Faces of Marketing podcast: Kali Thorne Ladd, co-founder of KairosPDX
Kali Thorne Ladd is one of the most dynamic social entrepreneurs I know. She is co-founder and Executive Director of KairosPDX, which started as a charter school in North Portland, primarily for kids of color and started a movement in Portland for delivering equitable education for underserved kids, their families and the community.
A defining moment for Kali was serving in the Peace Corps in South Africa for 3 years after college. In a post-Apartheid society there, she saw first-hand how education defines a society and was determined to come back to the US and create system change to a US education system that chronically fails black and brown students. Her non-profit, KairosPDX, is one of the few bright spots in Oregon equitable education that is a model for how to transform our curriculum nationwide.
Ryan: Hey there, welcome to the Faces of Marketing podcast where we talk about the human stories and lives of different people and perspectives in the marketing profession and entrepreneurs and movement makers. This is your host, Ryan Buchanan, and I’m here with my good friend Kali Ladd who is one of the most dynamic social entrepreneurs I know and co-founder and Executive Director of KairosPDX, which started as a charter school in North Portland, primarily for kids of color and started a movement in Portland for delivering equitable education for underserved kids, their families and the community. Welcome to the show, Kali!
Kali: Hello. Thanks for having me.
Ryan: This is going to be fun. It’s going to be a little coffee talk. So, before we even jump right into the beginning of the podcast, I just wanted to tell the audience that it’s been really fun to have our friendship develop over the past two or three years. I’m a personal supporter of KairosPDX and I think it’s really great for the audience to know how entrepreneurial you really are. You’re starting this event around celebrating equity and also bringing food and wine into that for something that we’re going to do together in June and we’ll announce that, maybe not even on this podcast, but I want to kind of set the stage for, I think so many of us think like, “Oh, you’re either a for profit entrepreneur and you’re a full-on capitalist or you’re this like total do-gooder non-profit person and give back in that way. But I feel like you’re a really perfect blend of both because you’re looking to take the best of both worlds and bring it into what you do.
Kali: Yeah, I would agree. I like to be disruptive of the things that we normalize and it’s been an interesting journey. I have only more recently recognized myself as an entrepreneur because I think at a young age I wanted to change the world, but I didn’t know how. And I was very anti-business for a long time. And then I began to understand the role that business plays in society. And I think that there is a lot that business does for society. I think there’s a lot that the nonprofit sector does and I think it’s the fusion of both — the coming together of both that makes our world a better place.
Ryan: Awesome. So we’re going to get to that later in the podcast, but I did want to set the stage and then we’re going to start as we always do on this podcast of starting at the beginning of how you grew up and I know you’ve got some New England roots to you, but you also maybe moved around a little bit in the, in the east and Midwest. So talk about that and what it was like growing up.
Kali: So I consider myself really fortunate in that I grew up with a really tight-knit family. My parents have been married 44 years. I have a younger brother, he’s just shy of being four years younger than me. And there’s a lot of love in our home and a lot of safety and security. So my childhood was really good from a family standpoint. All of my extended family were friends with one another, so my parents met in college and they are older in their families of sibling. Their younger siblings met each other in their teens and younger. And so it was very common to have a combined family with my mother’s side and my dad’s side all come together, all the grandparents. And so really a strong sense of family in my life. I was born in Philadelphia, and had my preschool years in upstate New York and then my parents moved to Massachusetts, which is where I spent most of my formative years.
Kali: I lived in a small town 45 minutes north of Boston. So I grew up in a smaller community. I think the biggest thing is we were the only African American family and our community. So while I had this really close, safe family, I had a very isolating experience and a lot of ways in childhood and I think it shaped why I do the work that I do now, but definitely had a lot of experiences sprinkled in that dealt with feelings of isolation and not fitting in. I think when you’re a young child you want to have a sense of belonging and it was something I yearned for often that I never felt I had though. I had friends and I had great people in my life, but I definitely was aware that I was different, and it made it so I was always recognizing difference everywhere I went.
Kali: I always recognized the people. I remember there was a girl, I think it was in middle school who had a disability and I was very aware of her and being kind to her because she was different. And there was one other girl who was Korean and my class, she was only in my class for a year in elementary school. We had a small town, so we were all in the same class every year of elementary school. I had not-great experiences with teachers who — either I was in trouble because I was more noticeable or I was ignored. And so I actually didn’t have any inspirational teachers in my life until fifth grade. And my teacher, Mrs. Gaugin told us she was a witch, a Salem witch. I lived in Beverly, Massachusetts and Salem is right next to Beverly and it’s where all the witch trials were. She was the first teacher who really seemed to notice me and liked me and I loved her. She was the best.
Ryan: She sounds bold.
Kali: She is bold, Mrs. Gaugin. I wonder where she is today. Um, but she was amazing and she was, I think she saw herself as an outlier and a lot of ways in this sort of traditional, conventional, small, New England town. She was zany — she’s someone you might meet in Portland, but maybe that’s why we connected.
I also played outside a lot as a kid. My brother and I were able, because it was a safe space, we were able to go and play and there was a lot of woods around us and we would just have to come back by dark. And so my girlfriends and I would ride our bikes around and there was just a lot of freedom in that to explore. I think at a young age I began to love nature and being in the outdoors.
Kali: I played sports — mostly soccer — for most of my life, and I danced. I danced ballet as well, but soccer was definitely an important social peace in my life. I was very shy. People. I tell people I’m introverted and they don’t believe me now, but I was, I’m a very shy and I think part of it was just being different and not wanting to stick out. And so I often had teachers say to me in class, speak up, I can’t hear you. I was so nervous to talk. And then as you referenced, I did move in Middle School. In 7th grade, we moved to New Hampshire, and I was more aware of some of the racism when I was in New Hampshire. I had started to experience more concrete things. I remember in 6th grade in Massachusetts, kids teasing me and the bus driver just kind of looking at them and I was wearing a new outfit.
Kali: I was really proud of the outfit and these boys were just kind of terrorizing me. Now, they call it bullying and there’s all this language for it. There wasn’t, people didn’t talk about that stuff, but I watched the bus driver do nothing and it just made me feel very invisible. I wasn’t comfortable in my skin and I wasn’t comfortable in myself and we moved to New Hampshire and my parents — the realtor tried to only show them houses by the dump and my mom figured it out and was like, “why are you only showing us houses in this neighborhood with the dump nearby?” And they fired the realtor and got a new one, but as non-diverse as Massachusetts was, New Hampshire was less so -if you could imagine. But I met my best friend in life in those two years, and then we moved back to Massachusetts and to North Andover, Mass. And so in those two years, I have a friendship with someone who’s like a sister to me still and there is no person I’m closer to than Heather. So I feel really blessed that even though it wasn’t my favorite place to be, there was a bright spot in that and I feel like those are the things that I would highlight.
Ryan: Those are experiences that I didn’t have growing up. So do you feel like you had to mature earlier and just kind of see world through different eyes? I mean, these are just obviously questions that I have through privilege.
Kali: Yeah, in retrospect. I didn’t realize it at the time. I kept a lot inside. I am a natural introvert. It’s very hard for me to talk and share my feelings. I remember my parents saying at one point, I must have been nine years old, “Why don’t you go out and play with your friends?” Because I would just stay inside and play with my dolls and play in my own little imaginary world. I didn’t feel compelled to be around people all the time. And, uh, I spent a lot of time in my own head and I think I definitely did think about things and had to mature in ways that maybe the average kid doesn’t. I didn’t have any other basis of knowledge though. My brother and I only as adults realized our shared experience.
Kali: He’s more extroverted than me and he was always the more outgoing one even though he was younger. So I didn’t know he had the same struggles and challenges that I had. We never talked about it as kids. And so it was helpful to know that. And I think to your point, there’s a lot that I recognize now that at the time, it was just my norm. And so I just live my life. I’m an optimist by nature, as many entrepreneurs are. And I have a lot of positive memories in my childhood, and I think I would go to these imaginary worlds in my head and places I loved like Anna Green Gables and all of these random things because they brought me joy and I felt happy there and I’d rather be in this place of happiness, whether it was real or contrived, than deal with the things that were more challenging for me.
Ryan: So I always ask this question, but I just love the immediate response of if you were asked by an adult, what do you want to be when you grow up? Ten years old as a little girl.
Kali: Yeah. So I always wanted to be a teacher. I thought I loved kids and I would say a teacher at that age. Another thing I should say about my family, too. My parents were very strong in their sense of self. Though I was not, hey were. And they, my dad wound up being very successful in business and he always exposed us to entrepreneurs, inventors, people who are African-American — black folks who had done things in their life that were game-changing. And so at home I had this constant reinforcement of black success even though there was nothing that reflected that in the world around me. And at times I thought, “this is crazy.” It felt like another world because my classroom textbooks, my teachers, they were never sharing any of this information.
Ryan: The media?
Kali: The media had nothing. I mean nothing. And so, and this is growing up in the eighties, the world is different now, but at that time and certainly in Massachusetts, it just wasn’t normalized. So I was fortunate that I got exposure to different folks. But I think my experience with business, as many children, it’s something that took my dad away from the family. Now he is an amazing father and definitely made quality time for us. But I was also aware of just how demanding and we moved, as you said, but it was because of the business and so I attributed a lot of negativity to business and so I knew I liked kids. My grandmother was an educator and it just seemed like something I could do.
Ryan: So we very rarely have folks on the podcast who wanted to be what they became — as a kid like you. I mean me, I wanted to be a point guard in the NBA. There’s always these crazy ideas that we have as kids. So there’s a sense of pragmatism to you. So high school, you’re back in New England for high school and what? Yeah, that’s such a formative time where there’s all this peer pressure. What was that like?
