representing my school and my town and my state. During this experience, the weight of those words came flooding back. I was given a supreme privilege to represent not only Nuru, but my faith, my Shawnee tribal community, my state, and my family in the highest office in the land.

The truth is, every day is an opportunity for each one of us to represent well the people and cultures from whom and from which we have been shaped.  May we each step into our days with a firm grasp of this reality, and may we each seek to represent well as we commit ourselves to the service and betterment of others.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reflection: Getting Invited To The White House

During the afternoon of Sunday July 19 I received an email with an invitation inside it. The email indicated that I was invited by President Barack Obama to the White House to attend a reception celebrating the signing of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) on June 22, 2015 with an RSVP needed by July 21. I was reading this email and sharing it with Jamie and a couple of our friends, and they were all telling me, “Wow Billy! You have to go!”  I was a little in shock by the whole thing. I have never been invited to the White House, and never received an invitation from the President, and I wasn’t even sure how to respond. I was honored, but I was also half-way across the country about to share Nuru at an incredible conference in Denver Colorado.

The folks at the conference heard my dilemma and went out of their way to let me know how excited they were for me, and that they would move around my keynote to make sure I was able to make the trip to the White House. They encouraged and affirmed me and celebrated this amazing opportunity for Nuru to be represented at our nation’s capital, and helped me begin thinking through an action plan.

To be honest, I was filled with gratitude for the opportunity but wasn’t sure what to expect or how this would all come together. I didn’t have a suit, tie, shoes, or anything I could wear that would be remotely appropriate for the occasion. I would have to book a flight roughly 24 hours before I needed to leave. I would need to figure out where to stay and how I was going to get around during this whirlwind event. And every step of the way, my friends rallied around me to help make this trip possible. I booked my flight, and my friends JR and Christy Pittman told me that they would pick me up and take me wherever I needed to go once I arrived in DC. They allowed me the privilege of sleeping under their roof (which also gave me a great opportunity to catch up with them too!).

Additionally, one of my old roommates, former coworkers, and dear friends, Derek Roberts lives in Denver. He told me that he would take care of getting me to and from the airport in Denver and would support in whatever capacity I needed. He and my friend and coworker Alex Martin provided some tips and ideas on purchasing appropriate clothing, but I still needed to find said clothing. That’s where Kris Woyna came in and he came in big!!! Kris is a software architect and good friend who I have gotten to know at ÜberConf over the last four years, and I’ve always respected his counsel. He adamantly exhorted me that I needed to make this trip, and I needed to make sure I looked sharp for the sake of Nuru as well as for the sobering truth that I would likely meet the President of the United States.
Kris took me and Jamie on a fashion emergency trip Monday night in what is probably the coolest car I’ve ever had the privilege of riding in. An old school Land Rover that was legitimately ready to be taken off-road, and which Kris has frequently taken on outdoor excursions into remote areas of the US. We visited several places, and finally landed at Nordstrom where they were having a very timely anniversary sale. As I tried on a couple of suits, Kris was telling everyone who was helping me about the occasion and about the work I have been part of at Nuru. Kris gave me very wise counsel with regard to suits, styles, fits, and the like. He went out of his way and gave up his entire evening to help me look presentable. To be honest, I’ve only worn a suit on a few occasions during my life, and I just didn’t know that much about them. Kris enlisted help and additional counsel from Sandy Ross, one of the incredible staff at Nordstrom and she went to work to find me shoes, socks, a shirt, and a tie to complete the ensemble. Because of Kris, she knew the kind of work we do at Nuru, and that I wanted to look my best, but do so on a budget.

In addition, the tailor, whose name was Nam, began working with me to make sure my suit fit properly. Although I’ve worn a suit on a handful of occasions, I have never had one tailor fit to my body. Nam said he wasn’t sure how quickly they would be able to turn around all of the fitting, but Kris passionately implored him to help me get ready for a possible meeting with the President. This was Monday night and the store was about to close. I would need to have clothes ready by Tuesday at 1PM at the latest to be able to make my flight. Nam made a quick phone call, and announced that he would have the suit ready by noon (he actually had it ready by 11AM!).  AND, they didn’t charge me for any of the alterations (many places charge $10-50 per alteration); these folks really came through in a BIG way!!!

Because Kris took the time to guide me along this process, and because of the incredible help of the people at Nordstrom, I was ready to look my best as I entered the White House. Because of friends like JR, Christy, and Derek, I was able to worry about one less thing as I traveled. And as I sat in the Denver airport waiting to board the plane, I was incredibly emotionally overwhelmed and filled with gratitude. This opportunity was an incredible win for Nuru, but it was also an incredible win for every person who has believed in Nuru and supported our mission from the beginning. It was also an opportunity I could have never imagined for me personally. In my wildest imaginations, I would never have fathomed such an incredible opportunity would present itself. I had an opportunity to represent not only Nuru, but also my home state of West Virginia. And more than that, all of the important lessons I have learned from friends and family from childhood to the present that have helped me become a better version of myself, those lessons and memories came flooding back to my mind as I thought about the weight of what I was about to experience.

