Going the Distance

Going the Distance

Mountain bikers eradicate poverty in Tanzania one race at a time

It was late when the riders arrive to camp and dismounted. They were somewhere near the middle of the Grumeti Fund K2N, traveling by bicycle from high on Mount Kilimanjaro through the rugged backcountry of northern Tanzania to the shores of Lake Natron. Tomorrow they would begin the next leg of the 165-mile of the race. But tonight, in addition to the typical aches and strains associated with endurance mountain biking, the riders had the prospect of cheetahs, hyenas and scorpions to keep them up. They rode for competition and glory but, most importantly, to generate support for the agricultural efforts of rural Tanzanian farmers.

This intersection of extreme sports and philanthropy is the work of Red Knot Racing Company and its owner-director Brett Harrison, a master’s candidate in agronomy and soils at Auburn University.

“We founded Red Knot Racing Company to make the world a better place, and we stand by that commitment,” said Harrison by email. “We firmly believe the solutions to the world’s problems lie in sacrificing ourselves in order to improve life for others. Alleviating suffering and poverty in Tanzania is why we exist, and we’re serious about it.”

“We firmly believe the solutions to the world’s problems lie in sacrificing ourselves in order to improve life for others.”

Forming the Red Knot aegis are three companies: Red Knot Racing Company, an Alabama-registered LLC that helps organize endurance races in Tanzania and Africa. Red Knot Tanzania is its local company and sponsored cycling team. But Red Knot Development, newly registered as a 501(c)(3) in 2022, is its most ambitious organization.

Since 2009, Harrison and his wife Christie have lived in rural Tanzania to work with churches in leadership development, agriculture, sanitation and hygiene to improve life for rural inhabitants. They committed to eight years upfront to ensure the project’s success, but 14 years and three kids later, they have no plans to leave.

“I remember at the 8 year mark realizing we were so effective in our work here that it just wouldn’t make sense for us to move back to the US, if it was possible, and we were willing to stay longer,” said Harrison. “Our children were thriving, our work was rewarding, and our donors were still behind us.”

Now living in the city of Arusha, Harrison is using social enterprises like Red Knot to scale their development work. And that work is especially vital now. Most Tanzanians living in rural villages are subsistence farmers, and Harrison has noted many struggle each year to feed their families. Compounding existing hardships are modern issues of climate change and growing populations.

“For many farmers, there are few buffers against hunger. Starvation—especially in drought years—can be a reality for some,” said Harrison. “Several years ago I realized if I wanted to serve these farmers to the best of my abilities, I needed to understand agriculture at a deeper level. So I enrolled in Auburn’s College of Agriculture to obtain a master’s degree in agronomy and soils. The tools Auburn has given me have been crucial to our successes in agriculture development over the last several years, and the research I have done for my thesis (on nitrogen-fixing legumes in a minimum-tillage maize system) is helpful in assisting farmers to increase their yields while making their soils more resilient.”

Red Knot has impacted thousands of farmers, providing advanced training to hundreds of extension agents in agricultural science and adult education. But it’s hard to raise funds when you’re working in the field, Harrison conceded to Wes Gunn ’99 during a 2011 trip to an Auburn football game. If he could fund his agricultural philanthropy with a social enterprise—like endurance cycling, a hobby of his—it could make the whole endeavor more sustainable. If Harrison started such an organization, Gunn said, he would be the stateside partner. Red Knot Racing was launched a year later.

Gunn was active in Africa beginning in 2002, focusing on healthcare and helping start a children’s village in Malawi. After two decades, one of the biggest lessons he’s learned is that people don’t want handouts—they want empowerment.

“My Tanzanian and Malawian friends all depend on agriculture in some way,” says Gunn. “Even professionals in the cities have farms in their home villages. The economy lives and dies by agriculture. They are also the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Brett’s work in agriculture provides subsistence farmers opportunities to learn techniques that produce greater yields and require less outside resources. When agriculture thrives, the health system is positively impacted, families have money to pay school fees, and the cycle of poverty is broken.”

“When agriculture thrives, the health system is positively impacted, families have money to pay school fees, and the cycle of poverty is broken”

Tanzania wasn’t a hard draw for endurance mountain bike racers. Overlooking the broad grasslands of Serengeti National park are highlands and mountains that culminate in Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. Bordered by coastal plains to the east and some of the world’s largest lakes, millions of tourists visit annually for its abundant wildlife. But the mountain bikers come for the terrain, some of the most rugged—and beautiful—in the world.

