Bridging the Opportunity Gap with Khari Brown
April 18, 2023
Bridging the Opportunity Gap with Khari Brown

Our youth in low-income communities were already struggling with finding opportunities to become more upwardly mobile before the pandemic. And now they’re struggling even more to find resources and often turn to the workforce, delaying higher education. For the last 30 years, Spark the Journey has been creating such opportunities in D.C., providing mentorship and community support to help black and brown students continue their education or find careers they enjoy.

This week on the podcast, I’m talking with Khari Brown about his own journey from his ah-ha moment as a basketball coach, seeing the great divide between the opportunities of his white players versus those of color. That led him to Spark the Journey, which he has grown to supporting more than 1,000 participants and volunteers alike.

In this conversation, we talk about volunteerism, racial inequality, creating partnerships of nonprofits, and more. Tune in now!

About Khari Brown:

Khari Brown is the Chief Executive Officer of Spark the Journey, a 30-year-old nonprofit organization that provides mentorship and a community of support to young adults from DC’s low-income communities. When Brown joined Spark the Journey, he was its only employee. He has since built Spark from a small-scale scholarship program to a renowned mentorship organization that has served 1,000+ program participants and engaged 1,000+ volunteer mentors.

Jump in the Conversation:

[2:01] – Where this journey began for Khari
[3:57] – What Spark the Journey is
[4:53] – How kids and volunteers can get involved
[6:16] – What it looks like to be part of the program
[7:21] – It’s hard to focus on being a student or pursuing a career when your basic needs aren’t being met
[9:12] – What workforce development looks like for Spark the Journey
[13:01] – Town for Tomorrow Alliance
[13:41] – What it takes to engage and retain volunteers
[16:00] – Roadblocks that Spark the Journey is experiencing right now
[18:15] – Ways you can support youth with what they need to succeed in life
[19:24] – Turbo Time
[25:15] – Khari’s Magic Wand
[27:08] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hi, Khari, it is so good to have you on Education Evolution.

Khari Brown 1:12
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:15
And listeners. today I’m chatting with Khari Brown, Chief Executive Officer of Spark the Journey, a 30 year old nonprofit organization that provides mentorship and a community of support to young adults from DCs low income communities. When Brown joined sparked the journey, he was its only employee. He has since built spark from a small scale scholarship program to a renowned mentorship organization that has served 900 Plus program participants and engaged 1000 Plus volunteer mentors. Impressive, Khari.

Khari Brown 1:53

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:55
So Khari, I’d like to start out by understanding a bit about what got you into this. So where did this story of helping evolve resources to support young people begin for you?

Khari Brown 2:07
for me began as a coach, I was a high school assistant high school basketball coach, I had been a basketball player and I that was a natural extension for me to stay involved in, in working with our players who were highly motivated athletes and who were really diligent and always prepared and more hard working than than our opponents. And it was really surprising to understand how far behind they were academically. We had students who were having a hard time breaking 700 on the SATs and the combined, you know, verbal math score, we had, you know, bees in their transcripts, and in helping them in tutoring them and preparing them for the essay to realize, you know, how many grade levels behind and that was a an inspiration for me to the the next morning I started applying to graduate schools and decided that I wanted to spend the next 40 years of my life as a high school history teacher and a basketball coach. And, and I thought I had it all figured out. And that was the path that I began on. And it took me here 22 years of leading spark the journey.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 3:27
Wow. I love that you firsthand experienced the achievement gap. Because transcripts tell us one story and grades can be inflated they can they tell us so much. And then when you meet the kids and see where their comprehension level is. There’s too big of a gap too often. So good for you for saying well, I’m gonna do something about that.

Khari Brown 3:53
Exactly. Yeah, that was inspiring for me.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 3:56
Tell us what spark the journey is.