I’m incredibly grateful for both friends and family, and we all should be. We each get the opportunity to become better by listening to the counsel of others and enjoying and savoring every moment, every nugget of wisdom, every experience that shapes us. May you and I always be filled with gratitude for the gifts that friends and family give us that shape us and help us contribute to bettering our communities and the world around us.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Perspective: Running At Altitude

As Jamie and I continue our training in an effort to complete the 40th Marine Corps Marathon (and our third) in Washington DC this October, we have taken the training as a great opportunity to explore as well. By the way, want to join us on team Nuru this fall?

Yesterday, we ran about six miles along the South Platte River in Littleton, Colorado. The weather was absolutely beautiful. The sun was shining, and this river was just stunning to take in as we ran. But as we ran, we also had the realization we were running at an altitude higher than any point in our home state of West Virginia. Amazingly we were keeping up a faster pace than our typical longer runs, and we were feeling great...but our hearts and lungs were working harder to keep us going. I think I was averaging about 170 bpm for our little jog, but we both felt great. There are many elite athletes who train for long periods at higher altitudes because it makes their bodies more efficiently use oxygen--we won't be in Colorado long enough to take advantage of that perk tho.

And while our bodies were working a lot harder in this unfamiliar altitude, I think that because we have been very disciplined with our training and fitness, we were able to adjust somewhat well. And running at altitude gave me a different perspective than what I had anticipated. I had anticipated the hard work of my lungs and heart, along with great conversations as we explored this little riverside trail together, but I was granted something more.

It was this. Sometimes we need to change up our routines and rhythms to get fresh perspective. As we journeyed along the South Platte, our bodies were working hard, and every step afforded us a view of something largely unfamiliar to us. Whether it was snow capped mountains to the West or the fast running flow of a wide and shallow mountain stream there was a freshness and a crispness to the images and the air.

As we ran, I began thinking about the little miracles we have opportunity to see each day, if we just get out of our ruts and routines and take a look around us. Sure there are a number of hurts and tragedies in this world, and probably every person who is reading this has found themselves the victim of some hurt over the course of their life. But, at the same time, we have been given incredible gifts. We have been given today. We have been given an opportunity at a fresh start. We have been given an opportunity to either keep moving or start moving.

And if we start, while there's no guarantee that tomorrow will be better, it seems like it is a whole lot easier to keep going.

As we ran, Jamie and I reflected back to a run we took together in Westminster, Colorado two years ago as part of training for our first marathon. We didn't run as far. We didn't run as fast. And we were really tired at the end of our jog. But this time, we were able to go far, go fast, and we weren't nearly as tired. We have introduced a variety of habits into our lives related to fitness, to emotional well-being, spiritual growth, and mental sharpness during our journey together, but we shift the way we engage and develop those habits, and it keeps us fresh, it keeps us moving, and it keeps our perspective not on the mountains ahead, or the hurts of the past, but on the blessings of the present.

Wherever you find yourself today, may you be able to take time for some fresh perspective and some fresh air along the way. Keep moving!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Celebrating The Birthday Of One Of Our Amazing Friends, Naomi Triggs

Last week Jamie and I arrived in Denver, CO and we have been privileged to connect with a wide array of Nuru supporters and friends in this beautiful state. In fact, last Thursday afternoon we were able to meet with a few of Nuru's most longstanding supporters during a short trip to Colorado Springs. In addition, we had a rare privilege of connecting with one of Nuru's first supporters on the continent of Europe and a long time friend Naomi Triggs, AND it was her birthday!

Her story is just incredible, so I wanted to take a minute to reflect and share. She's quite the heroic individual and a definite change agent for good in the world. Back in 2003, Naomi joined about 30 other Americans (mostly from CO and OH) to start a church in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She traveled there as a student, worked as a nanny, and eventually went on staff with the church called Amsterdam50.

In 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2009, I had the privilege of visiting the church and bringing small teams from our church back in Morgantown to serve the community in Amsterdam. Jamie actually was on the last team with me in 2009. During each of those trips our teams were always blessed with the conversations we had with the community and staff of Amsterdam50 including Eric Asp, Patricia van Engelen, Sokol Hakrama, and Naomi Triggs. As I write this, I'm tempted to write about how each of these (and many others) have influenced and encouraged me by their examples of life and faith, but it's probably best that I focus on Naomi and her birthday. ;)

Naomi had been one of the key contacts for teams coming to the Netherlands, and during her years of living in Amsterdam, God had placed a deep burden within her for the hurting and the broken in the world. She found herself leading social justice initiatives in the church, in the city, and around the world. She spent time in India and Kenya working with orphans, she organized water walks through the city of Amsterdam, and in 2009, she set up an opportunity for me to share Nuru with a gathering of people from around the city.