Harrison is no amateur. He completed his first marathon during university, his first Ironman triathlon before turning 30 and recently was part of the first group to summit Tanzania’s Mount Meru by bike.

“I’ve always liked to push myself a little further than I think I can go. As a kid running for exercise, I would run as far as I could possibly go. And then, once I didn’t feel I could run further, I would make myself run home. Because I had to.”

Running a race is different from organizing one, especially when it’s through the Tanzanian wilderness.

The Kilimanjaro Trail Run, Red Knot’s weekend of half, full- and ultra-marathon distances requires three full “bush camps” in locations that lacked water, electricity, healthcare and good roads. You try to keep athletes and staff safe and comfortable, or something that resembles comfort, says Harrison. “A 46-mile run, with 10,000 feet of climbing, is not going to be comfortable.”

In 2022 they launched Red Knot Tanzania, an elite cycling team to compete in races, grow the sport among Tanzanians (especially women), and generate publicity for Red Knot Development. With Harrison serving as team manager, Red Knot Tanzania’s first sponsored race was Wines2Whales (W2W), a three-day stage race along the western cape of South Africa.

The team consisted of Ricardo Laizer, a former professional cyclist for teams in South Africa and Europe, and the young, promising Calvin Mmbando, a rising star in the Tanzanian cycling scene. As teammates, the two won the 2022 Grumeti Fund K2N, even earning the attention and sponsorship of digital cycling app TOTEEMI, but Wines2Whales proved more challenging.

Traveling outside Tanzania for the first time, it took Mmbando a few days to find his legs, but by day three, they were racing to their potential. On that third stage, the team finished 25th out of 600 teams, with the elite pro field making up 19 of those finishing ahead of them. Along the way Mmbando saw the Atlantic for the first time, they visited the Bike Museum at Trail’s End Bike Hotel and ate dinner in Onrus, South Africa with their videographer’s family.

Next year, Red Knot will organize group travel to South Africa for W2W, with all profits going to support Red Knot Tanzania. It’s also starting a youth development program that uses sports for character-building and goodwill.

As its races attract more attention and drive more support, Red Knot Racing can become an even greater resource to the country and its people.

“Tanzania has some of the most amazing scenery and wildlife Africa has to offer,” says Gunn. “By providing a world-class event in this beautiful country, we can share its beauty and empower its people.”

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Home Renovations

Home Renovations

Josh Williams ’18 was born—and almost died—in Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. He just returned to help build its newest addition.

Josh Williams in front of Piedmont Hospital

It’s a story that never gets old, even as he does.

Joshua Williams’ near-death experience before he was born. A month in the NICU of Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, fighting for survival, before finally entering the outside world a healthy, growing boy in 1996. That’s how the story ended for two decades, right until Williams returned to Piedmont as a project manager with Meadows & Ohly and helped build its newly opened Marcus Tower.

It’s surreal to give back to the place that gave him life. “That’s home for me,” Williams said of Piedmont. “My mom used to work for Piedmont and I have other family in Atlanta who work at Piedmont. Even the floor I helped build at Marcus Tower is for the department a [friend] works in. It all comes back to that human-centric connection—that is the most fulfilling part to me. Being able to do that at home, there’s no better feeling.”

During the construction of Marcus Tower in 2020, the whole world stopped as the coronavirus spread, and the importance of hospitals grew by the minute. Sure, Meadows & Ohly—and by extension, Williams—had a duty to help build this new, hi-tech extension of a hospital that had nearly 267,000 patient cases in 2021. But suddenly their work took on global significance, he says. Whether directly or indirectly, they were helping to save lives.

“I feel responsible and obligated to do my part to make sure I can help these doctors. Being in this position to directly effect change in the world, there is no kind of tangible award or feeling that I could get from doing anything else.”

Williams left Auburn’s architecture program after his sophomore year for environmental design, a switch he credits with informing his sense of human-centric construction. Adding a master’s in building construction as well, he tries to approach projects as if he were a patient. Everything, from how the beds are situated, to the minute detail of how lighting can assist stroke patients’ healing process, are things his team considers for every new facility.

“We do it for that first patient,” said Williams. “We are trying to do whatever we can to make sure they get the most efficient care and services to help save lives.”

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Operation Usher

Operation Usher

In days of old, Boy Scouts ushering fans to their seats were a common sight at Auburn football games. What happened?

Boy Scouts posing around Troup 45 banner

According to the Boy Scout Law, scouts are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. About a century ago, they were also ushers at football games.

In an era when most listened to games on the radio, those lucky enough to attend in person dressed up for the occasion. Former Auburn Alumni Association board director Bob Jones ’74, who witnessed Auburn football legends like Jimmy Seidel and Tucker Frederickson in exchange for ushering, compares it to going to the theater.

“I was in Troop 25 in the early ’60s when I did it,” recalls Jones. “Boys from the various troops came, [the fans] gave us their tickets, and we ushered them to their seats. And then after the game started, we got to go sit in the end zone and watch.”

At the time, Auburn’s stadium was open at both ends and the scouts would sit in wooden bleachers at the field’s edge. However unglamorous their seats, the scouts didn’t mind.

“That was our ‘pay’ for the deal, but it was a big deal,” said Jones. “I would not have gotten to attend games if not for that.”

Public services like ushering have been a powerful marketing tool since the beginning of scouting. At Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 presidential inauguration, three years after the founding of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), a deputation of scouts provided emergency assistance to the heat-stricken crowd, establishing a tradition of scouts at inaugurations ever since. As college football spread in popularity, “Operation Usher,” as it was called, became national practice. A high-water mark was the 1922 Michigan-Ohio State football game, where an estimated 1,200 scouts ushered spectators to their seats.

Despite no definitive history of Operation Usher, a 1922 article in the Montgomery Advertiser states scouts ushered the Auburn-Tulane game held at Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl that year. Later, they ushered Auburn-Georgia games in Columbus in the 1930s.

“Scouts are known for their service to the community, and this gave a lot of boys an opportunity to see a college football game and visit a college campus that may not have been able to do so otherwise.”
3 boy scouts in uniform
Boy Scouts, Opelika troop
two boy scouts hold certificates

But as a starting point, the Opelika Daily News states that in 1947, Montgomery Scout Council Commissioner B.C. Goode proposed scout ushers for the annual “Blue-Gray” game in Montgomery.

Operation Usher was so successful, the Auburn Athletic Association invited the BSA to usher all home games beginning in 1949.

“The scouts lined the stadium steps and helped people to their seats,” said former athletic director and Auburn historian David Housel ’69. “They never did a whole lot. I’m sure they helped old men and old ladies find their seats, but they were there mainly as a show of courtesy and support. They were doing good deeds.”

In 1970, when Auburn’s stadium added the north end zone section and went from 44,000 seats to 64,000, the demand for scouts exceeded the area’s BSA troop population. A similar predicament befell the Auburn Lions Club, a civic group that handled ticketing in exchange for entry to the game. Despite busing in people to augment their numbers, the Lions Club couldn’t keep up.

“I have never been cussed out as bad as I have by a Lion when we told him we’d have to move in another direction,” said Housel. “But it all worked out.”

While the BSA was no longer the exclusive ushers for Auburn, there’s plenty of evidence that they stuck around.

boy scout patch
1995 boy scout patch
1996 boy scout patch
1997 boy scout patch
1998 boy scout patch

Greg Sweatmon ’93, a manager at Pilgrim’s poultry company and an avid collector of Boy Scout memorabilia, has spent years tracking down the unique patches schools gave to scout ushers. Over the years, Sweatmon’s amassed hundreds of artifacts from dozens of schools around the country, some dating back to the beginning of scouting. And he can confirm Operation Usher continued well into the 2000s.

“It was a big thing,” said Sweatmon of Operation Usher. “I’ve been a patch collector for a long time, and I’m a huge college football fan, so I just started collecting this stuff and it just built and built. I have the biggest collection of this stuff in the country. I guess now I’m considered the expert on it.”

After 9/11, most schools phased in a “Scout Day,” where scouts in uniform received free entry. Today only three schools—Ohio State, Nebraska and Oklahoma—still use scouts as ushers.

But the spirit of scouting hasn’t left the Plains. Since the early 1990s Alpha Phi Omega fraternity has hosted “Merit Badge University,” recruiting university faculty and staff to teach merit badges to hundreds of scouts from Alabama
and Georgia.

“Everybody, when they think of scouting, thinks about camping, canoeing and all that, but it’s really a leadership program,” said Sweatmon. “Scouts are known for their service to the community, and this gave a lot of boys an opportunity to see a college football game and visit a college campus that may not have been able to do so otherwise.”

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Malcolm Walker ’18

Malcolm Walker ’18

The man behind Jugo James Mixology Co. is stirring up Atlanta’s cocktail scene

Malcolm Walker '18

Like many during the pandemic, Malcom Walker ’18 spent hours making cocktails to pass the time. Only a few years later, that at-home hobby has become Jugo James Mixology Co., Walker’s customizable cocktail catering service.