Khari Brown 3:59
Spark the journey is a mentoring program. And we mentor black and brown youths and prepare them for economic mobility through college preparation and career preparation. So we pair our young people with mentors who are volunteers and they support those students on a one to one basis and really help them navigate the barriers to, to economic mobility, whatever they may be.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:31
Wow, I really appreciate appreciate that. This is the 10th year of the microscope. I found it and feels like every new student is a big effort and for you to take this up to over 1000 volunteers and over 900 students served speaks highly of your motivation and your ability to get others seeing your vision. How do kids connect with this and how do you get volunteers connected with this?

Khari Brown 4:57
We have partnerships with Schools and with other community based organizations, and they refer the young people to us it with the schools, it’s the guidance counselor’s. And we also partner with some other organizations who do workforce development, and, and other, you know, higher education initiatives. And they refer the young people to us, and you know, they have to meet our criteria and, and then we enroll the students in our program today, we have little more than 500 active students in the program. And those are split between high school students about 40%. And another 40%, in college, and then a growing portion for us is mentoring young people who are preparing, you know, who are not pursuing a college pathway and are and are just looking to earn money and get a living wage paying paying job. And, and that’s, that’s a an area of increased focus for us, given some of the trends that we’re seeing in higher education and in the in the economy that are driving young people to, you know, think differently about their post secondary options.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 6:13
Absolutely. So if a student is accepted, what does it look like to be a part of your program?

Khari Brown 6:21
Well, they they get assigned with a mentor, and then they’re supported by our, our staff members. And they, each student is guided through a curriculum depending upon their grade, depending upon what program they are in, but we’re trying to reinforce the skills that are associated with college preparation, college success, and again, in in our workforce training programs, the skills that are associated with career success. And so we’re helping young people achieve those milestones that, you know, that, you know, say for instance, they’re a high school student, and, you know, they need to apply to colleges, right, they need to take their, you know, we give them nudges for all of the, all the little things that can become barriers, we also helped some students with, with some financial support, that’s been a growing area for us. You know, for many young people, it’s hard to focus on being a student, or, you know, pursuing a career when your basic needs are not being met. Food insecurity, housing insecurity. And when young people have to worry about those basic things. Achieving can be secondary, right. And so we’ve been raising funds to make direct payments to young people, to and their families to help them with things like rent, with food, with small tuition payments, you know, helping them stay on track. And that’s been getting, you know, great results for us. I do want to say that, you know, the major outcome for our program and success is, is college completion. And 58% of our, of our students do end up completing college, and that’s about three times the rate for, you know, similar populations of young people around the country.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:31
I love that you’re outcome driven, not just oh, we’re here to have support, then have a nice life. That’s a wonderful statistic. In terms of college graduations, think that’s pretty impressive. Just what is it like a quarter of students who start a four year college don’t go past their first year?

Khari Brown 8:49
Yeah, they’ve been the numbers are not very good, right. And then when you associate that with debt accumulation, you know, to be able to afford, you know, college coursework, it becomes that much more important to ensure that, you know, students are being successful.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 9:08
Absolutely. So workforce development looks different for everybody. I’m wondering the components of yours and if it includes any internships or business partnerships,

Khari Brown 9:20
yeah, and for us, you know, this, this has always been an area of focus, we’ve always offered our students exposure to what different workforce opportunities would be and when we were smaller, when we were a small program, and we only had 100 students, it was easier to, you know, bring our students together on a Saturday and have a career fair, right. That was something that you know, we really enjoyed and did for many, many years. But as our student body, you know, got to 300 400 now 500 We have to do our programming up At different and it’s really, it’s really moved us in the direction of focusing on partnerships, and finding organizations who, you know, are operating at greater scale and have the expertise, have the relationships with employers, and can help and offer the training. And so we’re building some co training modules with some workforce development programs, we have a great partner in Europe, in the National Capital Area in Europe is a national organization that does workforce development. And they have placements, they have the internship relationships and placements. And we’re mentoring young people in their program and sending our students to their program. And, and that’s, you know, helping our students get not just the training that they need, but then also the placement that they need into a living wage job.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 10:56
And kudos to you for finding complementary organizations and how you can support each other because we can never go it alone.

