I AM Okah is a nonprofit organization that is the legacy of your sister Kahdine, who passed away at the age of 26 from breast cancer. Please tell us your ultimate goal and vision for your organization.
My goal for I AM O’Kah! is to impact our children by helping them remix the vision for their lives. Far too often, our children are placed in boxes and their visions are limited by someone else’s perspective on who they should become. Parents do it and even well meaning educators do, it all in the hopes of helping our children become “successful” adults. What is success if it isn’t defined by a life that is exhilarating and fueled by a passion that provides for your needs? The remix is about redefining life based on the things you are passionate about and the activities that create value. Our goal is to use I AM O’Kah! to break down the physiological barriers to success (skewed perspectives) and help our children attain their greatest selves. We simply state that vision in our tagline “unlocking greatness”. That’s it; our goal is to unlock greatness in the children that we serve.
One of first programs listed on your site is your Financial Rockstar Academy. Why finance? Paint us a picture as to what this program looks like from day 1 until the end of the semester.
The Financial Rockstar Academy is built on three 6-week modules. The modules consist of entrepreneurship, financial literacy and financial security. Currently, we are focused on the entrepreneurship module. We have placed our focus on the entrepreneurship module because we see it as the cornerstone of a proactive approach to life. Our goal is not to make every child an entrepreneur. We do however intend for all our children to be able to think like entrepreneurs and understand the mechanics of business and the impact it has on their personal decisions.
This fall we are trying something new and incorporating into our Financial Rockstar Academy 6 weeks of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) enrichment, 6 weeks of entrepreneurship training, and 4 weeks of public speaking. The classes will overlap to cover a 12-week period. At the end of the 12-weeks our students get the opportunity to compete for micro-business grants. The grant winners will be assigned business mentors through our partnership with MBA students from a local university. The mentors will work with them and their parents for 30-days to get their business up and running.
You have so many wonderful programs that are designed to foster leadership qualities in our youth, one of which being your entrepreneurship program. What need did you see within the Baltimore communities that compelled you to create an entire curriculum around the power of running your own business?
When I first came to Baltimore I attended a community discussion that asked the question, “What is the impact of poverty on education?” That question is something I found myself asking over and over again. The answer that I have arrived at so far is that poverty steals your hope and clouds your perspective. You become so busy trying to survive that you forget to live. You forget to dream. You forget to ask for help. You forget that you have the power to change your reality. In my humble opinion, entrepreneurship gives you your power back. If you can’t get a job; you make your own job. Building a business requires that you tap into your personal strengths and learn how to monetize them. It forces inward reflection and makes you hone lifelong skills like persuasion (marketing), resilience (sustainability), and innovation (creating value).
Poverty in Baltimore is unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. Many of the poor people that I encounter look lost and hopeless. Their minds have been locked into the confines of the streets that surround them. Entrepreneurship as I see it is the key to unlocking their greatest potential.
If you could change the way the public school system functions, from an academic perspective, what changes would you make? What courses would you implement? Would you implement any new policies that would ultimately benefit our future leaders?
I would make the public school system more conducive to learning. Our children are force-fed information. They aren’t treated like true customers of public education. The lessons and instruction are more in tuned with metrics and standardized tests than they are the lives of the children. I would implement changes like offering more interactive learning that fosters parent involvement and focuses on making learning fun and enjoyable.
As for courses I would implement, definitely entrepreneurship, personal finance, investing, public speaking and vocational sciences are subjects that I would like to see incorporated in a more meaningful way. Right now we treat these subjects like buzz words instead of integrating them throughout lesson plans for all subjects.
New policies I would implement would have to surround parental involvement, and the responsibility of the schools to get parents more involved in the education of their children. Parental involvement in the education of our children is key to providing a quality education. Our public schools should become the hubs of the community with the spokes being local businesses, parents and political leaders that all work together to effect change in the community.
In your opinion, what does it mean to THINK like an entrepreneur?
In life you have two options: own a business or work for one. It is easy to understand why an employer must understand the mechanics of business ownership; after all it’s their livelihood. The same holds true for the employee because their livelihood is also dependent on business. Thinking like an entrepreneur means that you understand how businesses create value in the marketplace and the impact of business development and innovation on the sustainability of business. This all boils down to a proactive approach to life. Our economy isn’t something that happens to us, we are the ones that create it.
I Am Okah offers an awesome scholarship to graduating high school seniors. In addition to providing financial assistance, you provide mentorship. Why is this so important to you and what type of mentoring do your scholarship recipients receive?
I Am OKah was founded on three principles: providing the right information, financial assistance and mentoring. This was Kahdine’s initial vision and the foundation of all our programs. When Kahdine left Mount Vernon, New York for Morgan State University in the Fall of 1995 it didn’t take her long to realize that having the money to attend school wasn’t enough. She needed a support system. I Am O’Kah! is the support system she needed and hopefully we are the support system that our scholars need.
Why the name I AM OKAH? What does it mean and symbolize?
“Are you okay?” is a question that Kahdine used to ask very often. She had a way of listening intensely to your reply, unlike anyone I have ever known. I Am O’Kah! is our reply and it is a reminder that no matter what happens in life it all serves a divine purpose.
Do most of the children and teens you help believe they are OKAH? Do they wake up each morning knowing how amazing and marvelous they are?
That understanding is a lifelong journey; most adults don’t even get it. For our children, we can only hope that we serve as a reminder that they are all meant to be amazing.
How does a young person become involved with your organization? Tell us the details.
Our entrepreneurship and financial literacy programming is available to students in Baltimore City and Balltimore County. Currently, we are working with Liberty Technology and Recreation Center in the city and Mars Estates PAL Center in the county.
Graduating high school seniors in the metro Baltimore area can apply to the Kahdine Ann DaCosta Memorial Scholarship through the College Bound Foundation.
As much as we like to do things entirely on our own, God blessings come through other people. How has the community come together to show support for your endeavors?
We are in Charm City! The response from the community has been amazing! Not to say that we haven’t had some struggles but overwhelmingly our experience has been great. If we ask for help, there is always someone willing to assist or connect us with the right people.
What can we expect from I AM OKAH in the upcoming school year and how can we be of service?
The next couple of month will be quite busy for us. We kick-off our school year programming in October. On November 8th we will be hosting a Small Business Economic Summit in Baltimore County. In March we will have a self-esteem workshop for boys and our 2nd Annual Be AMAZING Gala in May. Tons of work but we love it.
We are always looking for more volunteers and donors that believe in our work.
Any last thoughts to share with those reading?
We are all meant to be amazing! Discover your purpose and own it!
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