On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Georgetown University honored Khari Brown, a local leader who has helped hundreds of low-income students graduate and excel in the workforce, with the 2022 John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award during a live virtual ceremony.
The Legacy of a Dream Award, celebrated in honor of Dr. King’s life and legacy, identifies emerging local leaders who are working to solve key issues in Washington, DC. Georgetown has awarded top local talent to reinforce its engagement within the city and recognize the award’s namesake, John Thompson Jr., the legendary Georgetown head basketball coach emeritus, mentor, advocate, community leader and DC native.
“The Legacy of a Dream Award creates opportunities for others in the same way that Dr. King’s dream opened the door for dad at Georgetown,” Tiffany Thompson, Coach Thompson’s daughter, said during the ceremony. “The organization we honor today provides opportunities for our communities in DC to live out those dreams.”
Also a former basketball player and coach, Khari Brown is the CEO of Capital Partners for Education (CPE), a nonprofit that provides mentoring and college and career success programming to low-income students in Washington, DC. Under his leadership, Brown has expanded CPE’s reach from serving 50 students a year to 470. He has broken down barriers for low-income students and empowered college and career growth, achieving a 61% college graduation rate at CPE – a rate nearly triple that of similar students nationally.
At the Jan. 17 event, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia recognized Brown’s transformative impact in the community and presented him with the award.
“Khari’s journey shares special resonance with that of John Thompson — through his own love of the game of basketball as both a former player and as a coach,” DeGioia said. “His passion for the game is deeply connected to his work with young people and his commitment to education. His leadership shows the power of mentorship as a tool to bring out the very best in our young people and enable them to thrive.”
The Slam Dunk Moment
Like Georgetown’s former head coach, Brown’s career started on the basketball court.
He first picked up a basketball on a court in Newtown, Massachusetts, at age eight and didn’t stop. He was the two-time captain of Tufts University’s men’s basketball team and played professional basketball in Helsinki, Finland, where he spent the dark winter nights teaching English. After a year overseas, Brown returned to the U.S., where he began coaching – the “next best thing” to staying involved with the game, he says, while he searched for what he wanted to do next.
He coached at Tufts University and then at a local high school, where his future profession took root. Brown began tutoring a few of his players to help them qualify to play basketball in college, and realized how far behind academically many were, a trend that broke along racial and economic lines.
“That was a moment when I realized the educational system was failing too many high potential young people,” Brown says. “And that I wanted to spend a career in education working more directly with youth and preparing them for their futures.”
Brown got his master’s in education from Tufts University, and after graduating, was eager to translate his mentoring experiences with his former players to a career. He found CPE “the right fit,” and was hired as its executive director in 2001. He was its only employee. He had no experience leading a nonprofit and expected to be there for four weeks.
Serving the “Academic Middle”
When Brown first started in DC, CPE was primarily a scholarship program for low-income students who wanted to attend private high schools. Brown saw potential for growth, and scaled CPE’s mentoring program and its academic and career-focused offerings.
Ten years later, with 100 students in the program and a growing demand from DC public and charter schools, Brown realized his team couldn’t scale the number of scholarships, but they could scale the number of mentors. He expanded the mentoring and programming to public and charter schools, and after researching and listening to school leaders, identified a group of underserved students to target: the academic middle, students whose GPAs range from 2.3 to 3.1 and are on the cusp of college eligibility but whose schools are unable to provide additional support.
These are students who are almost always first generation to college and need extra help to activate this process. Opportunities in our city are deeply unequal based on race, neighborhood and income, so I’ve tried to find other ways to solve that.
The approach has yielded results. Eighty-eight percent of CPE’s high school class of 2020 have enrolled in college within one year of graduating; and 85% of its college students remained enrolled during the 2020-2021 school year.
Every student receives one-on-one mentoring, a support that for many, has made all the difference.
The Empathetic Mentoring Model
Diana Acosta entered CPE when she was 14. She had immigrated from El Salvador and grown up in a low-income community in Washington, DC. She was determined to use CPE to attend college, break her family’s cycle of poverty and give back to her community. Her mentor, she said, was invaluable in helping her have an “extra set of support and self-confidence” throughout her high school and college career.
“It felt like people cared for me. It felt like they really wanted to be there. For a 14-year-old, that meant the world to me,” she said. “Having someone to talk to, to ask questions, including Khari, creates this feeling of community and family. It led me to continue that type of work in ways that are transformative to young people, knowing their ideas are valued and heard.”
Acosta has since received her bachelor’s in sociology and master’s in education from Harvard University, has built youth programming for nonprofits, launched a family engagement and postsecondary education access program for DC families, and currently works as the director of programs at VineCorps, which provides educational support and leadership experiences for young people in underserved areas of Prince George’s County, Maryland.
In its model, CPE finds and trains individuals who are committed to long-term mentoring relationships with students, 80 percent of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
Johnson Bademosi, who also began at CPE when he was 14, is the first generation in his family to attend college. His mentor gave him personal support during high school, attended his football games and took him on college tours — and he’s still in touch with him today. Bademosi went on to play football at Stanford University and in the NFL, including the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots. For Bademosi, whose parents immigrated from Nigeria when he was young, CPE provided a built-in community of support, exposure and growth.
“It’s hard to do everything on your own. Many immigrant families are just trying to survive,” he said. “You need a community of people behind you. CPE became my team. My mentor noticed gifts and qualities in myself. He lifted me up. And Khari has been a teacher in every sense of the word, a mentor, a friend. CPE transformed my life.”
For Brown, Acosta and Bademosi’s stories demonstrate the potential so many more students have.