Amsterdam is famous for many things, and not all of those things are good. One of those things is its Red Light District. While at the church, Naomi also got more involved in working to address the issues around prostitution, sex slavery,  and human trafficking as well aftercare for women who have been able to escape these traumatic experiences. And her work on these issues led her back to the US. She is considering attending a seminary and getting a counseling degree so she is better equipped for caring for women who have been trafficked when she returns to Amsterdam.

When we arrived we had the realization that Naomi was back in the US for a brief period, and thanks to Facebook, we also had the additional realization that we might be able to see her on her birthday--AND WE DID!!! It was wonderful catching up with Naomi, and at the same time it was a bit surreal. Jamie and I had never seen Naomi anywhere other than Amsterdam (and vise versa). Interestingly, Jamie and I are working to learn Dutch, so we were able to get in a little practice with Naomi. :)

We have been honored to know Naomi for quite some time, and seeing her on her birthday was extra cool, but more than that, being able to follow the trajectory of her life has been amazing. She has been faithfully living out her calling as God has nudged her increasingly toward compassionate care for those who have been downtrodden and abused. Although this post is a few days after her birthday, our prayer is that this year would be one of deep focus as she continues to pursue the vision God has given her.

And for the rest of us, may we each grow more keenly aware of the opportunities that are presented to us to grow in our care for our neighbors and to work toward being instruments of healing, restoration, and reconciliation in this beautiful and hurting world.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sharing Nuru At West Virginia Governors Honor’s Academy 2015

During the summer before my senior year of high school, I had the privilege of being one of approximately 200 West Virginia students who were selected to participate in the WestVirginia Governor’s Honors Academy. During that time, I made some incredible friends, many of whom I have been privileged to stay in contact with even today thanks to technologies like Facebook. Friends that I made at GHA have moved on to incredible positions of leadership in West Virginia and around the world. I remember our summer at GHA being filled with amazing field trips and fun lectures that pushed our thinking about ourselves, our state, and the world. I also remember a whole lot of laughs and adventures in what was for me my first significant period of time away from home.

And last week, I was able to return to GHA. This time, I was among those lecturers presenting (hopefully I was fun too). I was invited to keynote the first evening of the last week of the academy. My subject was Nuru International, Nuru's West Virginia roots, and how this generation of West Virginians could join the fight to end of extreme poverty.

It was wonderful sharing with these students on a number of levels. As an organization, Nuru has some deep West Virginia roots. Jake, Nuru’s CEO and founder, hails from Preston County. Two of Nuru’s board members, Andy Cogar and John Hancox, reside in West Virginia. Not only that, but Andy and I both attended GHA when we were in high school and it had a profound impact on each of us. I have been privileged to represent Nuru and share with a wide variety of audiences, but for me, it’s always a little extra special when I get to share with fellow West Virginians, particularly young leaders.

The people of our state when at our best have always exemplified an ethos of service and of caring not only for the neighbor across the street, but also the neighbor across the world. And folks from many small towns around the world can probably empathize with the difficulty these young people might have when it comes to thinking about the kind of impact they could have in this world. It’s so easy to let our minds tell us that coming from small towns, it just feels next to impossible to make a difference in this world.

As I shared Nuru with these students, I offered them a concrete reminder that it is possible to have a global impact coming from the small towns where they are from. I told them that there are more Nuru supporters in West Virginia than in any other state, and that Jake had just been selected by peers to give remarks and introduce former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at an event in Texas just a few days before. 

Additionally, I told them about some friends of mine I’ve met during the time since we started Nuru. These friends were all young people, and they were courageous enough to believe they could make a difference fighting extreme poverty—and they were successful. I told them about how a school in West Virginia became the first school in the country to organize a full week of events for Nuru.

Before I shared with the larger group, I was able to grab dinner with a few of the students and hear more about their stories, their hopes, and their dreams. I told them about how when me, Jake, John, and a number of others met at WVU, we were dreaming big dreams, and we were privileged to be part of a community of friends who have stayed in touch and worked to help one another make a contribution in this world, and that they should strive to do the same for each other. Honestly, when I was in high school, I didn’t really know much about the social challenges in this world, but these high school students were incredibly globally aware.

As I listened to each of them share their plans, all I kept thinking was this. These young people are incredibly focused. And as long as they maintain their focus, they are really going to change the world. I went to GHA with a hope that I could inspire these students, and I pray that I did. But, as I left, I thought, these students have really inspired me. They leave me incredibly hopeful for the future of our great state, of our country, and of this world as they go forward and rise to positions of greater and greater influence.

May this GHA class continue to grow in its leadership and its ability to influence the direction of our state, our country, and the world for good. And may you and I be mindful of the responsibility we have to continue to live out an ethos of service and work hard while we can to make the world better as this younger generation looks to us for guidance as they rise to the challenge of leading and shaping tomorrow's world.