When Kamala Saxton isn't working the kitchen inside her nationally recognized food truck, Marination Mobile, or its brick-and-mortar sibling, Marination Station, she's working on the service side of another passion: education. During her off-time, she sits on the board of Powerful Schools. Both interests keep her challenged, humble and satiated.
Saxton (r) and business-real life partner, Roz Edison.
What is Powerful Schools?
It's a non-profit that partners with Seattle Public Schools to provide after-school programs--tutoring, nutrition, literacy, academic and enrichment programs--for elementary and middle school families, but mostly disenfranchised. Ninety-percent of their participants fall under free and reduced lunch.
Why did you get involved?
Prior to [Marination], I was in the public schools side of service. I worked in public schools and public schools initiatives for 15 years.
What were you doing?
I had the brilliant idea of being a teacher. That lasted one year. At the end of day one I was like, "Nope!" The summer prior to my first year teaching, I had created an at-risk all-day school. It was at Thomas Jefferson High School in Federal Way. We had 45 kids. Some had probation officers, most were credit deficient, and all were behind in reading, writing, and comprehension levels.
Ninth grade. So, the only requirement was that you had to be alive and you had to be way below ninth-grade reading and writing comprehension standards.
It was Dangerous Minds!
I loved it, though.
I feel you could have whipped their asses into shape.
I made sure they knew that on day two. Day one I was still scared. On day two, I realized I had to speak their language. I knew the only way they were going to listen to me was if they were scared. Day two's curriculum was evoke fear. That's it.
Eventually, the Superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools went to the Gates Foundation and I followed him. Then, I went to do charter school reform in Boston. Since I've been in Seattle, starting Marination, I haven't been involved in schools. I decided it was going to be my New Year's resolution that this year I would be more involved in schools and Powerful Schools was the natural fit.
What is your role?
I'm a board member. I'm on the development side, so I'm working on fund-raising initiatives, program initiatives, looking at which programs are scalable, which ones are not, which programs we get the most bang for our buck. Thursday nights, it's just me and the Somalis. Reading.
Where does this happen?
It's at the Powerful Schools office on Rainier. It's mostly south end. The kids eat. We share a meal. We read. Kids do crafts. We read to the parents and then the parents read to us, as if we were their kid.
Why do you volunteer?
Right now, I just want to deepen my roots in Seattle. I decided in 2011 that I am going to be here for a really long time. Sometimes when you're not born and raised here, like every winter you're always on the fence, "Why do I live here? It rains all the time." In 2011 I just decided I'm not going to talk about the winters anymore; this is a place where I'm going to deepen my roots via Marination and an education-related activity. I'm just going to buck up.
When I woke up today, I looked forward to having a sour beer in the afternoon and chatting with you. The people I work with at Powerful Schools wake up every day and do their damndest to make sure their kid has the best opportunity that day. In most peoples' eyes, we would pass so much judgement, but that is why whether they are good parents or not, it doesn't matter. Their intent is absolutely 100-percent good.
How bizarre: Saxton with Andrew Zimmern.
What do you do when you're with these families, and how does that translate into them becoming better parents?
I don't know if it necessarily translates into becoming better parents, but if you leave the third-grade not at a third-grade reading and writing comprehension level, you are pretty much screwed for the rest of your K-12 academic career. So, third-grade is huge. What we're trying to do is work with first, second and third-graders and their parents so that they leave the end of third-grade at grade-level. Statistics show that if you enter the fourth-grade not at grade-level, you'll always be behind.
The parents need to be able to help their children learn.
Yes. And they need to be able to read to them every single night. For us, part of reading to them is teaching their parents how to read. You tell them what books to read, help them read them, and then when they come back the following week, you practice reading a new batch.
Is there a language barrier?
It's limited, so what's deemed a third-grade appropriate book, they probably know 50-percent of what's in there. It's the words that have more than five letters that they say, "I don't know what this is," and they ask me. We help them phonetically pronounce it and then interpret the meaning. We get through a lot in two hours.
