HUBweek Change Maker: Marquis Taylor
CEO, Coaching 4 Change
Marquis Taylor is the CEO of Coaching 4 Change, an organization working to transform the learning experience for struggling students through after-school enrichment that combines physical activity, academic tutoring, mentoring, college field trips, family engagement, and career exposure. Previously, he was an Echoing Green Fellow and a Pahara Institute NextGen Fellow. Marquis grew up in a low-income community in South Central Los Angeles, where he witnessed violence, experienced failure, and overcame many challenges, all of which led him to dedicate himself to motivating others to do the same.
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.
The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.