Khari Brown 11:06
And in the nonprofit sector, you know, that is especially important, I’ve been doing this work, as I said, for 22 years, and there’s not a single when you’re working with young people who come from communities that have high poverty, there’s not a single organization is often unable to meet all of the needs, right, that are, are going to help that young person that you know, have the economic mobility. And so for us finding ways to be able to offer complementary services, and to be able to support one another. And, you know, we’re working with funders to, you know, help to facilitate that. And, you know, there’s interest from the funding community in a lot of times, with the funding community that are encouraging us to partner and may not actually provide the resources to do so. We found some, some funders now who are, are eager to support these initiatives. We have a collaborative in DC called the town for tomorrow Alliance, which is a group of five nonprofits, who are working in either workforce development or college success and offer each other complementary services that are going to help, you know, our participants get better outcomes, and that can help us be more efficient in delivering our services. But it’s hard work, it’s really hard to find the time, you know, it’s really it is something that, you know, is not often paid for, by by funders in that but we believe in, you know, the need is there. And this is a better way of doing business. And so it’s something that we’re working very hard on in DC.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:59
Absolutely. This collaboration town for tomorrow alliances, that sounds just like there’s so much synergy and hopefully support for you as leaders, since you share some common challenges.

Khari Brown 13:12
Yeah, it’s a terrific group of, you know, all African American leaders of of, you know, impressive nonprofits in our, in our region. So we hope to be able to expand the numbers of partners, but first, you know, working out some internal things like a governance structure, and, you know, some, some other ways of ensuring that we are ready to, you know, add on other other partners.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 13:42
Right. So the other half of, of this component is the volunteers, the mentors, and I feel like volunteerism isn’t as isn’t explored as often as it could be. What are your thoughts on what it takes to engage volunteers and keep them volunteering?

Khari Brown 14:01
Yeah, Maureen, no. Volunteerism can be really effective. And it is, it can also be ineffective when it’s not administered properly. And so one thing that I often see is that organizations and companies have, you know, all the best intentions, but they under resource, their initiative. So, if you’re not going to invest in having, you know, a volunteer initiative, that means that you have to, you’re not going to get good outcomes. And it’s going to, in some cases, and in the case of mentoring, there’s research to suggest that, you know, if you’re pairing a young person with a mentor and they have a negative experience, you can do more harm than if they never had a mentor in the first place. And so we take that very seriously and ensure that you know, we are being selective in our or mentor matching, which means we have to recruit a higher volume of volunteers, then we will actually utilize, some volunteers don’t, you know, get get selected right away. And then you have to support those payers, and you have to have the staffing resources to be able to facilitate effective volunteering. So that’s something that we’ve been, you know, focused on for more than 20 years, it’s part of the journey, and have developed some, you know, expertise. And, you know, we get asked to help design other volunteering initiatives, and I wouldn’t say it’s a lucrative business doing in the nonprofit sector, but it’s something that we really believe in and, and love to be able to offer, you know, our expertise and lessons learned, you know, over the decades,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:52
Oh, way to help spread it so that more people can do good. Indeed, indeed, what are some of the biggest roadblocks or obstacles spark the journey is experiencing right now?

Khari Brown 16:06
I think we, you know, we were touching on one a bit earlier, I think that, you know, for young people today, coming out of the pandemic, with all of the increased challenges that were already there, right. So we already had in our communities mental health challenges, we already had economic insecurity, we already had, you know, employment issues and, and on and on and on. And those have been amplified today. And you couple that with, you know, challenges in higher education and increasing costs there. And now budgets being tightened by by, you know, coming, we’re seeing services be cut. Now, you know, SNAP benefits being being cut, and other Cares Act things, you know, falling off. And this is putting a lot of economic pressure on our students and families. And so we are seeing more interest in delaying higher education or the need to pursue other options that will help our, our young people become economically mobile. So we are trying to quickly find more of these, you know, workforce opportunities and ways that can get our young people to training, it’s very hard without any type of post secondary training program to land, a job that is going to, you know, pay a living wage, and it’s very, very expensive to live in Washington DC, right. So we and many other organizations, you know, in, in our region are working as fast as we can to stand up new programming, and create these, you know, additional pathways to mobility for the young people in our region. Lots of challenges. Indeed, but you know, that’s what we’re here for. We’re glad to be here and doing what we can.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:14
Hmm. So for our listeners, what would you suggest? How are ways that others could support our youth with, you know, the skills, knowledge, overall support that they need to succeed in life?