Ryan: You can absolutely swear.
Kali: It was a bit of a shit-show. So I moved three times in high school. I went to three different high schools out of the four years of high school. So high school is a bit of a disaster for me. I started as a new kid in North Andover High and then my parents sent me after my freshman year to a private school up in New Hampshire. And so that was not a great experience for me. I’m not going to name it, but halfway through my junior year of high school, my dad took an opportunity at a location in Cincinnati, Ohio. So we moved halfway through junior year to Cincinnati, Ohio. And I finished high school there and I had gone to public school up to sophomore year. So my last three years were in private school.
Kali: My parents let me choose. And honestly the public schools in Cincinnati were three times the size of public schools was in north andover high be at about 200 kids in a class. The high school in Cincinnati had like a thousand per class. It was just mega high schools and so they also gave me a choice of this private school that was smaller and I felt like it would be more what I can handle. High school was really tough. I didn’t have a friend group. I’m kind of anti-clicks. I think it goes back to never wanting anyone to feel left out. I don’t like the idea of socializing in a singular circle and then you don’t belong and these people belong because I felt so isolated. I never felt like I belonged. I never wanted to be part of something that made other people not belong.
Kali: So I was just sort of friends with different people. But I was so shy. It took me a while to build friendships again. Soccer wound up being the thing that helped socialize. I played soccer all through high school and I often just made friends with people that I played with. I was a good soccer player so that helped me meet people and thank God for soccer because I in school, I mean my brother said when he moved to Cincinnati that people are asking me, “why you don’t talk?” And I’m like, like I was definitely shy. I’d get sick to the point of vomiting before our first day of school. It was very stressful and so I don’t have fond memories of high school. I don’t have really close friendships. So there are people that I keep in touch with on social media who are great people. I mean I think the people that I did meet and become solid friends with, I would still be friends with today if we lived in the same place, but there just weren’t many of them and they were sprinkled in three different places.
Ryan: So funny. I was really outgoing as a kid. But you and I shared that same sense of being across so many different groups of people — and I maybe it came from our parents. I know it did for me of always being exposed to lots of different types of people and feeling like that enriched our lives. And so I was into basketball and soccer and so I had those friends but also in some of my nerdy classes — I had a foot in the Nerds group and in lots of different groups because the reality is while we may not want to be isolated in one group or another, those groups do naturally form. And it’s just up to us, I always tell people I’m kind of like an Australian sheep dog. I try and herd people from different groups into each other so they can meet up together. And it sounds like you have a little bit of that.
Kali: Yeah, I’ve noticed in my adulthood that I’m a connector. People have told me that. I like connecting and bringing people together and being in community with one another that are different. I think that’s what makes our society rich. So yeah.
Ryan: So, we’re gonna talk about the decision to go to college and you went to Boston College, you have two kids. I have two kids and I think also I want to kind of overlay the question with your kids are a little younger than mine and Brin is
Kali: She’s nine.
Ryan: Alright. So that’s what I want to turn to. Yeah. Fourth or fifth grade.
Kali: Yeah, fourth grade.
Ryan: All right. So I have a junior in high school and so we’re very actively doing college tours and all of this. And I do have that East Coast mentality where college is such an important decision. And all of that, and that is a generalization, not all East Coast people think that, but I always find it fascinating of what goes into that decision of where you go to college, and you already knew from 10 years old that you wanted to be an educator. So you studied education in college and how was that whole process? You tour a bunch of colleges. Did you know you that you were absolutely going to go to college in a particular area of the country.
Kali: We did tour different schools in New England. I knew that I wanted to get back to New England from Cincinnati. I think many people would say Cincinnati is a lovely place. It was a culture shock to me to move from a small New England town to a Midwestern area that was actually very southern in a lot of ways. And I know you’re from the South.
Ryan: I’m from the neutral state Maryland. But I did go to college at University of Virginia in the South. Yes.
Kali: I was a little fearful of this then for a lot of reasons, all the racial overlays. The Ku Klux Klan put up a cross every year in the Cincinnati town square and I saw my first confederate flag, so there were things that I saw in Cincinnati that just I wasn’t exposed to, and it just didn’t feel safe for me. So I was just focused on getting back to New England. That was like step one. I remember going to visit BC. I actually had flown out and met with one of my best friends from my high school there, Matt at the time. And he met me in Boston at the college and we toured it together and it was just, it was not too big. You see this sort of pattern — I don’t like large institutions and it was not right in the heart of Boston — it was on the outskirts. So there was nature there.
Ryan: Can I just stop you for a second? So you are the youngest Chairperson of one of the largest colleges in Oregon, Portland Community College, so there is some irony there.