Since moving to Atlanta from Nashville in June 2021, he’s already carved his niche at weddings, birthdays, corporate events and the 2021 Black Alumni Weekend Awards Brunch last fall. Now, he’s using social media savvy and word of mouth to build a following, one drink at a time.

All this, despite no formal training beyond a few YouTube tutorials.

“My unofficial mantra is, ‘Come as a bartender, but leave as a friend’,” said Walker from his home in Atlanta. “That frames my mindset—making good drinks and really connecting with people—because when I leave, I want it to be a lasting impression.”

Way back in 2019, Walker tasted a cocktail so good—a Bourbon Blackberry Bramble at Seasons 52—he was compelled to replicate the recipe at home. Once he mastered that, he moved on to more.

By the time the Covid-19 Pandemic had forced everyone home, he had just begun his master’s program at Troy University and wanted to make some extra cash. He made a list of passion projects he could monetize, eventually narrowing the list down to music or cocktails.

“Music seemed like a very hard path,” he laughs. “So I went with drinks.”

Jugo James formally launched in April 2020, after Walker earned his bartending license in Tennessee. The name (pronounced HOO-go James), blends Walker’s middle name with the Spanish word for juice, “jugo”—a play on his high school nickname.

At the end of 2020, he got his first paying gig, a birthday party. The hosts loved it so much, they invited him back the next day. Over time, he expanded his repertoire to include lighter, spritzier cocktails for events, but also more robust drinks based on traditional recipes.

“One thing in particular I did was check out some of my favorite cocktail bars or restaurants, and look up ingredients I wasn’t aware of. If I didn’t know what it was, and it sounded interesting after I Googled it, I bought it and saw how I could implement it. That expanded my horizons pretty quickly, but it was a fun way to learn.”

Malcolm Walker 18

In Atlanta, Walker works full time as an associate manager for digital guest experience at IHG Hotels & Resorts, so Jugo James events are limited to alternating weekends. But he stays active on social media promoting the brand, and his marketing degree from Auburn, in addition to his master’s in project management from Troy, provides Walker with a solid foundation continue building his business.

He’s also made time to have fun sharing his craft, like when he entered the Él Patrón Del Trap Mixology Competition hosted by Patrón Tequila at the Trap Music Museum, his first challenge against other mixologists. He quickly realized the difference between making drinks for industry insiders and people who simply love a good drink.

“Even though I didn’t win the competition, the judges said they loved the showmanship, and that boosted my confidence. I know I can belong with the industry, even though I don’t have any professional training or don’t work at a bar. I realized I could stick with the best of the best, and make drinks that  people in the industry can also enjoy as well. Just to receive the affirmation was a big win for me.”

There’s been plenty of wins for Walker over the last two years, but it wasn’t until this past April that he was able to celebrate Jugo James’ two-year anniversary with a day party cohosted by Patron.

Even though had friends help decorate the venue, he still mixed and prepped all the drinks himself in his home kitchen. Now that business is taking off, though, he plans to hire more personnel in the future and potentially open expand the business.

But, regardless of how big Jugo James becomes, Walker wants to stay close to the clients and customers who make everything worth it.

“I’ve met all kinds of people from all walks of life,” said Walker. “I really enjoy the [events] where it’s 20 to 30 people and I get a chance to really talk and connect with every single person in the room.”

Winter Cocktails from Jugo James

 Winter Forest Old Fashioned

2 oz Bourbon

1/2 oz Maple Syrup

2 Dashes Angostura Bitters

1 Dash Black Walnut Bitters

Garnish with Orange Peel and Cinnamon Stick (optional)

Add all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into an old fashioned glass. Garnish and enjoy!


Jugo Signature Cranberry Lemon Drop

1 1/2 oz Vodka

3/4 oz Lemon Juice

1/2 oz Orange Liqueur

1/2 oz Cranberry Juice

1/2 oz Simple Syrup

Garnish with Lemon Wheel

Add all ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake until tin is cold to touch, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish and enjoy!

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Judge Alvin Wong ’73

Judge Alvin Wong ’73

Judge Alvin Wong ’73, Georgia’s first Asian Pacific American judge, on his unlikely path to progress

“I’ve always been fascinated by the rule of law,” said Alvin Wong ’73, immediate past president of the Georgia Council of State Court Judges. “The process of analyzing the law never changes, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. You are always learning.” In a career spanning five decades, Judge Wong has turned his fascination with the U.S. legal system into a calling. But his path was unexpected.

Wong came to Richmond, Va. from Hong Kong when he was 14. His father enrolled him at Fishburne Military Academy in Waynesboro, Va., shook his hand and said he’d “see him next summer.”

He followed a classmate from Fishburne to Auburn without even knowing where it was. He joined Theta Xi fraternity and grew his hair out but, eager to complete his studies, graduated early and moved to Atlanta.

His first job as an insurance underwriter didn’t work out, but he started taking night classes at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. He wanted to be a courtroom lawyer—civil, criminal, it didn’t matter—and when he passed the bar in 1976, he went out to make it on his own.

“For me, the job is to find solutions to problems, so I try not to get bogged down in procedural logistics. Find solutions. Move the ball forward.”

“I hung out a shingle. I’m a night law school product. I’m a minority. Mid-’70s in Atlanta. I’m not going to get a gig at some fancy law firm. I really never even tried to get hired on anywhere. I said ‘OK, suck it up. Let’s see what you can do.”

With an office rented for $100 from a former professor, he went to work “hustling” courthouses. Those days, judges assigned cases to lawyers based on who showed up first. Wong would arrive at the county jail each Monday at 6 a.m., get his name on the list and wait. The rate was $25 a case for misdemeanors, $50 for felonies. Two or three a day could make rent for the month.

He worked independently for more than a decade—the only Asian lawyer in Atlanta. But he never perceived his race as a disadvantage. If anything, it worked as an advantage.

“You can say certain things that a white person can’t say, or a Black person can’t say—especially in a trial case. You are an item of curiosity. From 1976 to probably the mid ’80s, I never saw another Asian lawyer in the courthouses. So there was no sense of being a minority. You were it.”

Still, there were moments. A deputy in a rural county courthouse demanded to see his bar card. Or the time during the American Bar Association (ABA) conference in Chicago when a lawyer waved the now-judge over in a restaurant to his table and pointed to their drink.

Not discrimination, but stereotyping. Perception. Attitude. “Gotta keep rattling the saber,” said Wong.

Wong joined a Georgia State Bar Committee on diversity, then chaired the investigation panel of the State Bar Disciplinary Board. There he met Linda Klein, the first female head of the Bar for the State of Georgia. He dreamed about campaigning for judge, and in 1997, Klein, their colleague John Sweet and Wong’s wife, Jeannie Lin—who became his campaign manager— convinced him to run.

The nine-month campaign was a nonstop tour around Dekalb County, leading to a run-off that was so close—just 438 votes—it was actually called incorrectly at first. But since his election in 1999, he’s been reelected, unopposed, to six consecutive terms.

Despite more than two decades as a corporate and trial attorney, there was a lot to learn. And Wong has made communication a hallmark of his courtroom.

“For me, the job is to find solutions to problems, so I try not to get bogged down in procedural logistics. Tell me what the problem is. Let’s talk about it. That’s been my practice motto as a judge. Find solutions. Move the ball forward.”

But he won’t suffer fools and has no problem castigating an attorney for not being prepared or not doing their job. “At the end of the day, it’s their client who gets hurt.”

In 2004, Wong cofounded a DUI court to help people, calling it one of the most rewarding things he’s done. He also sits on the board of the Lifeline Animal Project, a nonprofit that helps turn Atlanta animal shelters into no-kill shelters. He also brings to the courthouse Coco, a dachshund-chihuahua mix he rescued a decade ago. Jurors love to meet her after the trial is over.

Wong was elected by his peers in 2021 as president of the Georgia Council of State Court Judges, overseeing the entire state. His term ended on July 1, 2022, the same day he turned over the reins of the DUI court.

But his legacy will remain long after he lays down the gavel. Back in 1993, Wong and Professor Natsu Saito of Georgia State University Law School combed the State Bar Directory to find 10 attorneys to start an Asian American Bar Association. Today, the Georgia Asian Pacific Bar Association (GAPABA) has 750 members.

In 2014, the GAPABA named its top prize the Judge Alvin T. Wong Pioneer Award. It is given in his honor to a lawyer who demonstrates leadership to pave the way for the advancement of APA attorneys.

“I was totally surprised and felt very honored when the award was named after me,” said Wong. “There are a lot of folks in the organization who work very hard paying it forward. It’s so gratifying to see something you’ve started grow and make a difference.”

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