My Young Gamechanger Experience

GF_GC_0132By Matt Forshee, Spring 2017 Young Gamechanger

In the fall of 2016, I was looking for an opportunity to grow my leadership skill set. I had done several community leadership programs, metro Atlanta’s Regional Leadership Institute and I’m an instructor for the Georgia Academy of Economic Development, which has a significant leadership component. I knew I was looking for something different.

I live in the greater Augusta region and, I discovered that some friends were participating in a program in Augusta that was looking at local challenge issues through the eyes of a group of young professionals. They were looking at issues around better utilization of the Savannah River, housing-stock diversity and new resident attraction, how to attract millennials to the community, and finding ways to better strengthen the connection between downtown Augusta and the fast-growing Augusta University.

These were all topics and areas I worked in and around in my role as Georgia Power’s Manager of Community and Economic Development in the Augusta region. How did I miss this opportunity?

I researched the program and saw that it was focused on people under 40 and that they were doing these programs across the state, in urban areas, in small towns, bringing in new perspectives and new ideas. This was something I was very interested in. I had just turned 39, so I needed to act quickly, before I became an “Old Gamechanger”.

My entire professional background has been focused on community planning, community development and economic development and this program was right up my alley. Plus, the next community they would be focusing on was LaGrange. It was clear across the state from me, but as I child, I had lived in LaGrange for 10 years and I considered it one of my hometowns. I hadn’t spent any time there since moving away in 1989, and I was interested in seeing how it had changed and how it was different from what I remembered. I applied and was accepted from a pool that was much larger than I realized.

Over 6 months, we had two 2-day sessions in LaGrange. The first was focused on team building and learning the lay of the land. The class was divided into four teams and each team was given a specific question, focused around a challenge or opportunity in the community, and asked to develop 4 “Big Ideas” that would address the challenge or expand the opportunity. The second session was a chance for us to present draft ideas to local leaders for feedback and refinement. Some ideas get scrapped, some ideas get combined and some ideas rise to the top. Our 6 months culminated in a fifth day in the community, where we presented our final recommendations.

I was looking for a leadership program that was different. I got what I was asking for. Unlike other programs that try and teach you about leadership, this program is a case study in “Applied Leadership” or a “Leadership Lab”. This was not simply what you talk about in a classroom setting; it was learning about problems and challenges in a community, brainstorming “Big Idea” solutions from your background and experiences, testing solutions and refining until you develop the best case “Big Ideas”. Those “Big Ideas” may not be implemented 100%, but it’s not necessarily about implementation; it’s about providing new and different perspectives to a community that they may not have developed on their own. Ideas that could be implemented.

Five days total, right? Sounds easy, right, like you won’t even break a sweat?


Total transparency here: This was one of the most intense volunteer programs I’ve been involved in and it required a ton of effort outside of those five days that were in community. Your team is made up of people from diverse backgrounds, most of whom you’ve never met. My team had people from urban and suburban Atlanta, the mountain of North Georgia, the small towns of Middle Georgia, the rural plains of South Georgia and from LaGrange proper.  Everyone has different schedules and day jobs and work load and family life requirements. You’ve got two days to come together, develop a work plan structure, identify team leads and figure out how you’ll stay organized. Then you must learn about the community and about your topic to a level where you can pass for at least highly knowledgeable. There were weekly conference calls by our team, subgroups working on separate research efforts, and many 1:00am work nights. No one is holding your hand. No one is guiding you to the solution. This is 100% on you and your team to make this happen.

The program is amazing, and frustrating, and encouraging, and challenging, and time consuming, and uplifting. At times, it beats you down and at times it raises you up. But at the end, you’re proud of what you accomplished and so glad you did it.

And you’re curious to see what the community does next. Because, at the end of the day, your efforts are only ideas. The community must decide if they apply them or shelve them.

Here’s my suggestion for you: If you’re under the age of 40 and are looking for a cool phrase to add to your resume, something you can spend a couple of days vacation-like on someone else’s dime giving your opinions on how you’d do it if it were up to you, I’d suggest you go look somewhere else. This program isn’t for you.

However, if you’re under the age of 40 and are looking for a unique way to give back to Georgia, to work (and I mean WORK – don’t say I didn’t warn you) to see a community get stronger, to meet and become a part of a growing network of incredible people from across the state, and to give yourself a new kind of leadership challenge, then I’d urge you to apply for Young Gamechangers.



