Kali is a social entrepreneur who is a passionate advocate for equity and education transformation with a background that spans from teacher to program manager to policymaker over the last 18 years. After spending four years as Education Director for Former Mayor Sam Adams, Kali pursued establishing and co-founding KairosPDX, a non-profit dedicated to closing opportunity and achievement gaps for historically marginalized children. The Kairos Learning Academy, a culturally responsive K-5 public charter school, started the 2019/20 school serving over 200 children.
We spoke to Kali about the founding of Kairos, her work in social justice, equity and education, and how neuroscience and love have influenced the work Kairos does.
What did you want to do as a career when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a teacher when I was a kid. I liked kids and I would set up school with my younger brother. Pretend school was what we would do for fun, and I envisioned myself being a teacher.
When I reflect on it, I think part of it was just that I wasn’t exposed to a lot of professions. I also thought about being a ballerina, because I did ballet. I was a pretty good soccer player and there was a period of time I thought, “Maybe I’ll play soccer.” My parents were both in business and I didn’t like business. I babysat a lot, so I knew I liked kids.
I had a challenging educational experience. I went to public school in a small town in New England. We lived in a town that had good public schools, but I was the only kid of color in my class, even in my school.
I had a small pool of professions that I was exposed to. I was born in the late 70s and grew up in the 80s. We didn’t have access to information like people do now. You only knew what was around you, and that was limited. School was something I knew, teaching was something I was exposed to, and I knew I liked children and cared about children. I think that’s what informed my ideas around what I’d be.
I have no regrets about my life and the trajectory that I have been on. But I often have thought, “I didn’t even know that was a job.” Throughout the course of my career, I’ve seen people do things that I couldn’t conceive of as a profession as a child or as a young adult even.
How do you approach that with your kids at Kairos? Do you work to provide more exposure to careers?
We do a lot at Kairos to try and give children exposure to different opportunities, different fields. We’ve leaned into STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math). We have Arts integration in everything that we do. There is something about developing the habits of mind to be creative and innovative that children will need in order to be whoever they’re going to be.
The world has changed a lot in the last 30 years or so. You don’t have people necessarily staying in one profession, they create a pathway that may involve multiple professions. Helping children draw outside the lines and think for themselves and be curious… developing those habits of mind is as important as exposing children to what opportunities are out there.
Could you explain how Kairos came into existence?
Kairos is an effort that was founded by four other women and me.
At the time I had been working in City Hall, and was exposed to a lot of educational leaders, business leaders, and elected leaders who were talking about problems within the educational system. But there were no examples of anyone doing innovative, entrepreneurial work in that space that could lead to different outcomes.
I had at that point in time worked in education and in education policy for over a decade and I had worked in schools and in classrooms, which is where I started my career. I was frustrated with seeing the same old thing, and now I’m at tables with leaders talking about that thing that’s not working, but who is doing something to change it?
It felt inane to be complaining about a system that we weren’t actively working to change. I wouldn’t say nothing was being done to change the system, but it’s hard to change a system as intractable as education from the outside.
I was pretty naïve, and I thought, “If I can create a model that looks and feels different and yields better results for children, particularly black and brown children, then maybe that can be the North Star from which we begin to build a new educational space for children.”
My co-founders and I all came with different backgrounds and we were all mothers at that time. We all had lived experiences as parents and professionals in education and health who knew the odds were stacked against children of color.
At the end of the day, I just have such a strong belief in the power of children. And I think we’re letting children down as a society. Children spend a lot of time in schools, so providing space in schools for children to thrive and belong becomes very important.
I care about kids more than I care about academia, and I think Kairos is a catalyst for change that is good for children.
Tell me about the experience of being a parent or a mom and knowing that the odds are against your kids.
When I first moved to Portland, I worked for a nonprofit that was doing school-based programming. I worked with a group of sixth and seventh graders in South East Portland. It is a large immigrant community, with a lot of Slavic and Latino and Asian and Southeast Asian kids, but there’s not a lot of Black kids. The Black kids at my school wanted to have a lunch group, what people now call affinity groups, and they asked me to lead this group. I really wasn’t there to do that, I was there to develop leadership skills and other stuff with all the kids in an after school program. But I felt like I couldn’t say no to them. And then I thought, “What do I do in this group?”
I decided, well, I’ll just share stories of Black people who have been successful, and I can give them background about their lives as inspiration for them. I think the second or third meeting I shared a story about someone close to me who did really well in business but grew up in the projects in the South Bronx. I didn’t identify who the person was. I just shared the story. Obviously I know his life story intimately, so it was a very detailed story.
When I got to the end and asked the children what they thought, they didn’t believe it was a true story. I was stunned. They said, “How could he have grown up, with all those challenges, and then get to college, and get to that level of success in life?”
I was sort of in this state of shock and disbelief because it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t believe the story. What was so heartbreaking was that at the age of 12 and 13 years old, they had lost the belief that change and opportunity was possible for them. That was heart-wrenching because to me, they were still children.
If at 12 you can’t believe that more is possible, something is severely wrong with the society and environment in which you’re growing up, and people have failed you royally.