Kali: Well, yes. It’s different when you’re attending the University or College. But, I liked that it was on the outskirts and that there was nature. It was a beautiful campus and I think also, I grew up in a home that had a really strong spiritual foundation. My parents, it was definitely a Christian family, and while I didn’t want to go to a Christian college, Boston College (BC) is a Jesuit school, so there was some structure of spirituality that I felt was good but not oppressive. It wasn’t like you had to go to mass or you had to sort of study those things, but I liked that it was there. So, there were all these different pieces of my childhood — really, that I felt BC represented now and I had a great experience at BC, lots of lifelong friends. So while I didn’t have lifelong high school friends, I do have lifelong college friends and my college roommates are still dear friends that I talk to pretty regularly beyond just social media.
Kali: And we try to meet up when I’m home and so it was a formative thing. I wasn’t focused at the time on diversity and equity even though you would think, with all of my experiences growing up, that I would have thought more about that component and I think I have asked my parents about it at the time, like why didn’t we see any HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges + Universities) — or Howard University or black colleges because I was hungry still for ethnic community connection. And I actually joined the multicultural floor. I checked that off at BC so I could be with the people of color when I went there. But I think my mother said, “well, we thought about HBCUs for you, but we thought it might be overwhelming because you have never lived in a place where there was even close to the dominant presence of folks of color. But, in retrospect, I wish I had thought of that because since then, I know so many people that have graduated from HBCUs and it was like game changing experiences for them. But, I had a great experience at BC, lifelong friends, great education, and it was wonderful being near Boston, like being in the city but not. And so we went into the city a lot, but I loved still having nature there.
Ryan: Were there any, as you look at high school and college, which I think is massively independent foundational stage, were there any life moments that were either like one major kind of obstacle that you overcame or one moment of independence that it’s not a surprise of the success of where you are today? That kind of happened in those foundational years?
Kali: The biggest obstacle is definitely racism. Not believing what I felt the world was telling me about myself as a black female and what I could accomplish and what I could be. I tested into Advanced Placement English in high school, and then the school wouldn’t let me be in the class and my mother had to get involved. And my mother actually had to get involved a number of times because of discrimination in school. So the things that I experienced related to the skin that I’m in definitely were obstacles. And I don’t say, “Oh, woe is me.” In many ways, I had a privileged life. But, there are definitely barriers. I had to fight harder people.
Kali: You’ll hear black people say you have to be twice as good and work twice as hard and there is truth to that. People do not assume that you are worthy or that you’re smart and they are active forces sometimes pushing you in different directions. And so I was blessed to have two parents that loved me and were college educated themselves and they both went. They went to Penn and then my dad went to Wharton Business School, like they were well educated and they had to fight for their education too. So they already knew the game. They already had to deal with professors and teachers like that. So they were prepared to be advocates for me. And I think, this is why education mattered and I was remembering BC also had a very good education program for teaching. It was one in the top five [in the country] at the time. So I think it all feeds into why I do the work that I do.
Ryan: I mean just hearing your story, I just haven’t had to face what you have. Being in dominant culture and being a white male and it’s disappointing that the world is the way it is, but that’s why we’re doing the work that we do. Okay, so right after college and you and I’ve had conversations around this where you went into the Peace Corps in South Africa and that was like this really big moment in your life because it was freeing, it was adventure, but it was so much learning all at once and like I would love for everybody to hear what that was like and what, what stood out to you in that?
Kali: So, South Africa was a super powerful experience. I knew I wanted to join the Peace Corps by my junior year of college. I didn’t even try to get an internship doing anything else. I didn’t apply for any job. I remember thinking senior year, “God, if I don’t get it, I’m going to be in trouble.” I don’t have a backup plan and I think it came from this pollyanna-ish, “I want to save the world and make it a better place” perspective. I was involved so I played soccer all of my life and I sort of forgo scholarships to play because they were all Ohio-based schools and I didn’t want to stay in Ohio so I could have walked on. But I realized there were all these things I was really passionate about that I never got to explore. So I joined the Peace and Justice coalition, the Environmental Action Group.
Kali: If you ask my college roommates, I was gone all the time. It’s still my greatest challenge which is not taking on TOO MUCH.
Ryan: You’re not succeeding at that at all by the way.
Kali: Even in college because there’s just so much that I want to do to impact the world and that has been a consistent theme for me and I can’t explain what drives that. It just is there. And so the opportunity came up and I studied abroad in London in my junior year of college. I took a safe route because I thought, well, at least I know the language, but that was my first experience of “oh my gosh, there’s so much more than this country.” And so I knew I wanted to go to Africa and I had put that as my choice, because you can have a choice of continent for the Peace Corps.
