WINONA -- Natalie Williams was part of St. Mary's University's women's basketball team from 2011 to 2015. She left Winona after graduating, but now she's back, to make a difference on the court -- and in the community.
Williams is a community engagement fellow with Lead for America, a nonprofit organization that operates a community-centered public service program for compassionate young leaders. Its focus is to empower young leaders to return to their college town or their hometown to perform a civic duty.
Williams grew up in Chicago. She learned about St. Mary's at a college fair, came to attend the school and served as the women's basketball team manager from 2011 to 2014. She played for the team her senior year, in 2015.
ALSO READ: Entrepreneur finds fresh start in Rochester
After graduation, she began a coaching career, first as a graduate assistant with the women’s basketball program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Once she completed the program, she returned home to Chicago.
There she worked as an account executive in ticket sales for the Chicago Sky, a WNBA team. After a year, she was sought out by the women's head coach at St. Mary’s, who offered her an assistant coaching position. "It was an opportunity for me to return to Winona,” Williams said. It was not until after she'd begun the coaching job that she was contacted by Lead for America. She is not coaching the team this season.
With Lead for America, one of Williams' primary responsibilities is to conduct “listening tours.” This allows her to engage with others in the community, often meeting with different community leaders to obtain their perspectives. Williams learns what they like about Winona, why they remain in Winona, and what kinds of community involvement they have.
She asks their vision for Winona, and for them to tell her what makes Winona special. She presents the information in reports that are intended to seek, discover and address the community’s toughest challenges.
One of the challenges already identified is retaining college graduates in Winona. The majority, like Williams herself, leave Winona after they graduate.
Williams has a particular interest in finding resources and opportunities for marginalized youth in Winona. "This is my community," she said, "and I will continue to contribute by providing a public service."
Katherine Sublett is a freelance writer from Winona.