It lit a fire in me to really understand the history of Black folks in Portland and the experience of Black children in education in Portland. I did a lot of research, I talked to the head of the PSU Black Studies Department. I’m one that if I want to find something out, I will go after it and I will find it. My experiences in schools informed what I was concerned about within the educational system here in Portland long before I ever became a parent.
There are a lot of assumptions made about children, Black and Latinx kids in particular. The expectations were low, the assumptions were negative, and the assumptions became internalized over time. That’s part of what I was seeing in this group of kids in sixth and seventh grade.
I can’t tell you how many Black kids I’ve heard talk about how the teachers didn’t see them, the teachers didn’t like them, the teachers didn’t care about them. Over and over and over again.
When I finally got to the Department of Education in 2007, I was the only person of color in the department as a policy person. I worked in the Superintendent’s office under Superintendent Castillo, and I was the only person of color there other than Susan Castillo, except for the civil rights person and the equity person. So it’s no wonder that when you get down to the granular teacher classroom level, that the experience of children was as it is, with the inequity in who has access to what resources, and the curriculum that children are exposed.
My own personal lived experience as a child was that what I was being taught about blackness was very negative. It was always slavery, and what was done to us. Not the empowering and true stories of our own inventions and our own creations and the things that we did to lead. Black people and all people of diverse diaspora have contributed a lot to make America what it is. We know nothing about it.
It’s a combination of curriculum and what children are learning and attitudes and assumptions that have created these conditions. And as a parent, I felt like (and we talked about this when we were starting Kairos) you wind up with the choice of do I put my child in an environment that is more diverse, so they’re not the only one?” knowing that most majority-minority schools in Oregon are amongst the lowest-performing. So do you make that choice so that at least a child is not culturally isolated? Or do you choose a school that has academic rigor, but no diversity where the children question their value and worth?
I don’t think either is a fair choice. It’s a false choice. As parents, we felt that at Kairos we wanted to eliminate that false choice. We felt that you could offer rigor and belonging, and diversity, all in one place. That’s not a decision parents should have to make.
You talk about the power of love and neuroscience. That’s really interesting. How did those two things influence your philosophy at Kairos?
I love neuroscience. I was actually a double major in Psychology and Education in college and I’ve always had as much interest in mental health as I do education, because it all boils down to wellness for children. Neuroscience has really evolved over the last decade or so to give us an understanding of how our brains work and to help us understand how children learn better. Science gives you such factual, grounded information, that once you understand it, it can inform behavior around teaching and learning. At Kairos, we are very much informed by neuroscience.
We also talk about the neuroscience of love. As children experience ongoing stress, what they call “toxic stress” or “ACEs”, Adverse Childhood Experiences, two of the most impactful things that can ameliorate the negative impact that this stress has on the brain are being in a loving, caring environment and being around a loving, caring adult. Those two things have a dramatic impact on the wiring of the brain and help the restructuring of that wiring to enable the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain to function properly. It’s fascinating, and it’s so informative.
Over the last couple of weeks during COVID, I’ve been creating videos about the science of success. The videos go into the neuroscience and give parents tips about how they can support their kids during this time. I read a mixture of neuroscience research and psychology and applied and positive psychology that speaks to how we can support wellness in children. [You can watch one of Kali’s videos on the science of success here.]
At the end of the day, children thrive if they are supported socially, emotionally, intellectually, and culturally. Schools tend to focus on intellectual and academic support, but we leave out the social, emotional and cultural. The neuroscience will tell us that the idea we can separate these kinds of support is a myth. In the brain, they’re all mixed together. When you’re only focusing on one thing, if the emotional side is unsteady, it’s actually disrupting the intellectual side. They’re not segregated in the brain.
What is fascinating to me is that something as simple as love and belonging could have an impact on the functioning of our brain to make us better learners. The science is so clear on this. Why aren’t we all trying to create more spaces of love and belonging for children? That’s something that doesn’t cost money. That’s a shift in mindset.
Understanding how the brain works helps you understand that the schema we have around schooling has to change. Changing schema is a hard thing to do, because we are adults, and our schema is hardwired. The only way to change schema is repeated behaviors that create new schema, and that’s not easy for adults, but it doesn’t mean we can’t. I do believe we can create a new normal, and I think Kairos is on the cutting edge of doing so.
How would you advise parents right now who are home with their kids? What should they be thinking about?
As important as academics, the caring connection is so important. Allow teachers to connect with your child, and you need to connect with your child. This is a very important piece that I sometimes see being left out of the equation of how we support our kids during a pandemic.
Being at home is not going to look the same as school. Our job as parents is not to be educators. What we can do is love our kids and give them that love piece, that care and connection piece. Because this pandemic is a traumatic event, it is very important that we do that every day, that we spend time with our kids, giving them our undivided attention, letting them know they are valued.
So many parents are realizing right now what hard work their teachers do with their kids every single day. What are ways that you think as a community we can lift teachers up right now and show appreciation?
Positivity, positive words, positive affirmation. I know a lot of our teachers are working really hard and they’re working long hours to revise content to fit into this new normal. Gratitude goes a long way. The same way love impacts our children, it impacts us as adults knowing that we are valued. And if there were a movement of gratitude towards teachers that said, “We see you and we value you.” That would be a huge thing.