Marlon Foster’s family has lived in the same neighborhood since his grandparents moved there in 1947. When he was a senior in high school, his best friend was shot and killed by another youth. Marlon majored in business at LeMoyne-Owen College, an historically black college located in his neighborhood. He originally intended to better his community by starting a business there. However in his marketing and feasibility research, Marlon learned that his neighborhood ranked #1 in teen pregnancy, poverty, and substance abuse. He realized for the first time that all his challenges and opportunities were right there in front of him so he shifted his focus from writing a business plan to writing grants for nonprofit work in the neighborhood.
It was only five years after his friend’s death that Marlon started Knowledge Quest, which today operates four major programs from three sites within a two-mile corridor in the South Memphis neighborhood he still calls home. We visited two of the extended learning academy locations where up to 450 students in grades PK-12 participate in no-fee, premium out-of-school-time programming. We also visited a cooking class in the Universal Parenting Place where parents were learning how to prepare healthy lunches and snacks for their kids using produce from the Knowledge Quest Green Leaf Learning Farm.
Marlon tells us the story of Green Leaf, Knowledge Quest’s ⅔ acre urban micro-farm. In 1999, he met Ms. Ernestine Ward, who became the first teacher he hired for his academy. Ms. Ernestine was a vegan his mother’s age. When she said she wanted to grow food to teach children where food came from and to promote healthy lifestyle, he said “Yes, m’am!” Ms. Ernestine still teaches at Knowledge Quest. We joined her first grade class on a visit to Green Leaf, which is located right across the street from their after-school academy. It is one of the only USDA certified organic farms in the area. Marlon and Ms. Ernestine chose to be organic all those years ago in order to provide the highest quality food right in the neighborhood.
That principle of excellence can be found in all Knowledge Quest programs. Those programs promote ownership in, thus instilling respect for, the community’s assets. There are no break-ins or fights among the children at Knowledge Quest. Everyone learns to take care of and value not only things but one another, growing mutual love and respect and authentic relationships that are essential to community development. It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood!