HUBweek Change Maker: Marquis Taylor

Recently, I was selected to be a HUBweek Change Maker. This series “showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.” What an honor, right?! During the process I was interviewed by Zoe Dobuler, from Medium, which was published this week. Here is the interview with access to the full article below.

Zoe Dobuler: Can you tell me a bit about your background, and how you found your way to Coaching4Change?

Marquis Taylor: I’m originally from South Central Los Angeles, and I was raised by a single mom. I grew up about eight blocks away from where the LA riots happened. In school I struggled with reading, I struggled with ADHD, and at home I was in an environment where drugs were all over the place, and my peers were getting shot, stabbed. There was just always something going on, something happening.

And subtle things that teachers were telling us everyday in school directly contradicted what we were learning on the streets. Something as simple as, “The police are there to help you,” or “You can ask for help.” But in the streets, it’s, “If you’re not a part of my crew, you don’t open up. Keep your mouth closed.”

And I played basketball, and I eventually got a basketball scholarship —basketball was the thing that always kept me focused. I never was a stellar student, I would say I was a B-, C+ student at best. And by the time I was in middle school I had been in six different schools. But the thing that got me to where I am is education. And so, I wanted to think about how we create an environment for young people that are struggling in school and who may have low self-confidence or they’re consistently being bounced around, or their teachers are telling them that they won’t amount to anything — how do we create an opportunity for them to really begin seeing themselves in a different light?

After graduating from Stonehill College I was in grad school at Smith and student teaching, I was like, “This isn’t what I want to do. I don’t want to be in a classroom perpetuating the same narrative that teachers gave to me.” I did so much learning and so much exploring outside of the classroom, and I felt like being suffocated by the classroom killed my desire to learn and my curiosity. And so realized I needed to think differently about this work. And so that’s where Coaching 4 Change really came into play. It was understanding that when I grew up, I had been in programs that taught that told me what I was supposed to do, but there weren’t many programs that allowed me to actually practice those skills.

And being in finance for a time, and then going to grad school to get my Master’s in education, I started realizing that the fundamental skill of being a leader is being a teacher. And so, that’s where the idea came from — what if we trained high school and college kids to become coaches and teachers so that they have opportunities to begin changing their communities through after school programming? And so, rather than thinking of this from the standpoint of just helping low income kids and troubled kids do better, it became, “Why don’t we use education as an economic engine that prepares young people to be future educators?”

So we designed this system over the past eight years that, in its simplest form, has a dual benefit of creating after school programs for students who typically don’t have access to them, and at the same time we’re training college and high school students on leadership skills that prepare them for what’s next. And it’s all done under the guidance of certified teachers.

ZD: What is the mission of Coaching4Change, and how does the organization go about achieving it? What is the experience like for a student taking part in your program?

MT: The real opportunity is creating an environment that allows young people to thrive. And when I was reflecting back on my own experience, it was always about sports. And so when I started Coaching 4 Change, it was teaching kids how to coach. But as we started to grow, I realized that not a lot of people know basketball, and not a lot of people know sports in general. So that’s where it began shifting toward how do we create an environment that allows for us to really help young people determine and learn their own leadership style and become self-aware?

So our staffing model is that we partner with school districts that are looking to build a diverse teacher pipeline; a big problem is that our teachers often don’t represent the students that they’re teaching. So a lot of superintendents and HR departments are trying to solve that challenge by convincing students of color to become educators. So the design of our organization is that we get five teachers from a school who will mentor and support 10 college students and they turn around and work with anywhere from 12–16 high school students, and they’re running after school programs for 64 middle school students.

During the program, for the first 30 minutes, it’s snack and relationship-building. Talking about your day, talking about what high school is like, talking about what’s going on in the community. And then after that, our kids split up and they do an hour in the classroom and an hour in the gym. And the classroom work is not based around homework help — it’s all around projects. So they’ll do something like write children’s books. Or, last year they created a marketing scheme for a sneaker brand, and they wrote letters to Shaq and Will Smith to see if they would endorse their product. This semester, they’re doing a smoothie shark tank. At a different school, they’re creating a food truck concept. And all of these projects are infused with things they’re learning during the school day, but they’re putting them into action. And we’re also making learning fun by giving high school and college kids the opportunity to teach those skills after school.

And what happens then, is that once the kids are dismissed, the teachers work with the college and high school students to talk about what happened that day — what went well, what they can improve—and really helping them develop leadership skills. That’s what happens on a day-to-day basis in our program. But the strategy behind it — and where everyone really gets excited —is that we’re attracting, training, and supporting future educators to explore teaching in local school districts.

ZD: This reminds me — I recently read the Boston Globe’s series of articles about valedictorians from Boston Public Schools, and how they fared after graduation. I’m curious to get your take on that — what’s your response?

MT: There’s two sides to this. One side that we put so much focus on academic achievement, but we all know subconsciously that it’s not all about academics. If we’re not providing young people with the social and emotional support that they need, it’s really hard to succeed. And what made the articles super interesting is that typically when we talk about the achievement gap, we’re often talking about kids who aren’t achieving. But, the Globe put a different spin on it — they identified the kids who were achieving, and showed that they still weren’t making it out.

One of the things that I often talk to my partner principals and superintendents about is how we oftentimes forget that if you talk to a suburban mom or dad who’s trying to get their kid into college, they struggle the same way that a low income or first-gen parent struggles —neither understands the system. But because the suburban mom and dad have a social network that allows them to navigate the system and learn it, that low income parent who has never experienced it or gone through it doesn’t even know what they don’t know, and it’s very hard to know where even to start.

ZD: What have been some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced as a founder, and how have you overcome them? What do you wish you had known going in?

MT: I think that building a team is important. I think that changing our funding model is important. But after thinking about it a little bit more — I’m going preface this before I answer the question. As a founder that had a desire to grow, we used the word “accountability” so often and I struggle with it, because it’s only used in punitive situations. Like, no one goes, “You did a good job, I’m going to hold you accountable for that.” So, how do we turn the word accountability into something that’s positive and a coaching element?

Because once we were looking to grow and building our team, and I was more removed from day-to-day operations, people began taking the implementation of data, key performance indicators, and metrics as an insult. And it was only because there was a mixed message there, since when we talk about accountability it’s punitive. And what I learned was that people were looking at accountability as a blame game, and it created a negative culture.

But you need accountability; you need to be able to say, “What is it that we’re doing well, and what are we not doing well?” And basing it off of feelings won’t cut it, especially as you grow and try to understand how to make the right moves. I tried to preface that to say that, for me, the biggest challenge was understanding how to implement metrics while not killing the culture.

And as a founder you also have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to be wrong. And that contradicts everything you’re ever taught. And so helping your team understand that that’s super important, for me that was one of my biggest challenges, especially with trying to grow our team.

And the second element is clarity. If you look at our model, we have teachers, college students, high school students, and middle school students. We need to be clear about what the core of our work is so everyone understands and knows how to make decisions. In building the team, I realized that for a very long time I was clear in my head, but what I was communicating to my team wasn’t necessarily as clear. And understanding that the core of our work is getting high school and college students leading classrooms and gym time — if we have that, we’re winning. Nothing else matters.

ZD: I like to ask this of all Change Maker interviewees to see how they respond from their unique point of view: The theme of our 2018 festival was “We the Future.” How do you interpret that, and what does it mean to you?

MT: “We the Future,” I think, is about collaboration around the unknown. Being willing to learn from the past, navigate road blocks, and overcome challenges, since we don’t know what’s coming next. And this is really powerful, because even when we solve one problem, there’s always going to be another; so how do we understand that we’re always evolving? And being comfortable and accepting that. That’s what “We the Future” means to me.

For full article: click here

Trip to Medellin

Last week I traveled to Medellin, Colombia to attend the Echoing Green All Fellows Conference.  I visited and learned about Comuna 13, which has a history of being plagued with conflict and violence.  In the 90's, this community was the murder capital of the world. The violence stemmed from different groups wanting control of the territory because of it’s location and accessibility to easily import and export weapons and cocaine.  

Echoing Green staff, fellows, and alumni went on a guided tour of this community.  Our tour guide was a 22 year old named Stiven. He grew up and still lives in Comuna 13.  The community is in the hills and lined with thousands of brick and cement homes with metal roofs overlooking the city skyline.  

On our tour, he shared personal stories of his upbringing.  He talked about how his family rarely left the house because they feared for their lives.  He also recounted how he would see dead bodies in the streets on his way to school. He told us about how his community has invisible borders which prevent people from going from neighborhood to neighborhood within Comuna 13.   When caught crossing these borders, gang members intimidate and murder people to protect their territory. They interpret these actions as disrespect, or the people crossing these invisible borders are thought to be spies or scheming to encroach on another gangs' territory.

Stiven told us personal stories of challenge and conflict.  He also talked about how the community rallied together to reclaim their neighborhood from the local gangs.  In 2002, police and military personnel came to bring order. Over a four day period, thousands of people died including gang members, police, and innocent bystanders, including children.

While these acts hurt the community, it was also a rallying cry that brought them together.   Comuna 13 started working with the local government to revitalize. They used graffiti art as a way of creating hope and inspiration.  Families received assistance to build new homes and roofs. Comuna 13 also installed a series of 384 M orange roofed outdoor escalators.  By doing this, the local police and the government could better patrol the area. It also improved the quality of life for locals by turning a 45-minute uphill walk into ascending 10-minute ride.  It has also attracted tourist to the community which also builds the local economy.

Although the community was rebuilding, crime and violence still existed.  People could not get jobs, and food was not getting put on the table. Kids were not going to school.  At the age of 14, Stevin was approached by local gang members on a weekly basis to sell drugs for $200 a week or murder rival gang members for $1,000 a week.  As Stiven said, it was not about right or wrong, it was about survival and helping his family. Even though he never took the offers, he often seriously considered them as a possibility (many of his friends did become gang members).

The government went on to build a community center which started teaching hundreds of kids English by helping them tell their stories.  Once they become comfortable, they would lead tours, which would pay them.

Kids need opportunities to thrive.  Stiven took advantage of a chance to transform his life and support his family by being a positive role model for kids in the community.  He serves as an inspiration and provides hope in a place where many people lack education, skills, and opportunity.

Like Stiven and so many kids in Medellin, kids here in the US are not being inspired and motivated to take their education seriously.  My goal is to provide local opportunities for kids to be changemakers in their community. Coaching4Change trains high school students to lead classrooms so they can inspire change!

If you are interested in learning more about our work, check us out at www.c4cinc.org.


Undiagnosed Dyslexia

 

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At 27 years old, I was a graduate student at Smith College getting my Masters degree in Teaching.  I believe hard work and education can save peoples’ lives.  It definitely saved mine.  While in graduate school, my focus was on urban education and learning how to narrow the achievement gap.  The term "achievement gap" is often defined as the differences between the test scores of minority and/or low-income students and the test scores of their White and Asian peers. This was personal for me.  So many kids where I grew up barely made it through high school let alone college.  

The more statistics I learned, the more fascinated I became: 

* Every 26 seconds a child drops out of school

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* Researchers can predict whether a low-income student will drop out of high school based on their middle school attendance, behavior, and grades

As a graduate student, I had to complete my dissertation, student teach and pass my classes.  The amount of planning, reading, and writing was overwhelming. I just kept falling behind.  At the time I thought I had made a major mistake leaving a good paying job in finance to follow a belief that I could make a difference by changing kids’ lives through education in urban settings.  

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All my life, I’d hated school. In my opinion, it had set me up to fail.  In elementary school, I was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD.  ODD stands for Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  It is just a fancy way of saying that I was a kid who did not listen.  Some people would still say that about me today.  

If you were to ask my teachers, they would have described me as lazy and lacking focus.  When asked to read out loud, I would break into a sweat because I couldn’t read fluently and I would skip words. My spelling was terrible, and I tested very poorly.

If you asked my mom and coaches, they would have described me as a hard worker.  School has always been a struggle for me.  In high school, I would study, prep, and pull all-nighters just to get a B-/C+ average.  I failed out of Naval Academy Prep School (NAPS), which was supposed to help me prepare for the Naval Academy and improve my SAT scores.  In college, I graduated with a 2.7 GPA despite working my hardest while my peers were all getting 3.5 GPAs and higher.