The Spring 2017 Young Gamechangers Program, from the Perspective of a Millennial Mind

By: Shemeeka Johnson, Spring 2017 Young Gamechanger

GF_GC_0090I sat near the wall in a large, chilly conference room in the beautiful downtown LaGrange, full of chatty, excited and eager young professionals. I noticed and overheard lots of handshaking, exchanges of business cards and short oral bios of their most recent accomplishments. We took turns standing before the group, fifty of us, introducing ourselves and inserting something humorous and memorable. Not until after my own introduction, after my nerves had finally settled, did I look around the room and feel what I’ve felt each day after that opening session…. inspired.

The spring 2017 Young GameChangers (YGC) program was the most challenging, fun and refreshing organization that I’ve been a part of. My former colleague and Alumni GameChanger Odie Donald, raved to me about his experience in the program and encouraged me to apply.  Prior to being accepted into YGC, I had only passed through this- one of Georgia’s most historic areas- once or twice. “Friendly” is an understatement to describe the welcoming environment, southern charm and rich culture of LaGrange Troup County.

Early in the program, we participated in numerous team building exercises, which at the time, felt silly, but later in the program provided the perfect structure for effective communication. One of my favorite parts of the program was learning about the hidden treasures within LaGrange/Troup County. Whether we were listening to legendary stories at the Biblical History Center or staring at the beautiful art sculptures within the LaGrange Art Museum, I continued to recall the slogan from a brochure that was given to us by the LaGrange Chamber, it simply read “Be Surprised” and surprised we were!

I applied for YGC because I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of connecting with other professionals and learning about their “journey to the here and now”. This program provided me the opportunity to learn about a place that I’d only seen on a map, but now considered a home-away-from-home.

Our group, the Millennial Minds, was tasked with finding creative ways to attract millennial tourists to the area. Throughout the program, what began as a group of nine strangers, soon transformed into a group of close friends, working together, each providing a unique set of skills and strengths, to take on the challenge at hand. Every other week we’d host virtual conference calls to discuss next steps, big ideas and how we could make a difference in this community.

During our final recommendations, we offered the community three “big ideas” that involved increasing activities at West Point Lake, enhancing the existing assets of LaGrange’s beautiful downtown district and a unique opportunity to invite a millennial retreat center into the small town of Hogansville.

One moment of the final presentation that stood out to me most was when Mayor Bill Stankiewicz of Hogansville stood up after our presentation, with the biggest smile and asked “So, when do we break ground!?” That’s when I knew that we had come, we conquered and the community was pleased.

I stepped into this program as an eager, young professional ready to take on a challenge and I walked out as a Game Changer.


Young Gamechanger Alumni Spotlight: Odie Donald

OdieDonald_RT_0406-2A 2014 alumnus of Young Gamechangers, Odie Donald has spent his career helping Americans develop the skills to find and keep good jobs. While a Young Gamechanger in Dublin/Laurens, he served as Executive Director of Coastal Workforce Services, developing solutions to address workforce issues in ten counties along Georgia’s coast. Later, as the WIOA Services Director for the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Workforce Division, Odie managed more than $90 million in federal funds, and Georgia was twice recognized as the nation’s number one destination for business with the most skilled workforce.

Odie became the Executive Director of the DC Workforce Investment Council in 2016, where he directed more than $100 million in local, state, and federal funds earmarked for workforce, economic development, health and human services programs. In this role, he nearly doubled the number of adult participants completing workforce development training programs and tripled out-of-school youth participants. He led a turnaround of the office, prompting Mayor Muriel Bowser to appoint Odie Acting Director of the District Office of Employment Services. In this role, Odie oversees all labor and workforce development functions for the District including unemployment insurance, employment and training services, labor law enforcement and workers compensation funded at more than $150M.
An Atlanta native, Odie earned a BA in history and an MBA from Georgia State University. He has been recognized by Georgia Trend’s 40 Under 40, and his community leadership service includes the Mayor’s 100 Resilient Cities Executive Cabinet, the advisory board of the DC Career Academy Network, the Georgia Workforce Leadership Association, and the Georgia Energy and Industrial Construction Consortium.

