Alumni Spotlight: Clifton King Jr., Mentors of Minorities in Education

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Clifton King, Jr. is the Chief Educational Officer (CEO) at Mentors of Minorities in Education, Inc.(M.O.M.I.E.). The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Clifton about his work in educational development and empowerment for at risk youth, and his experience in the Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in education?

King: My own personal experience really pushed me to pursue education. School was always too easy for me growing up, I never really felt challenged. By the time I got to high school, I really didn’t care about school at all. I stopped going to class, my motivation declined, all of those things. After high school, I didn’t go to college, I didn’t want to pursue higher education and as a result of that I ended up in trouble. I was in the neighborhood and on the streets making some bad choices, and some of those choices landed me in jail. When I got out of that situation, I tried several different jobs. I was in tech, communications, I was a locksmith, I sold cars, worked in real estate. I did so many things, but I never felt fulfilled.

When I went back to visit my old high school, I realized so many children were in the same position I was in. They were also disconnected from education, but from the opposite end of the spectrum, and as a result they were disengaged. I observed that many of these kids felt like the teachers didn’t know how to relate to them and the curriculum wasn’t compelling to them; they couldn’t see the connection of the world they were living in, and the education they were receiving. While a different perspective, we had the same results, disengaged from school and engaged in making horrible choices.

I noticed that there was an issue, we arrived at the conclusion: these kids are at risk. I felt compelled to do something about that. MOMIE’s mission is to nurture the genius in children and create a transformative educational experience, and that’s what I wanted to do, ‘Nurture That Genius’. I know that the children/youth in my community have this side to them. I like to be real and honest–to be able to engage in the criminal activities that some of them were engaging in, they must have some level of genius. I realized if they knew how to get into trouble, I could engage that side of them and channel it into their education. I wanted to challenge them and nurture their genius, so that is what led me to education. All of the other aforementioned jobs left me feeling paid and unfulfilled; however, my work now is so fulfilling. I’ve been doing this since 2011 and I feel empowered every single day.

CPNL: Your work with Mentors of Minorities in Education aims to transform education for at risk children of color. How has MOMIE worked to address the educational disparities created by the COVID-19 pandemic?

King: Our work, even during this time, is all about nurturing the genius in children. We keep returning to that mission. When we are assessing the needs of our target population, at risk youth of color, we are looking at standardized tests. In 2014 when we looked at the common core data, we looked at the scores from third to eighth grade and compared our youth of color to their white counterparts. Our youth of color were scoring at 15% proficiency and their white peers were scoring at 80% proficiency. We saw a need to create positive educational experiences for these children.

Even with this recent election, there has been a lot of conversation surrounding the idea of representation and its importance for youth of color. Something we have worked on is our Great Person series where we teach our participants about somebody of color, a positive role model. We use examples of people from the past, the present, local leaders, international leaders, etc. The goal is to showcase the work that they’ve done, but also their story. We want the children to understand what it is like to walk a mile in their shoes. For instance, Lebron James was an example we used. A lot of children today see him as a multimillionaire basketball superstar, but his path to superstardom, is quite similar to a lot of the children/youth in our community. He had a young single mom, he moved from house to house for years, he didn’t have many resources, and the list goes on. What he did have; however, was a gift, determination, and some positive role models that looked like him. Studies show that when children build their self-esteem through cultural awareness and representation, they can succeed in other areas of life–namely their academics. Therefore, by using the positive role models, we are fostering this approach of self-love through social and emotional skill-building. If we can help them feel confident and capable, then they will know that they can succeed.

We know there are at least three ways of learning: auditory, kinesthetic, and visual. Yet we only give exams in one way. So, what we are trying to do is find out how our children and youth learn, teach them in the way that fits best for them, and then build up their confidence. As we build up those skills, they transfer it to the classroom, and ultimately to these standardized tests. Unfortunately, we can’t change the whole educational system, we can’t change the content of the standardized exams, but what we can do is build the confidence and nurture their genius of the youth we serve.