Khari Brown 18:27
You know, there are so many ways, I would just, I always encourage people to not be deterred, don’t overthink it, and just get involved in something that inspires you, right? If you have a particular interest in something, you have a particular skill to share, you have particular connections to open up, you know, just begin Don’t Don’t overthink it and wait for the perfect moment. You know, it’s like starting a diet, like the time is right now. Starting that new exercise regime, right? We have the time to get involved in something and to find a way to give back to your community. You’ve already thought of it. Don’t overthink it, go ahead and do it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:12
I love it. Khari, I’d like to pivot in the interview and take time to get to know the person behind the wonderful initiative or organization. May I ask you some turbo time questions?

Khari Brown 19:26
All right, let’s do it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:27
Okay, what’s the last book you read?

Khari Brown 19:31
Robert E. Lee and me by Ty sigil. Oh, highly, highly recommend it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:38
Really? Okay. Give us a little give us a little soundbite as to why you recommend it.

Khari Brown 19:42
He’s a retired general in the army, a white man who learned as an adult about the true someone who revered Robert E Lee as a child growing up in the South and and as an adult on The West points campus, you know, became curious as to why we had statues honoring someone who was trying to overthrow the government of the United States and kill American citizens in the name of slavery. And so he’s been leading a crusade to, among other things, get rid of army bases named after Confederate leaders. And, and really dismantle the myth of the lost cause. And as a, as a white, retired Army General. He’s he’s got a lot of credibility and a powerful voice. And he’s an incredible writer. So you should pick up the book.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:43
Wow. So it’s an autobiography.

Khari Brown 20:45

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:47
Or he’s telling his story.

Khari Brown 20:48
Yes. He’s telling his story. Yes. Yeah. About his sort of personal journey in understanding our, our history with race. And, and, you know, the story of the Lost Cause we, you know, which is sort of regaling the south and rewriting history in harmful inaccurate ways.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:11
Uh, huh. Like our country is also waking up to revering Christopher Columbus, you know, we have some myths out there that just need to be debunked and countered.

Khari Brown 21:23
And unfortunately, you know, this is a debate in our country right now is, you know, should we be teaching our children about these things that are upsetting? Or, you know, which is a frustrating, a frustrating debate, to say the least, and very damaging, I think, to the teaching profession, and to young people into our country.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:47
Yeah, anything less than the truth? I mean, the truth can be couched in different ways for different ages. But why wouldn’t we want to always share the truth with our learners?

Khari Brown 21:57

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:58
Yeah, how about a passion you bring to mentorship?

Speaker 2 22:02
Well, I was just talking about racial justice, I think is really part of what inspires me. You know, that was the determining factor for me and seeing, you know, the differences between the, the educational experience of my white players and my black players in 25 years ago. And, you know, it’s very, very evident in, in the city in which I live in all across the country. So racial justice is my, you know, big motivating factor.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:32
Uh, huh. How about a favorite thing or fun fact about DC?

Khari Brown 22:38
I think the fact that we are the center have of the government in the US and arguably sort of the center of power in the world makes this a unique place. And we have all of these things that sometimes DC residents may take for granted, you know, that are housed in our nation’s capitol, and that are a part of our city and free to us. And so it’s nice to be able to take advantage of this second offer one more, it’s beautiful. And springtime. As I look out my window, I see flowers on trees. And you know, this is one of the more beautiful places for spring, you know, that I’ve been in my life?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:27
Oh, I like that. I have to tell you a pet peeve I have. And the reason I didn’t say Washington DC is I’ve lived in seven or eight different countries. And when they say where are you from Washington that like, oh, the cup of toes like No, east coast north of California, there’s a state it’s like come on with all the names of the world why do we have to Washington’s it’s like, oh, oh, about something that most folks don’t know about you.