Young Gamechanger Alumni Spotlight: Kyle Hood

HoodHeadshotYoung Gamechanger Alumni Spotlight: Kyle Hood

Fall 2016 (Augusta-Richmond County) Young Gamechanger participant Kyle Hood always knew his passion for public service and interest in political science would lead him to Georgia’s Gold Dome, and starting April 3, 2017, he’ll be within walking distance of it as he begins a new chapter working in the Career, Technical and Agricultural Education Unit of the Georgia Department of Education.  In his position as Education-Workforce Development Liaison, Kyle will be tasked with facilitating leadership engagement opportunities for CTAE professionals, strengthening relationships between industry leaders, legislators and educators as well as crafting promotional materials that highlight the competitive advantage students gain in the future by choosing to participate in one of the state’s relevant, high-demand course career pathway offerings.

For more information on educating Georgia’s future workforce, please click here.


Call for Community Applications to Host Young Gamechangers

GeorgiaForward, a statewide nonpartisan nonprofit, is working to strengthen communities, unite our State and create a talent pipeline within Georgia. Our leading program, Young Gamechangers, is a leadership action program that brings 50 of our State’s best and brightest together to make big idea recommendations to longstanding challenges in ONE Georgia community.

The program is built on action and collaboration with a community that is eager to harness the power and creativity of young professionals. With a track record of success in Americus/Sumter County (2012), Dublin/Laurens County (2013-2014), Douglasville/Douglas County (Spring 2016), Augusta (Fall 2016), a current program happening in in LaGrange/Troup County and the Fall 2017 program to be announced in April, GeorgiaForward is looking for its next locations!

The program, which runs approximately six months, asks the host community to help identify four challenges that could use a fresh perspective and bold solutions. The Young Gamechangers then spend time learning about the community, meeting with leaders, and beginning to understand and examine longstanding challenges in the focus community that have a widespread effect on the vibrancy, livability and overall success of the city/county. From increasing the vitality in downtown to connectivity with bike routes and interstates to overall branding, Young Gamechangers make creative, out-of-the-box recommendations that have the power to make true, long-lasting impacts in communities around our state.

To view the Final Recommendations from previous programs, visit

GeorgiaForward is accepting applications through April 14, 2017 for the host communities for its 2018 programs. The Spring program will run from January through June and the Fall program will run from August through December. There are 50 participants in each class with roughly one-third coming from the host community, one-third from Metro Atlanta and one-third from Greater Georgia. Each class meets three times (five days) over the class period: two Thursday-Friday meetings and the Final Recommendations to the community on a Friday.

The host community must work with GeorgiaForward to raise a minimum of $50,000 in sponsorship dollars for the program. Up to $25,000 can be in-kind donations in the areas of hotel rooms, meeting space, meals and transportation.

It is vital to the success of the program that we have community support. GeorgiaForward brings Young Gamechangers to communities that are eager to host this program, have businesses (companies, foundations, governments, individuals, etc.) that will help support the program and have overarching challenges that realistic solutions can be developed for in a six-month period.

To apply, please email a letter of interest to by midnight on Friday, April 14, 2017. The letter can come from anyone in the community and must have at least five signatures of support from leaders in your community. The letter should outline community challenges that effect a broad range of citizens as well as address the potential support in your community for the program.

Should you have any questions about the application process or Young Gamechangers, don’t hesitate to contact GeorgiaForward’s Executive Director Kris Vaughn at

GeorgiaForward Accepting Venue Proposals for 2017 Forum

GeorgiaForward, founded in 2010, has a track record of bringing together leaders from across sectors to explore long-term solutions to Georgia’s pressing policy challenges and serving as a catalyst for statewide partnerships and collaboration.  Our statewide nonprofit has hosted four successful Forums that facilitated a statewide conversation about the future of Georgia in a way that is not currently taking place. One major success that has come from the Forum is the Young Gamechangers program.

January of 2017 marks the start of GeorgiaForward’s fifth leadership action program, Young Gamechangers. With over 150 alumni, Young Gamechangers have been working in various communities throughout the State to develop big idea recommendations to some of that community’s most persistent challenges.

With our previous successes in facilitating impactful statewide conversations and the large number of engaged Young Gamechanger alumni working to better our State, GeorgiaForward is planning a 2017 Forum!