“The success our students have demonstrates how the potential is there that too often gets unrealized,” he said. “It says to me that we should be doing more, that the community should be doing more to help these young people who have so much potential, but who aren’t getting the resources and the support that they need.”
School leaders such as Benjamin Williams, the assistant principal at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, have noticed the program’s impact on students’ potential. CPE currently serves nearly 60 students at Banneker, and has been “outstanding,” Williams said.
“You see a shift in their response to school. You see leaders coming out of their shells, which might not have happened without that individual spotlight a mentor provides for them on a regular basis,” he said. “This program is helping broaden their horizons, but it’s shifting their mindsets to become agents of change because their mentors are helping them be agents of change.”
The COVID-19 Shake-up
When the first wave of COVID-19 rippled through the U.S. in March of 2020, CPE had to pivot its model overnight. They moved their programming to virtual, and Brown and his team created a toolkit for mentors to provide support for students in crisis. They quickly realized though that many of their students needed far more than academic support.
“We couldn’t really support academically until their basic human needs were met, and that included food, shelter and security,” Brown said.
CPE increased its financial funding by more than 500%, dispersing money to families for groceries, to help cover rent payments, to set up wifi and other essential services. They even drove around DChanding out gift cards for their students to buy food and other essentials.
Moisés Alvarez (SFS’23) was one such recipient of CPE’s emergency fund. Alvarez, who’s studying international politics and German at Georgetown and is in the Georgetown Scholars Program, has been involved in CPE since he was 14, receiving mentoring, SAT prep and career guidance over the years. Prior to COVID-19, Alvarez’s parents owned a street stand a few blocks from the White House, where they sold DC-themed souvenirs to tourists. When the pandemic hit, downtown emptied of tourists, and so did the income they relied on.
“A lot of my mental space was being redirected to worrying about my family needs and their basic necessities,” Alvarez said. “So I wasn’t 100% thinking about the next history paper I had to write. I was overwhelmed.”
CPE helped cover Alvarez’s family’s rent and groceries as well as his books and other school supplies for the semester. Alvarez also received personal support from his mentor, CPE’s program coordinator, and from Brown, adding that he was proud to see CPE’s leader “who walks the walk” honored by his university.
“The success that I have through an organization like Capital Partners is a testament to its leadership,” he says. “And that I got to go to Georgetown and keep in touch with Khari is a further testament to his character and to what he represents for our community. It’s really cool to have this intersection point of the school I’m going to and the organization that’s gotten to where I’m at. I’m benefiting from both.”
Creating a Legacy
Since 2012, Brown has grown CPE by more than 400%. And he isn’t slowing down.
In 2019, he co-founded the Talent for Tomorrow Alliance, a new partnership with five peer organizations dedicated to improving young people’s economic futures. Brown and the CPE team are also embarking on a new strategic plan to change their name and double the amount of young people they reach.
“For nearly 30 years, our organization has been preparing young people for college success, but to achieve economic mobility today young people need more than just college preparation, they also need career preparation,” Brown said. “We are partnering with organizations who provide job placement, and that will help us improve our outcomes and extend our reach.”
Brown also continues to advocate for racial equity and for policies that address the root causes of inequality. He has written pieces for the Washington Post, The Hill and other outlets aimed at creating awareness of the equity and infrastructure issues his students face. Brown said he’s been inspired by Coach Thompson, who was a champion for his players on and off the court.
“Coach Thompson was a hero of mine,” Brown said. “He stood for values that are very important to me. His passion, not just for winning but for education and for racial equity, are things I’ve tried to carry on with me in how I lead.”
During the award ceremony, Morgan Thompson, the granddaughter of Coach Thompson, shared how important the Legacy of a Dream Award is to her grandfather’s legacy.
“He always said, ‘Don’t let the sum total of your existence be eight to 10 pounds of air.’ One of the ways that he made manifest that belief was through the Legacy of a Dream Award. It’s really important that we continue to invest in organizations in our community that pursue similar dreams that he had.”
The Legacy of a Dream Ceremony
Rev. Ebony Grisom, the director of Protestant Christian ministry at Georgetown University, led attendees through the Legacy of a Dream ceremony. She was joined by three Georgetown students: Shakeer Hood (C’24), who shared a reflection on Dr. King; Jalen Benjamin (B’22), who offered an invocation that honored Dr. King, Brown and Thompson’s impact; and Fatima Dyfan (C’21), whose poem captured how mentors like Coach Thompson inspires her to be “to be an agent of justice, love, / beauty / and world unity.”
During a video tribute to Coach Thompson, five of his grandchildren also reflected on his legacy, his words of wisdom and his impact at Georgetown and in the DC community.
“I remember he would say that he wasn’t the first Black NCAA coach to win the national championship because he was the first one with the ability, but he was the first one with the opportunity,” Matthew Thompson said. “That’s what this award is and that’s what he did with his life: He gave other people that opportunity to win and do great things in their community and make the world in general a better place.”
After President DeGioia presented Brown with the award, attendees watched a videocelebrating his impact. The event concluded with a performance by Nolan Williams, Jr., an award-winning producer, composer and musician who performed the freedom song “Hold On.” He was followed by Georgetown student Jamia Ross (NHS’22), who shared a personal story about when her grandmother heard Dr. King speak of the “Mountaintop” the day before he was assassinated in 1968.
“In the name of King and all of the ancestors who have fought the good fight, we must be brave and continue agitating until we, as a people, are truly free, realizing the full promise of our equality,” she said.
With the award, Brown plans to keep on agitating.
“Georgetown is a 200+ year institution that has incredible relationships and prestige,” he said. “This partnership is one I hope will be able to enable us to do great work for young people who really matter.”