From elementary school through college, I never measured up.  I was always compared to other students.  It was always implied that I wasn’t smart enough.  My teachers would ask me why I could not do it like all the other kids. This made me self-conscious, which prevented me from participating in class. I was the kid that did not raise his hand because I did not want to look stupid.  I was the kid that put his head down during class because I had given up, I was the kid that got made fun of for giving the wrong answer.

This isn’t a sob story. I had a mother who believed in me and supported me in every way she knew how. She tirelessly advocated for me and my education. I was lucky to be athletic…and thank God I’m tall. Through basketball and mentorship, I learned how to work hard, ask for help, and push through hard times.  

While I was in graduate school, I went to my advisor for help in writing my dissertation.  She read my work, asked me a series of questions, and then asked me to read out loud for her.  At the end of the session, she sent me to student support services.  It was not until I was 27 years old that I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I spent most of my young life thinking I was not smart because of how teachers treated me for not grasping the material like everyone else. To finally realize that I had an underlying learning disability was almost a relief.  

All of the statistics I had been reading about students of color and low-income students became even more personal because I am those students.

According to the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership,  

* Black and Latino kids are suspended 2 and 3 times more than their peers

* less than 30% of Black and Latino children are reading at grade level

* 28% of low-income students are at grade level for 8th-grade math

Schools are unintentionally alienating students who learn differently or don’t fit into the typical student learner model. Even the most well-intentioned teachers and administration aren’t always able to meet every students’ needs. What this means is that kids, lots of kids, are slipping through the cracks.  Many kids are pushed to the streets. Schools focusing on students’ weaknesses instead of highlighting their strengths. When kids don’t have strong support systems, they often feel alone and forced to navigate their “place” in school and community. The streets become appealing to kids who haven’t yet found their place in the world. The streets welcome kids by showing them how they can “add value” and “contribute” even if it means making poor decisions.  

I am lucky to have the mother and coaches I did and the athletic ability to play college basketball.  These things helped me gain resources that I would not otherwise have had.  Every child should have access to a support system that helps them thrive.  Kids’ success and upward mobility should not be solely dependent on their zip code.

This is why I created C4C…to create a safe space within schools to help struggling students focus on their goals.  Our program recruits high school students to lead and support younger students under the guidance of college students and teachers.  We help students discover their untapped potential. By focusing in on student dreams and strengths, we have helped improve school attendance, reduce behavior infractions, and better students’ grades.  Although these are all important data points, at the heart of C4C we try to create an environment for students who have been overlooked feel like they are part of something bigger - a community that values them and their contributions.

15th Best Player

Growing up I had no idea what success meant or looked like.  All I knew was that I did not want to be like the men in my neighborhood who hung around the laundromat and at YumYum Donuts talking about how they should've, could've, would've made it if they had listened and stayed focused.  

At 14, my sole focus was on being the star of my freshmen basketball team.  But instead, I was the 15th best player on the team, with the most honorable role of tracking all of my teammates’ stats each game.  Now as a leader of an education-based nonprofit, I am focused on coaching others to track meaningful stats to monitor progress to make informed decisions.  I guess I was an early adopter of “Growth Mindset” and data-based decision-making (wink).

Ball was life!  All I wanted to do was play basketball and I had run into a brick wall.  My life as a high school basketball star was slipping out of reach. I dove deep into a spiral of blaming others, feeling disappointed, pointing fingers and making excuses.  I was filled with self-doubt and acting against my own best interest. I was going through teenage angst.

As my confidence waned, my moods shifted to angry and frustrated.  My mom sat me down and patiently listened to me complain about how “no one on the team liked me”.  My mother helped me understand that I needed to focus on the things I could control. She helped me come up with a plan of action:  (1) to talk with my coach and (2) outwork everyone.

She coached me on how to speak respectfully and wait for the right time to talk to my coach. She guided me to focus on listening for valuable feedback that would allow me to best understand where I needed to improve.  This lead me to arrange one-on-one meetings with my coach.

I also started waking up at 4:45AM to get to the YMCA by 5:45AM.  My routine was to swim 1 day a week, lift 2 days a week and make 250 shots daily... all before 7:15AM.  I had to get in the shower and get to school (by 7:45AM, in time for homeroom). This was my routine for the next four years until I graduated high school.