GeorgiaForward is now taking proposals for venues to host the 2017 Forum! 

Who: 300-400 business and community leaders from across the State of Georgia

What: 2017 GeorgiaForward Forum 

When: Two Days in September 2017

Where: Within an hour’s drive of Downtown Atlanta 

Why: To craft a statewide vision for Georgia 

GeorgiaForward is accepting proposals through January 31, 2017. Email Kris Vaughn to submit.

GeorgiaForward Names LaGrange/Troup County as Focus Community for Spring 2017 Young Gamechangers

GeorgiaForward Announces LaGrange/Troup County as Spring 2017 Focus Community for Statewide Leadership Action Program, Young Gamechangers; 

Calls for Participant Applications

Spring 2017 YG - LaGrange Apply - LaGrange

August 23, 2016: Statewide non-profit GeorgiaForward announced LaGrange/Troup County as the location for its Spring 2017 Young Gamechangers leadership action program at the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 Lessons in Leadership Forum. In its fifth class, Young Gamechangers brings together 50 emerging leaders from around the state to one Georgia community to propose big idea solutions to some of their longstanding challenges. Applications for participants are now open at

“We are excited about having the Young Gamechangers leadership program focus on LaGrange and Troup County next Spring.  I believe that putting fresh eyes and young minds to work on community issues will result in new and innovative solutions.  To be able to tap into the creative thought processes of emerging leaders from throughout the state is a wonderful opportunity for our area.  We look forward to their ideas,” said Kathy Tilley, Executive Director of the Troup County Center for Strategic Planning

“Our community is renowned for its commitment to working with all stakeholders to create a robust environment in which to live and to do business,” said Page Estes, President of the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce. “Having the Young Gamechangers participants look at our community from their unique lens will help us make wise decisions to improve the quality of life for everyone.”

“GeorgiaForward is looking forward to bringing our leadership action program to the western border of our state as we explore challenges such as millennial tourism and retention, innovation development, and environmental sustainability,” said Kris Vaughn, Executive Director of GeorgiaForward. “The existing community-wide cooperation and strong leadership in Troup County will provide a solid foundation for the Young Gamechangers’ work as the strength of the program comes when we all work shoulder to shoulder with the community.”

Young professionals from across Georgia with a passion for uniting our state and strengthening our communities should apply online at to be a member of the Spring 2017 Young Gamechangers in LaGrange/Troup County.  Applicants must be between the ages of 24-40. Ambitious minds from any professional sector will be considered. Roughly two thirds of the class will be made up of participants from outside of the Troup County community. Applications must be received by midnight on Friday, September 30, 2016.

Previous Young Gamechangers focus communities include Americus/Sumter County, Dublin/Laurens County, Douglasville/Douglas County and Augusta/Richmond County. This leadership action program in LaGrange/Troup County is made possible in part by: Central Atlanta Progress, Troup County Center for Strategic Planning and the LaGrange/Troup County Chamber of Commerce.

About GeorgiaForward: GeorgiaForward is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working as a catalyst to improve Georgia through cross-sector, statewide conversations and partnerships by engaging young professionals and business, political, academic and civic leaders.



Kris Vaughn

Executive Director, GeorgiaForward


GeorgiaForward Announces Augusta as Fall 2016 Focus Community for Statewide Leadership Program, Young Gamechangers; Calls for Participant Applications

April 17, 2016: Statewide non-profit GeorgiaForward named Augusta as the location for its Fall 2016 Young Gamechangers leadership action program and opened applications for participants. In its fourth class, Young Gamechangers brings together 50 emerging leaders from around the state to one Georgia community to propose big idea solutions to some of their longstanding challenges.

“Augusta is at a critical juncture as our city is undergoing a transformation into a more knowledge based economy. In order to help shape this transformation to the benefit of our entire community, our city applied to enlist the best and brightest young minds from throughout the State of Georgia to help shape the future of our region through GeorgiaForward‘s Young Gamechangers program,” said Deke Copenhaver, former Mayor of Augusta and owner of Copenhaver Consulting.  “As this transformational shift occurs, the Young Gamechangers program could not be more timely and we firmly believe that the program will help us to better recruit and retain the millennial workforce needed to help support and sustain our forward momentum.”

