M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

The Murdock Trust is committed to the flourishing of all Pacific Northwest communities. During certain months of the year, we join those honoring the contributions, successes, and challenges of certain groups among us. February is Black History Month, and though listening to and uplifting our African American neighbors is a year-round priority, we are grateful for the opportunity to sit down with one of our local leaders in the Black community, Marsha Williams, for further reflections on this month.

Marsha Williams, founder of KairosPDX,  smiles for the camera. She is wearing a purple scarf and black shirt.

When Marsha Williams and her co-founders started KairosPDX, they designed it differently on purpose. They wanted to create a place that would center and celebrate the cultural identity of their Black students while providing them the kind of high quality education that every child deserves.

“We are unapologetic about centering Blackness to ensure that every child feels like they belong,” said Marsha.

A group of students at KairosPDX gather around a teacher on the floor of a classroom.

A nonprofit organization serving the Portland area, KairosPDX exists to eliminate the prolific racial achievement and opportunity gaps by cultivating confident, creative, and compassionate leaders. It does this through a multi-pronged approach that includes a K-5 Learning Academy, Family Connections Programming, an Early Learning Network, and rigorous advocacy at the state and local levels.

“All the work that we do with and for students is grounded in the belief that culturally specific learning experiences expand opportunities for children to actively engage in creating their own lives and contribute fully,” said Marsha. “That’s the key thing: How do we make sure they are contributing fully to the quality of the world around them?”

Marsha said there are some barriers to achieving these goals.

“There is a lot of work to do, specifically in the Pacific Northwest, to ensure that Black children have the same opportunities as their white peers,” she said. “There is still a significant disparity between different populations and their access to educational opportunities.”

In Fall 2022, Portland Public Schools reported that less than 17% of Black 3rd graders were proficient in English Language Arts, and roughly 5% of Black 5th graders were proficient in mathematics.

Two young students at KairosPDX read from notebooks inside a classroom.

“I don’t think people are really aware of the academic performance gap with Black students in this district and across the state,” said Marsha. “It’s an urgent issue that needs to be at the forefront of all discussions of public education.”

KairosPDX and other educational partners have worked hard to be at the table when these kinds of policy decisions are made. And it’s where Marsha sees the greatest opportunity for the Black community when it comes to education.

“We have some unique opportunities right now to influence the policies that impact our students,” she said. In addition to working with coalitions of likeminded organizations to monitor and influence legislation on behalf of the students at their schools, there are opportunities to improve transparency, accountability, and spending in the educational sector. Reforming these areas will lead to greater accuracy in reporting, which will better serve all students.

What’s most exciting to Marsha, however, is the broad community support and collaboration for the work of KairosPDX and other educational nonprofits in this space. There are several coalitions focused on creating conditions of equal opportunity for all students in Oregon.

“It’s going to take dedication from everyone in the community – educators, administrators, parents, policy makers, community members – so that we can move the needle closer to an equitable system for all,” she said. “It’s going to take the collective. Kairos knows we are part of the solution, but not the only part.”

A young student plays with clay at KairosPDX.

Ten years into its life as an organization, KairosPDX has garnered considerable community support.

“The community has been amazingly supportive of the work we do, and it’s part of why we know that we’re going to continue. We see ourselves as part of a collective effort to uplift our Black students and leaders.”

At the same time, Marsha is conscious of the fact that KairosPDX is following in the footsteps of others who began this work in Portland long ago. That recognition is never far from her mind.

“I think about other schools and organizations and educators that have existed in this city,” said Marsha, “and recognize and give huge respect for our ability to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, people and organizations who have demonstrated to this city that Black excellence can and does exist here.”

This Black History Month, we give gratitude to those leaders and educators who have been lifting up the voices of the African American community in Portland and throughout our entire region. Yet, as Marsha notes, it’s important to remember that Black history is American history, and the work taking place in this month must continue around the calendar.

“We are very clear with our students: Learning their history as a Black person is ongoing, all the time. I think it’s important when we talk about Black History Month to remind people that we don’t just delegate it one month. It’s 365 days a year.”

The Murdock Trust shares this commitment to elevate the voices of all community members throughout the year. Since our founding in 1975, we have prioritized hearing from those closest to their communities who are waking up and doing the hard work at nonprofits every day. Alongside KairosPDX and many others who create conditions for our Black friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers, and students across the Pacific Northwest to flourish, we say a heartfelt thank you. We honor you this month and every month!

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