As the season progressed, I started seeing some playing time but typically in the last 2 minutes of a game that we were winning by 30+ points. Although my playing time did not jump dramatically, I started gaining my confidence back because I could see and feel progress being made.  Because I was also tracking my morning workouts, I knew I was lifting heavier weights, playing more minutes and receiving positive feedback from coaches and peers. Understanding these data points enabled me to make progress at the age of 14.

While my progress was noticeable, I still faced challenges in completing my homework, getting up early, finding a ride to the gym and I still had three other players that were rated ahead of me.

Every day I poured my heart and soul into the game. Just like in school, I needed to figure out how to overcome my shortcomings.  If basketball was going to be my ticket, I knew I had to persevere. While that season was not as personally successful as I wanted it to be, I developed a work ethic and learned how to become hyper-focused.  

As an athlete, you are trained to follow through and never give up.  In the game of life, I had to learn that it’s also important to know when to quit.  And quitting doesn’t mean giving up but rather changing your strategy to accomplish a goal.

Through reflection, I identified five key questions that keep me focused.  These questions allow me to build a plan with tangible actions, focus on what is important to me, act strategically, monitor my progress and think about what’s next.

  1. What do you want?

  2. What actions do I need to take?

  3. Am I winning?

  4. What challenges am I facing?

  5. Do I need to persevere, pivot or quit?

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Rise from Pain

It is hard to believe that Coaching4Change is eight years old.  It all started with the idea of older youth teaching and leading younger kids.  In Coaching4Change’s journey, there have been lessons learned, ups, downs and bumps in the road.  I have never felt more focused, empowered and motivated to reverse the educational inequities found in school systems and communities nationwide.  

Last week, I had an opportunity to sit down with Shaquille O’Neal to talk about how our parents and education helped us ‘rise from pain’. As kids with learning disabilities, we felt isolated, dismissed and not heard.  We shared childhood stories about how we were able to overcome those challenges, how we channeled our anger, frustration and disappointment into trying to create better opportunities for others. Shaq inspires and motivates as one of the NBA’s greatest players. Talking with Shaq got me thinking about the unsung heroes whose everyday acts of kindness and support go unrecognized.

I grew up with mild dyslexia and ADHD.  These two disabilities made reading, writing and focusing very difficult.  In my case, sitting in classrooms was hard because it enhanced my anxiety about not being able to process information the same way as the other kids. Having ADHD in 1992 was challenging because there were not a lot of programs or strategies to help kids of like me get through the school day.  I often got into trouble for disrupting class or talking too much

In the sixth grade, my teacher started a reading program where each time a student would read a book we got stars.  For every ten stars, kids were able to pick a prize out of the bin. While all the other kids were on stars 5 or 7, I had not yet received my first star.  My mom and teachers took notice. They took away my recess, sports and after-school programs to practice reading. I would often skip words, change the order of words and struggle to pronounce words because of how I saw them.  I remember to this day, the frustration in their voice of consistently telling me to "Just read what is on the page!". I would get so angry and discouraged by them because I was reading what I thought was on the page.

At a parent-teacher conference, my teacher was talking to my mom and I about all of my struggles; academically and behaviorally.  They came up with a plan for how we were going to proceed for the rest of the year.  I was going to sit next to my teacher's desk for the remainder of the year. When my behavior got too much to handle, my teachers would page my mother to put me back in my place. Once the meeting was over, my teacher asked me to step outside of the room so she could talk to my mother one-on-one.  

After I left the room and closed the door behind me, I ran to the other classroom to hear what they were saying.  I listened to my teacher tell my mom that it did not matter what strategies we put in place because I was not smart enough to understand. I needed a program for kids with special needs.  My teacher continued by saying that I might not make it past high school and not to even worry about college. My heart sunk and I was genuinely embarrassed, self-conscious and demoralized.  

I started thinking of myself as an idiot.  I shut down, got angry, stopped trying and skipped school every opportunity I got.  I was sad that my teacher thought so little of me. At this point, no one could reach me.  I started hanging out with the wrong group of kids. All this changed when an older kid named DeeDee from the neighborhood took an interest in me.  One night, at the arcade she asked me what was wrong and I told her the situation.