There's always one person in the group that speaks Somali. [The class] goes from 5:30p-8. They just want to learn. They want their kids to have a better life. That's it. You don't leave your homeland with everything on your back and come here with a dollar unless you thought it was the best thing for your family.
Is Somali the prime representation?
They're the majority in this program, yes.
What brought them to Seattle?
For the same reason there's a ton of Hawaiians in Seattle--you just go where your people are at. And then it gets back to their homeland, that it's a safe place to be with good schools. I will say that for the majority of the people I've asked, they said they had friends or family here and that there were good schools. That's why they're here.
What have you learned about that culture?
Other than it's okay to have several wives? They love their children. They love the same things I do. They're passionate about education, they like food, they appreciate being around friends and family, and they love soccer. They love soccer! If you bring up soccer, there is a twinkle in their eye. They've never been to a Sounders match, they don't quite understand MLS, but they love soccer. They absolutely love it. And they love Somalia. If they could be there, they would, but they just can't.
Do they talk to you about why they left their homeland?
Opportunity. And that their family members were being killed. When they talk about torture, when they say people are being tortured there and the world doesn't know, I just feel terrible. They don't say, "My brother was murdered," they say, "My brother was tortured and he's no longer with us."
How do you even respond to that?
"Do you want to read another book?" I don't know if you actually recover from anything like that. Sure, you move throughout the day, but do you actually ever recover? I don't think so.
They live in the same house, so they all have to know how to read. A lot of the dads don't read as much. They're just there. They pay attention, but, yeah, they come with multiple wives. Their wives all read to the kids, so. It is what it is.
There's got to be days where you are just dreading going in after a long day at work, no?
In all honesty, the classes start at 5:30p. At 5p I'm like, "Oh, God." And then at 5:30p it's done, but it's in between 5p and 5:30p where I'm racing home to change my clothes because I don't want to go in smelling like tacos and taking a shower and getting dressed and changing shoes. You know, I'm cross-eyed and then I go [to Powerful Schools] and it's fine. They usually have something that they've made that they want me to eat, but I have no idea what it is.
Is it potluck?
No, we actually provide food for them. We try to do healthy dishes, like a lot of fruits and vegetables. I found out they don't really like strawberries. They don't think it tastes good. They're like, "Why are there seeds in it?" I'm like, "I spent a lot of money on those organic strawberries!"
What do they like to eat?
Spam sliders during Aloha Happy Hour at Marination Station.
They'd like to eat Ruffles chips, but I'm not going to bring them those. They do bring in a lot of their own vegetables and a lot of dishes like curries and stews. What's awesome is they just want us to try it. They make it special for us. They eat a lot of goat.
Are you a better person because of this experience?
I don't think you do these things because you want to be a better person. I mean, you should want to be a better person because you want to be a better person. I'm still a jackass who just happens to do this good thing, but it doesn't make me a good person. I do it because it's important. If you are going to live in a community, it's important for that community for you to be involved in it somehow. I live in the south end and I live in Seattle. And I employ Seattleites. If I wanted to work for Microsoft or Boeing or whatever big industry, they better damn well put resources into this community to make sure there's an active and educated workforce, particularly in a democratic society where people vote on initiatives--I want them to be highly educated. It's incredibly important to me that we live in an educated society and kids, whether they're from Somalia or Laurelhurst, have a quality education. Quite frankly, I don't think they do in Seattle Public Schools.
What do you do to take a break from your job and your volunteering?
I still spend a lot of time with friends. I just joined a softball team. I played collegiate fast-pitch softball, but this is slow-pitch.
What's the difference?
About 65-miles per hour.
I'm obsessed with Nurse Jackie, so I watch it a lot. It's so good! I love Nurse Jackie! I love it!
Between cable TV shows, spending time with family and friends, Marination, Equal Rights Washington and Powerful Schools, my day is full and it's fulfilling. Working on expanding Marination and what our growth looks like, that takes up a lot of time, but I feel really, really fulfilled.