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis says “The explosive growth that our city is beginning to experience must be managed and coordinated strategically to enable the entire Augusta community to reap the maximum economic benefits. A focus on smart growth and emphasizing connectivity with recommendations on best practices and community engagement would undoubtedly serve to the long-term benefit of Augusta and its citizens. Engaging the Young Gamechangers to explore solutions to the challenges we face as a city allows Augustans to get the benefit of seeing what can happen when people from different walks of life come together for transformational collaborations that move beyond the traditional narratives that often stifle community growth and development.”

“GeorgiaForward is excited to bring our Fall 2016 Young Gamechangers program to Augusta this August,” said Kris Vaughn, Executive Director of GeorgiaForward. “With the potential of the downtown/riverfront area, their recent shift in tourism focus to millennials, and their eagerness to bring this innovative program to their community, as well as several other transformational opportunities, Young Gamechangers in Augusta is a great next step for both the community and the program.”

Young professionals from across Georgia with a passion for uniting our state and strengthening our communities should apply online at to be a member of the Fall 2016 Young Gamechangers in Augusta.  Applicants must be between the ages of 24-40. Ambitious minds from any professional sector will be considered. Applications must be received by midnight on Friday, May 27, 2016.

Previous Young Gamechangers focus communities include Americus/Sumter County, Dublin/Laurens County and Douglasville/Douglas County. This leadership action program is made possible in part by: The Commerce Club Foundation, Central Atlanta Progress, Georgia Cities Foundation and GeorgiaTrend Magazine.

About GeorgiaForward: GeorgiaForward is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working as a catalyst to improve Georgia through cross-sector, statewide conversations and partnerships by engaging young professionals and business, political, academic and civic leaders.



Kris Vaughn

Executive Director, GeorgiaForward


Young Gamechanger Alumni Spotlight: Jonathan Harwell-Dye

Jonathan Harwell-Dye is a proud Young Gamechanger Alum who was a member of the 2013/2014 Dublin-Laurens County cohort that worked to re-envision the Dublin Community. A native of Cochran, Georgia, Jonathan currently serves as the Director of Creative Placemaking for the Macon Arts Alliance.

Today we had the opportunity to tour one of Macon’s newest revitalization projects, Mill Hill: East Macon Arts Village, which Jonathan is spearheading.

Click here to hear about the project from Jonathan! 

For more information about Mill Hill: East Macon Art Village, check out this article written by Creative Exchange.


Thoughts from Current Gamechangers

The Young Gamechangers working in Douglasville/Douglas County were immersed in the Douglasville community just a little over a month ago. We asked a few of them for their initial thoughts on the program and community that they’re working to improve.

Here’s what they had to say.

IMG_6733“Going in to the session all I could think was, “How does Douglasville possibly have any economic development challenges!?” They are in the metro area, they have interstate access, the region continues to grow, Hartsfield-Jackson is in their backyard etc. I was thinking that if they wanted to see economic challenges they should come to rural South Georgia! However, I quickly realized they do have some pretty substantial challenges like: attracting residents to the area south of Atlanta; changing population demographics; creating a unique identity among many similar suburban Atlanta areas; and fostering community engagement. Being able to get a better understanding of the community’s needs was the most impactful for me.” Jordan Stone, Douglas/Coffee County

“I think the most impactful part of the opening session is the way we got to know each of the young gamechangers. I think the exercises with the Fanning Institute was very helpful in getting to know everyone.DSC_0006 I learned that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about Douglas County, even though I lived here for 11 years. It was great to hear from community leaders about the past, present and future endeavors of the county. As we continue to work in Douglas County we are going to have to keep in mind the “wish list” that many of the community leaders stated they wanted. I think it will help us to keep things in perspective, and it also gives us a great starting point as we start formulating our thought and ideas.” Myseha Good, Douglasville/Douglas County

DSC_0025“The most impactful thing from the Opening Session of Young Gamechangers were the fifty young people that came together to make a change in a community for the better. I am very excited to be a part of this project. Being born and growing up in this county, it is great to have a chance to improve a place that my family has lived in for so many generations.” Kyle Gable, Douglasville/Douglas County

“The panel discussion with the community leaders was definitely the most impactful as they were so honest about the challenges and opportunities facing the city.  I was unfamiliar with Douglasville before, but it was a great, holistic introduction to the community.” Alvin Huff, Marietta/Cobb County
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