Kali: And, it was game-changing and eye-opening. In a lot of ways, I realized in the Peace Corps that I did not want to teach. I thought education was so powerful and it reinforced that for me — because in South Africa, during apartheid, they had a Bantu education system that really wasn’t an education system that reinforced critical thinking skills or entrepreneurial things — anything that was good for sort of cognitive development. It was more of a rote-learning system — jump when I say jump — and I could see the impact of that on that society and the adults. And it was obviously traumatic. Apartheid itself was traumatic. So there were huge implications for the people of South Africa not having a quality education system. And part of my job there was to teach and to teach teachers and also teach middle school. I knew education was important, but I knew that I didn’t want to teach.
Kali: I also had an opportunity for the first time to do something entrepreneurial. I didn’t have a word for it then, but I’d love just meeting with people in the community. I was in a small village in the mountains. I could reach the top of the mountain in like 20 minutes from my little home in my village. It was all dirt road. It was that reddish soil that was terrible. When it rains, it’s like peanut butter almost. And I would wear like these tall, black galoshes up to my knees. And, there were mango trees and papayas, and it was beautiful. I got to know the women in particular, there was a lot of -isms in South Africa and I was there three years. Post-apartheid and we were the third or the fourth group to be in that country.
Kali: So we were new. We were the first ones in our village and in our region, so they had never had Peace Corps volunteers, which is significant because a lot of Peace Corps countries have communities that are used to having Peace Corps volunteers. And so the path has been laid and that was not the case where I was in South Africa. So we were given these really nebulous titles of School and Community Resource volunteers. So you had flexibility, but people tended to do what they were studying to do, right? Or what they had been doing in their career. So as an educator, I initially just taught, but as I spoke with these women, who were incredible and were the backbone of the society (surprise, surprise), they had a dream of creating a village bakery and needed access to clean water, access to food.
Kali: There was nothing in the village. They had to go to a neighboring town and these, what they called Kuhn Bees, which weren’t really safe transportation where they walked. And so I wanted the women to, I wanted to support these women and supporting their vision and realizing their vision. So I can’t take credit. I think on my resume, I talked about supporting it. I definitely did not create the bakery, but I gave the platform for them to have conversations. Because I have access to resources in the West — to all these materials and research — I know it was before Internet really. So I didn’t have access to any technology, but I had books mailed to me. I would go into the city to get things so I can learn about starting a business.
Kali: So I did a lot of self-research and I would share with the women what I learned. I never felt like I had the authority to teach them because I didn’t have a business background and I’ve never started anything, but I felt that my role there was to bring tools that could support them in their vision that I did have privilege and I had access to resources and so I tried really hard to bring the resources that I had access to to the women and support them in their vision and same with the library project. So that was really invigorating for me and it made me realize I loved starting things and being part of something that was more community development based. I also realized I could do that so much easier in my own country where there weren’t the same cultural barriers.
Kali: And so when I got back, I knew that I was going to do something more creative and that was community-based. The other thing is that South Africa is a stunning country with a troubled soul, and apartheid ravaged the soul of that country, and it was still very palpable. Like I said, it was only a few years post-apartheid. So I had never experienced racism like I experienced in South Africa to the point where sometimes white people would not put change in my hand. They put it on the counter because they didn’t want to touch my hand. And invisibility. I read “Invisible Man” when I was there because I finally understood I was experiencing that level of racism that mind you, I already told you I had experienced stuff before. But these were the things my grandparents experienced. Knowing that, I read a lot of civil rights books during that time because the things that my parents have been telling me my whole life — they made me watch “Eyes on the Prize” and they would say all this stuff — I was like, “my parents are crazy militant people.”
Kali: They were just very educated about the history of America and they wanted me to be as well. And it was so hard for me to digest it because I wasn’t learning it anywhere else. As I read these civil rights books, I understand what my parents and grandparents had to go through in a really visceral way. And that had a profound change on me. That was when I knew I wanted to work with black children and families. The black community was important to me and that what had happened in civil rights in the US had happened nowhere else in the world. So there were a lot of countries that had oppression and oppressive regimes. But the fact that our community had come so far, it gave me this sense of pride in our people as Black Americans. Like there’s all this talk of wanting to go back to Africa.
Kali: But I felt they’re like, I’m not African-American, I’m black American. My experience as a black person in America is not the experience as a black person in Africa. And my people in this country have done a lot and have overcome a lot to be who they are. And my dad in particular, you know, my grandfather was first generation American from the West indies. My dad grew up in the projects with nothing and his career trajectory and his whole life trajectory is unbelievable. And just knowing all the forces — the forces that I had to deal with — he had to deal with it two-fold. And then my grandfather had to deal with it three-fold. So it gave me this renewed empowerment. And my parents knew that I never wanted to hear their stories [before I went to South Africa]. When I came back, they were blown away. It was what brought me into both entrepreneurship and social justice work in a really concrete way for the rest of my career.