When it comes to COVID-19, we have gone completely virtual. We were hit very hard by the pandemic. We were a 100% direct-service organization that thrived on that face-to-face interaction with our children/youth. COVID shut down all of the schools, and suddenly we didn’t have any children to serve. Nevertheless, nurturers find ways to nurture. Within a month, we had to transfer our program to fit into this new virtual environment. We sent home what we call ‘BoomBoxes’ to encourage students’ learning. We designed cardboard boxes to look like an 80’s boombox. Inside there were academic materials and school supplies that the students would need for virtual learning. The goal with this project was to approach it from a lens of equity, whether they had materials or not at home was irrelevant. We wanted them to know they were all getting the same box, the same tools, materials, and ultimately the same opportunities, supports, and services, so nobody had to feel less than in this new environment. We really wanted to address this lack of resources, because it plays a role in educational disparity. And although our program is virtual, we are still trying to maintain that in-person touch. We had guest speakers, virtual talent shows, story time, and creative writing sessions. If we were teaching something like graphing, we would put M&M’s in the box along with the graphic paper so they could graph in a more interactive way. We tried to help them learn in a hands-on way, so they still felt that connection and that challenge.

We also decided to do an “Around the World in 50 Days” session. We looked at countries in East Africa, made our way around the globe all the way to West Africa. Each week we would learn about a new country or region, their fashion, culture, food, music, history, and important figures. We also tied in the 5 components of social emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. The students got to ‘travel’ in a sense. We even had some students who had visited the different countries, or students from different cultures so we had them share with the class their experiences and their cultural traditions. Something we saw was the children who are usually shy were taking the chance to speak up because suddenly they could talk about something they are confident about. Once you can build their confidence with one thing, you can transfer it to others. We also gave each student a chance to lead a session. We had one group of first graders, and one student struggled with reading, so we worked with her one-on-one and went over our materials in advance. By the time she came to the next session, she felt confident with the materials and was able to lead the group in reading aloud. It all goes back to helping our children feel capable and confident, and that work has not stopped during COVID-19.

These were the virtual programs we implemented during COVID-19. We also have a small center that serves families who cannot be at home with their children to assist with virtual learning, so the kids do it with us. While they are here, we do social and emotional skill building, take them to the park, etc. so they still have some sense of normalcy; which is another way we have navigated through this pandemic.

CPNL: MOMIE’s model uniquely integrates creative and culturally-relevant out-of-school time programs, opportunities for parent and community engagement, and the sharing of educational tools and resources for the community. How can communities better engage to develop youth education?

King: By discovering the needs of the communities you serve. A lot of times programs that are run by professional adults tend to approach it from a perspective that we know what’s best. We put together things for the community and tell them, if you do this, you’ll be great. But particularly with this demographic, we do not include the youth in the process. To improve on this within our organization, we have developed youth steering committees, we bring our youth into the conversation. We show them the grants and talk to them about how they can benefit from funding. We have even had high schoolers help us put together our grant proposals. And we do all this to better address the needs of our youth. For instance, I’ll be 41 next month, and as much as I like to think I’m cool and hip, there’s things these kids like to do that I just do not have any experience in. So, I need them to be a part of the conversation, and not just as tokens of representation, but as partners in our organization. They can be that voice to other adults. We have also brought in members of the community like parents and teachers and we have our youth facilitate these conversations. Once we know what they need, we can build a better intervention.

CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?

King: It was a lot of great information, and it really opened my eyes to unique lessons. I believe I may have learned those lessons eventually, but never in as much detail in such a concentrated focused period of time. During the three months of the program, I learned so much. It would have probably taken me three to five years to learn all of that. Someone said something very profound in the program. They told me that this program will help us not only to answer the questions that we have, but questions that I didn’t even know I had. I think that really sums up the Certificate Program. In the nonprofit sector, things are always changing, grants, funding, and proposals are always coming and going. The Certificate Program helped me to think ahead, to anticipate issues and answer questions that I knew would arise. It showed me what to look for in places I wouldn’t have thought to look. And the community is so important, I met a community and a network of people in the sector who will serve as lifelong connections.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

King: I would say like Nike, just do it. Don’t be intimidated by the workload or the readings. Go in with an open mind, know that your ideas will be challenged and you will learn so much. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Be willing to learn and share. Ask as many questions as you can. The professors are incredible and so willing to help. Luisa and Kathy stick out to me in particular. They are people who will not leave you. The people in your class are going through similar things you are, and you can learn from them. Know that there is a community of people who are there to help you. If you are thinking about it, stop thinking and just do it.