Khari Brown 23:59
I have been telling people and they are sometimes surprised to hear that. Since the pandemic I’ve become a gardener and I find this you know, almost a you know, an urban farmer, I call myself but this is my third natural now my fourth year, dabbling in, in growing vegetables in the very small patch of backyard that we have here in DC. And and it’s a great hobby for me, you know, as an executive it’s it’s a important stress reliever in a way for me to be alone with my thoughts and and I’m a thinker, and so I find it very relaxing and and then he gets to eat, you know, good healthy food as well.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:53
Right. Right. There’s a product at the end.

Speaker 2 24:55
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And it’s you never really know what’s going to happen. So I’m learning I’m getting better all the time. And so it’s become a nice little hobby.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:04
That sounds fun and rewarding and rewarding. Yes. I wrap up the interviews with a magic wand moment. So I’m handing you the education, evolution wand, what would you wish for our country, which would ripple out to the world, in terms of racial justice?

Speaker 2 25:26
I wish that our country would, would really try to understand how we got to this place. And, you know, I talked about the history before. And, you know, I, I’m a history lover, I told you earlier, I was trained to become a history teacher. And the thing that really got me interested in learning was really understanding about American history. And I think it really helps you understand our country in a in a different way. And I think it would, it would break down a lot of barriers and walls that we have and make our society a lot more equal and peaceful. And, and happy. If if we invested a little bit more in understanding and learning about our past, and how we got here, because understanding the past helps to inform what’s happening today. And we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, generation after generation, because we we fail to do that. So that’s my hope.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:48
I love it. Totally agree. Khari, thank you so much for being a guest today on Education Evolution.

Khari Brown 26:54
Thank you, Maureen was really, really great to be with you. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:08
It is always powerful to hear a Genesis story that begins with somebody seeing a need for our youth, and then stepping up to be a part of the solution. Khari pivoting and joining spark the journey, and building it into the success it is today is inspirational. Mentors, partnerships. There are so many needed collaborations to provide wraparound support for our youth, and much that we can do, regardless of our professional training. I appreciate Khari saying it’s a matter of diving in to volunteering without overthinking it. If we have a passion and a skill, a resource, let’s get out there and share it. It also feels good. It’s a great way to boost our mental health, and to feel like contributing members of our society, and businesses. As Khari reminded us a volunteer initiative in your business needs resources, please consider adding the resources so that your organization can provide service back to the community. After our interview, I was able to connect Khari to Leigh Anne Taylor Knight of the diverse foundation. I have a link in my interview with Leigh Anne and the important research that they have done on how we can best support our youth in successfully joining the workforce.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 28:38
One part of that equation is networking. So be sure if you are a business that can help youth or if you know of somebody that might be able to intern or a company that takes interns, we have to help our youth forge those networks is not something they have when they’re 18 or 20. But we can help get them started and explicitly teach them how important it is to know people and to talk to people and to build their own networks. Khari’s magic wand. I’m wishing our country would really try to understand how we got to this place. Wow. What a powerful way to address the racial needs in the United States. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were compassionate, peaceful and happy as a united country, the energy we spend being divided could much better be used, coming together and supporting all of our youth, eliminating obstacles and barriers wherever possible, regardless of political views, religions, races, anything. We all believe in our youth and know how important it is to help them do become the most and best they can and be contributing members of our society. Let’s pull together. Let’s learn what hasn’t worked in the past and not repeat it. Thank you so much, Khari. And thank you for being a part of the Education Evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 30:25
I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together. Thanks again for listening. To support the education evolution. Subscribe so it lands in your podcast app and gets out to more decision makers. Then rate and review it. For more information in shownotes go to Education Evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We are in this together and we need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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