Ryan: I just had a moment of listening to you and my racial equity journey started about three and a half years ago and I just realized as you were talking that education and the intentionality for which things in our history are omitted. For my own education, I learned absolutely the dominant culture education in all of these ways. And it was only just over three years ago where I just started learning all these things in Portland — that it was built as a white utopia in the mid-1800’s. And up to just 20–30 years ago, red-lining still existed, where black people could own homes in a certain section of town — regulated by the banking system, and the last part of it was uplifted just in the 1990's.
Kali: Because wealth is generated through home ownership. And so when you look at wealth gaps, like those things had deleterious impacts for generations. My grandfather served in the war but didn’t get to benefit from the Gi bill because he was a black man. And my parents, my grandparents, my mother’s side had to use a Jewish attorney, uh, to sort of be them to purchase their first home because they would never have let them purchase the home. So there was just all these layers that I think impacts so many in our community that people don’t know about. And what’s hard is because they don’t know, there’s all these things you hear like, “Well, they just don’t work hard, they’re just lazy.” And it’s like, “are you kidding me? You have no idea.”
Ryan: And for so many of my white peers, especially me, we were so shocked that Trump won. And what I’ve been educated on is, “it’s like no, he is the perfect example of how the system is working exactly as it is designed.” The constitution is built on land-owning, white men having rights and women not having any rights until the 1920s, you know, and so on and so on. It’s just this compounding effect and that specific education does not happen and has not happened to 95% of my white male CEO peers around the country. And therefore we perpetuate this, this narrative that is false. I think because it focuses so much on what our history books say and omits this whole other side to things means that there’s a huge missing education. Yeah. So anyway skipping ahead — you got your Masters at Harvard, but I want to get to the founding of Kairos — let us know how you ended up in Portland? And you started this amazing nonprofit with four other great women.
Kali: Yeah. So I mean if you couldn’t tell from my decision just to go to the Peace Corps, I have a strong free spirit element of me and I wanted to live on the West Coast. After the Peace Corps, I lived in Connecticut for a year. That’s where my parents are now, but I just wanted to be somewhere different. So I drove cross country. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a plan and I just thought “why not” as I was in my mid 20s and I could. And so I ended up in Portland. I had a friend who knew a friend here and then another friend who knew folks. So I didn’t have a community here. I just knew that the west coast was more progressive politically, and that appealed to me. I didn’t know about the history of Oregon at the time, but I think the mindset of people here is goo. You know, people talk about Portland being liberal, but then race relations are not.
Kali: But I got to say, I think Portland is more progressive than liberals sometimes give it credit for. It does have a tainted history [around race.] There is still some pervasive elements but it doesn’t compare to what I experienced in the Northeast. And so I think because things are so traditional in the East and tradition is so entrenched and whiteness becomes more entrenched in the Northeast. Here in the West, there’s so many more people that have come from different places. And I think the west coast mentality is a little more inclusive, for lack of a better word. It’s sort of eschews tradition. And you know, this idea of being renaissance or renegade means I’m valued. And so there aren’t rules here. There aren’t traditions here in the same way. It has enabled Oregonians and certainly Portlanders to have real conversations about race, whether they figured it out or not.
Kali: The fact that the conversation is happening is the fact that, like you just said what you just said on a Podcast. That is powerful and that is meaningful and that does not happen everywhere. So I came to Portland not knowing what I was going to do. I got involved in the Urban League Young Professionals and did different jobs. Ultimately Kairos came about. I think I had worked for Mayor Adams for 4 years. And, in that time, I had the opportunity to sit at a lot of tables with leaders in education and we were talking about achievement gaps and opportunity gaps and disparities that had been in existence for decades. And we looked at a lot of data and exchanged spreadsheets. And I got really tired of talking about these things and not seeing enough examples of things that were actually moving the needle.
Kali: I knew that education was important. That’s why I went into education, that I knew that it was game-changing and I saw how the access to education changed my family’s trajectory and certainly gave me opportunities in life, so the fact that black children were failing and not just black children, Native American children and children that speak second languages, children with disabilities were all failing at such high rates in Portland schools. I just thought it was unconscionable — like how do we NOT educate, and I wanted to put something into the universe of things that looked and felt different than the schools were. I also had an experience when I first moved to Portland, I worked out at what it is no longer in existence as a school, but Marshall High School. I had two jobs. I worked for a school-based program that was based at Marshall High School and middle school Binnsmead. And then I worked at Albertina Kerr as well.
Kali: I’ve always had this interest in both mental health and education and the intersectionality between the two. And in that time I worked with a group of students that were African-American. They had asked me to do a lunch group because there was a Slavic lunch group and there was a Latino group, but they wanted a group for black kids. And so I agreed to do it. That wasn’t what I was there to do, but it was something that I agreed to do as an extra. And I used to share with them what my parents would share with me, which were people that had been successful, who looked like us. And one of the stories I shared was just a successful black person who is real who I knew, and I kept his name out of it, but I was sharing his trajectory and the kids didn’t believe that he was real.
Kali: And these are sixth graders, you know, at 11 years old, they cannot suspend belief that you can overcome poverty and racism to be successful in business. And, it broke my heart and I never forgot it. And I thought, what is happening when 11 or 12 year olds can’t dream for something bigger? And so I think starting Kairos was — I carried it with me and I felt like creating something that looks and feels different. That means helping children understand at a young age that anything is possible for them, that they are valuable, that they are brilliant, that they have something to offer the world. And I think that coupled with my own experiences of invisibility, I wanted all children to know that “I see you, like I see you, I see you, I see you.” And elementary school and early childhood education is like the formative years that that builds the base to everything.
Kali: And I know there’s so much brain research + neuroscience now that explains how impactful that is. So knowing that I wanted to create a space that was very different. And I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. In reflection, all of the programs and jobs that I had in Portland were about starting something. They were just starting things within other organizations, but this entrepreneurial streak — again in the social sector, people don’t use the word entrepreneur.
Ryan: It’s a dirty word.
Kali: So I didn’t know that that’s what I was, but I knew I liked starting things from scratch. And so starting Kairos, I messaged Zalika who is a co-founder as well as our Director of Education and the principal at the school and I was like, “what do you think about starting a school?” And she was like, “you know, I’ve had the same idea.” She went to Columbia, I went to Harvard, we both had to do these projects where we had to create a school concept. And so I remember going through my emails, my yahoo mail account that I never used to find my paper that I had done that because I remember I had to email it and that explained my school concept and we just started one from there and brought other folks in — not fully knowing what we were doing.
Ryan: So talk about how different Kairos is in how you approach the curriculum than Portland or then a public school system as far as you were touching on it. But I want the audience to hear this notion that there is neuroscience science behind how you create that space of love and all that, but then there’s breathing techniques and all of these things so that the whole person is brought to being fully receptive to learning how to think critically and all of these things. And it’s like kindergarten thru 5th grade, right?
Kali: Yeah and we also do some early learning work for families as well — for younger children, zero to five. We lean heavily into what I call the neuroscience of love. There is a lot of brain research that tells us that when children are under stress, it sets off the Amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is always helping protect us. And so the Ras system that is activated and is looking as the watchdog, and when something doesn’t feel safe, the Amygdala puts us in that fight or flight or freeze response. And so a lot of times schools are not places that are welcoming and that children are feeling safe in. And so when young children are entering a school environment, they don’t feel safe knowing that that’s what’s going on in their brain. Essentially the pre-frontal cortex (and I’m getting a little nerdy about it,) but the prefrontal cortex shuts down. The prefrontal cortex is what you need to be able to make decisions and control impulses.
Kali: It’s central to learning. And so knowing that the space you create for children impacts the brain’s ability to learn and function optimally for me was mind-blowing. And when I was studying to be a teacher, this neuroscience was not there. So in the 90s, they didn’t know this stuff. Fast forward though, 20 years and there is so much more. I felt like if we know this to be true, then why don’t we focus on creating environments where children belong? Know they belong. There’s also been research that there is a long standing, Harvard research study that talked about in order for adults to thrive, they need to be in communities of belonging, that are loving and caring. And so it’s not that that’s the only thing that matters, but from a learning context, you want those neural connections to be made in the brain.
Kali: The other thing that happens is that the prefrontal cortex breaks down. So does the neural connection between that and the hippocampus. The hippocampus is where our memory is. You don’t learn to retain. If you can’t retain what you learn, it’s useless to know the memory is impacted as well by the stressors that children experience, I think reinforced for us that you have to create a space and it’s not just good. We serve predominantly African kids, but this is important for all children. There are many children who are outliers and who don’t fit in, all for various reasons, and we are not optimizing their brain’s capacity to learn when we create spaces that are toxic for them. And that’s what happens. The disproportionate discipline issue that starts at four years old, for [black or brown] children to be thrown out of class. What does that say? Like that doesn’t make it a place that children want to be.
Kali: So Kairos focuses on a climate of inclusion and cultural relevance. So children know that they’re seen and valued. And culture is more than just people of color and we all have culture. And so how do you reflect culture for all children in your building? We have mindful practice. So there are techniques that you can do when the brain is stressed, the brain can get back to a place where it is functioning healthily, but it requires different practices like breathing and mindfulness. And sort of calming yourself to be able to get your brain back ready to learn. And so we employ a lot of mindful practice at Kairos. The practice of reflection is another big thing. Our educators and instructional staff, we train them to be aware of that as the person interacting with the child. We have our own triggers and our own stresses.
Kali: And so unless we employ reflective practice and education, we’ll always go to what is easiest and what is easiest is often not best for children. So when you go through a power struggle with a child in the classroom, which is what happens, which is what leads to disproportionate discipline, which by the way is correlated with incarceration rates, you are creating a dynamic that has this terrible rabbit trail. But when you were reflective and aware, you can make different decisions. Social, emotional health is another big thing. And we have what we call the habits of success and they include things like optimism and curiosity and gratitude and things that really are about supporting the whole child and what we know we that we did not just make them up. We did a literature review in our first year of operation looking at the success particularly of African American children, ages 0 to 10.
