Q&A: We Are Marcus

We Are Marcus Works to Address Inequities in Education through Mentorship 

Christopher C. King, Founder of We Are Marcus

COVID-19 has shed light on a number of issues within our country – with the obvious being major healthcare disparities among different socioeconomic and demographic groups. It has also shed light on major disparities in education. We spoke with Christopher C. King, founder of We Are Marcus, an education technology company working to address inequities in education through mentorship.

Tell us about We Are Marcus and its mission to make an impact on education and mentorship.

We Are Marcus (WAM) is an education technology company founded in 2016 to address character development challenges in school and afterschool. WAM’s interactive mentoring platform (WAMpro) provides students access to the powerful stories of mentors and measures student character growth through their writing. WAM is aligned with leading social-emotional learning (SEL) frameworks and mindfulness best practices. Our “train the trainer” model is most helpful for districts with an interest in the positive network effect of engaging youth of color in inclusive conversations at school and in after-school settings. With our method, we reach more students in less time across the country and internationally.

I founded the company in 2016 and designed the initial prototype based on my transformative experience with mentoring. My mentor changed my life. I grew up in a single parent household and college access was far too challenging for me. In fact, during college advisement, I was told very clearly by my high school guidance counselor that I would never attend a four-year university. I was a B+ student with a rich extracurricular profile, yet expectations for my future were low, despite attending a competitive high school. Here’s why mentorship matters: I was accepted into a four-year university, but was under prepared to navigate college without a rich support system outside of my family.

At that time, I was very fortunate to have a mentor that poured into my development during my freshman year of college. I quickly realized that my story was far too common and had national implications. Years later, I noticed research from the National Mentoring Partnership and other sources which told this story:  there are 24 million fatherless households throughout the country and quality mentoring relationships vary significantly, with just 1 in every 3 student having access to a mentor. My research also revealed that mentoring organizations that match students with mentors is far too challenging, which inevitably affects the quality of the interaction. Other major roadblocks that prevent positive and long-lasting mentorship include:

  • There are not enough mentors for mentees;
  • The chemistry required to maintain the relationship;
  • The value-add from the mentor; and 
  • The skill development of the mentee.

Given my own experience and this research, I set out to leverage technology that solved these issues. I envisioned a platform that would address each of these issues by leveraging student input for content, eliminate matching, and teach students the social-emotional learning skills that would drive them to secure relationships (social capital) required for success and create spaces for reflection that would serve them well on their own.

Why is social-emotional learning, or SEL, important now given distance learning is happening throughout the country?

Students taking mentoring course.

Students partake in We Are Marcus mentoring courses.

COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated education inequities rapidly. Putting a spotlight on economic disparities is only the tip of the iceberg. We are not just thinking about unstable Wi-Fi here. The daily mental health condition of a child during this pandemic is incredibly challenging to address – from kids taking on adult roles at home more rapidly to financial challenges that shift a kid’s view of their self worth. Have you ever felt better about yourself on pay day? Imagine your parents treat you differently given their stress and take it out on you? In short, many students are “prioritizing life instead of school.” The case for SEL is one for making sure youth have engaging resources to develop themselves amidst these stressful times and educators have a variety of tools that hit at least these three critical principles:

  1. Restorative justice;
  2. Vulnerability; and
  3. Cultural competency. 

What do you think about inequities in education? Specifically, given the lack of cultural competence embedded in schools when approaching students who have experienced family loss due to COVID, challenges with unstable Wi-Fi, and access to devices for each child in every home?Man wearing shirt stating "Rooting for every black kid."

I think classrooms are the front lines and, as of late, virtual classrooms are now lending new insight into home life for students, which was previously not the responsibility of teachers. COVID-19 has changed that. It has uncovered systemic and structural racism in housing, healthcare, and employment in which many schools didn’t concern themselves. Previously, nothing was more important to educators than measuring academic progress. I believe we are at a point where educators must deal with all of it now: academic progress, SEL, and holistic education. It is no longer a choice to confront these overlapping factors. COVID has exposed so many underlying issues and to ignore it would be a mistake. This is sobering. But, this creates an opportunity to redesign the schooling experience completely. That’s where WAM comes in. We offer a solution that connects with students and elevates the anecdotes, and life lessons that connect personal experiences tied to academic and social emotional learning frameworks.

How do you envision edtech being implemented in the coming school year, especially as many schools are figuring out hybrid online and in-person models? 

I think hybrid models will resonate more throughout the country beyond dealing with COVID. I envision a school year that rotates student attendance and sends some educators (either from school, nonprofits or expanded agencies) to do house visits throughout the year to get to know families. This scenario sounds like it’d be wrought with challenges, but the great awakening and higher consciousness around racial disparities will inevitably seek increased representation and cultural fluency unlike anything we’ve seen before. People will be less likely to see home visits as intrusive, and more likely to embrace home learning as part of the school week. For those who cannot imagine this, home learning has actually already been a critical part of student learning. The perfect storm of a pandemic and social justice movement has done our education system a great service by making the home environment central.

How has your work evolved since the protests and fight for racial injustice occurred after the death of George Floyd? How will WAM continue to help engage and educate as this national conversation continues to unfold?

Multiple fists joining in unison.We Are Marcus starts with relevant content customized for the current issues students face. Restorative justice, vulnerability, and real experiences derived from racial consciousness is at the core of what we do.The murder of George Floyd validates what we do. Youth engage in our programming and student experience with this in mind. 

We will engage and educate in the national conversation by taking advantage of telling our story on this platform and others. The intersection of distance learning, racial injustice campaigns, and the rolling tide of social-emotional learning picking up momentum puts We Are Marcus at the center of at least 50 million young people interested in what we do.

For more information about We Are Marcus, including ways to get involved as a mentor, please visit www.wearemarcus.com or reach out directly to Christopher C. King at christopher@wearemarcus.com.

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