She started helping me with my homework and encouraging me.  While I have never enjoyed reading, I always liked reading to her.  When I read out loud, she was patient with me and rarely got frustrated when I made a mistake.  Even if I got upset and impatient with her, she encouraged me. Her number one question to me was, "Did what you read out loud make sense?"  

DeeDee’s belief in me pushed forward and to believe that I could do it.  I finished that year with all B and C grades. The school year was hard, but I did well thanks to her mentorship and interest in me, something that the school system could not give me. In my inner-city LA neighborhood, there were many obstacles to getting ahead in life, but that same community produced someone like DeeDee whose helping hand made a huge difference at a critical time in my young life.

Coaching4Change helps teenagers value education by working in their neighborhoods as tutors, coaches and role models.  If you are interested in learning more about Coaching4Change check out our website.

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What I wish I had said...

There are many elements of being a nonprofit leader that go unseen. At any moment in time, you can be pulled in one thousand different directions. This leads to sometimes letting the little things get in the way of focusing on my primary goals, which in this case was not the story.

As I was on the phone with a prospective funder who seemed indifferent about supporting Coaching4Change efforts to increase the number of kids we impact on an annual basis.  Towards the end of the call, after explaining logic models and theories of change, they asked: “What makes me an expert or qualified to impact schools and how do I know the program even works?”. I was flabbergasted to be even asked that question; I stuttered, stammered and mentally shut down. Following that comment, I changed the subject and got off the phone. And then, the moment I hung up the phone I regretted how I handled that situation.

As you can see the question completely caught me off guard. My mind drifted to wondering: why this person was asking me this question? Does he ask his Ivy League graduates this?  Does he know that when I was getting tested for a learning disability at my neighborhood school, in the 2nd grade, there were bullet holes and bars on the windows?

At that moment I got frustrated, but here is how I wish I responded to the question:

From 3rd to 7th grade life in school was challenging.  I was diagnosed with ADHD in 1991 before fidget spinners and other toys were popular that helped ADHD.   I was the kid that was consistently in trouble, dismissed and labeled as the stupid and dumb kid by peers and teachers. Once I was slapped with the learning disability label, it felt as if I was a burden for teachers and was pushed out. What they didn't see was good kid trying to find his place in the world.  But what they did see was a kid with to of energy and talked far too much. I had crazy ideas, could not sit still and loved to explore. Though all they saw was a boy continuously getting in trouble for not conforming to what they thought the norm was. I learned it was easier to get into trouble than to be exposed for my deficiencies.  

During this time, I became fascinated with the streets. I did not grow up in the suburbs, I lived on 79th and Denker in Los Angeles. To put in in perspective it was about a half mile from where the Los Angeles riots started. I was raised by a single mother who after giving birth, climbed two flights of stairs with me in her arms to discover her apartment was robbed.  We lived in a community where violence and crime were common because of drugs. Gangs fought for their territory to sustain their enterprise. My mother created a series of positive experiences for me during out of school time that kept me engaged and focused.

Education is not just about numbers, data points, and outcomes.  It is about having the ability to adjust and work with young people in a variety of ways that help them self-discover and thrive.

I have been the CEO and Co-Founder of Coaching4Change for seven years. My team and I have helped thousands of kids feel empowered and more connected to their school even when they have been labeled as the "bad" or "troubled" kid. The program works with schools to identify students that show signs of struggling or dropping out. We consistently communicate with teachers to ensure our activities complement school day learning.  Based on our own proof points, we have learned when kids work with us for 14 months they fully re-engaged in school.

Within our program the results have shown that more than 70% of our students improve on their report card, over 88% of our students are sent to the office less, and 97% of our students love being involved in our program.  

Like I said, I wish this is how I responded but looking back it was a learning moment for me. At the end of the day, I am trying to carve out a space for the "misfit kids”, like I was. ”Misfit kids" meaning young people who learn differently, feel overlooked, ignored and sometimes are just overwhelmed by life.  This space should be part of every school's community to ensure ALL kids have a safe place to explore and learn without the fear of being labeled and judged.