Kali: And these were the things that rose to the top that the research said, as important as the academic skills are math, language, arts, science, if children are strong in those academic areas but don’t have these other things, they’re less likely to be successful and you can appreciate as an entrepreneur, like curiosity is a perfect example of something I think that the most entrepreneurial people had opportunities to be curious as children and what happens particularly to black children. Curiosity is seen as obstinance or insubordination, which is the most common reason for children to be disciplined. Black children, black boys in particular, are disciplined in schools for insubordination, which is completely subjective. It’s the teacher just deciding that that child doesn’t want to learn, but you can’t be curious and explore, if you [robotically] follow the rules. They go hand in hand. And so we create safe spaces for that. And I believe actually we are building our future entrepreneurs. We know that this is the foundation for them to be leaders and game changers in the future.
Ryan: Awesome. So two questions left and so there is a lot in that and I’ve just thought about that segue to marketing. Two things. One, you’re trying to change an entire system that our country is built off of and how do you market that and two, there’s a lot of nerdy stuff that you said and the front part of that would like my brain and my hippocampus and pre-frontal stuff — people can only remember one or two things in marketing and I am saying all of this while wearing your t-shirt message of “Hate Lowers Down your Heart.” Some super cute little five year-old said that at one point and you put it on a t-shirt and it’s been selling. How do you market Kairos, when you’re trying to get so many messages across. How do you simplify and position the one main thing that you want people to remember about Kairos and has there been a campaign that has worked really well for you?
Kali: We have not done a campaign. I think that marketing is the hard part. Honestly, I speak with passion about what I know and I think that has helped us market the importance of the work.
Ryan: And you’re a very public figure speaking in a lot of places.
Kali: I have the opportunity to speak in different places and you know, I worked in policy. I kind of glossed over that part, but I spent 10 years doing policy work to work for the department of Education. I worked for the city, the county, and so my Masters was in public policy with a concentration in education policy. I went into policy very deliberately. I actually was choosing between that and a more standard public policy program in New York and I wanted to go into policy because I believe in system change is what was necessary. Policies needed to change because they were hindering what I was trying to do on the ground. As someone who started as a practitioner, I could see how the policies were my barrier.
Kali: I got to know the policies so I can change them to eliminate some of these barriers. But that’s why I lean into system change. I had this background of seeing how the system was set up, seeing who the players were and recognizing where there might be opportunities to push and we continue to push, but I don’t want to have success for just a group of children here. I’ve wanted to impact the greater system and to prove that we can do things differently overall and to be able to scale not just in Oregon, but scale outside of Oregon as well.
Kali: The practices that we’re doing are not rocket science. They are based in research. Yes, and they may sound nerdy, but they are really simple things. I think if I had to choose a word, I think you know, we talk about choose love, like it sounds so hokey and I have mentioned earlier, have a bit of a pragmatist, like I don’t like the touchy feely stuff. It’s not. I’ve learned about vulnerability over the years, but it is not where I feel comfortable at all, but I know that love effects us at a cellular level. It affects us genetically over generations.
There is a positive element to love and when you know that when you know an impacts the brain and when you know an impact, so anywhere you know, it impacts your physical health. Like leaning into love becomes more than just a squishy, like feel good thing. It is a practical science based thing as well. And if schools choose love, I guarantee you in, in a real sense of the word, not like I am going to love his high expectations. Love is not letting kids just pass. It’s holding them to high expectation and seeing their value and helping them reach their goals. If we do that, we will see differences in our educational system.
Ryan: That was beautiful. Thank you. So last question is just a person who’s really inspiring you either throughout your life or right in this moment.
Kali: Yeah, that one was a hard one. There’s so many people that inspire me. So my favorite thing to do — I love watching documentaries and biopics and I love reading biographies and I’m Reading Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” right now and it’s super inspiring. I’m loving it. Her life and her journey are just really inspiring and it’s amazing. I feel really fortunate that I can read a book about a black female who was a First Lady of the United States. I did not think that that would happen in my lifetime. I hope to read a book about the first President of the United States, female president of the United States- whatever color she may be. I do hope that the unique perspective of her as a black female — wearing the same skin that I’m in, having the same barriers and opportunities, and where that has taken her and what she has learned along the way has been really profound, and I’m not even finished.
Ryan: Well, that was a beautiful interview. I always say I learn that much more about my friends and I feel enriched by it, so thank you, Kali!
Kali: Thanks for having me.
Ryan: It was fun.
The author, Ryan Buchanan, is a social and for-profit entrepreneur who co-founded a pathway to leadership program for professionals of color called Emerging Leaders as well as founder + CEO of a data-driven, digital marketing agency, eROI.