The Conscious Connect strives to improve equity and inclusivity

Karlos L. Marshall remembers as a kid gazing at his mother’s series of books about the achievements of black people who made history. He read them and aspired to be like them, even before he could understand just how great the subjects really were.

When he and friend Moses B. Mbeseha co-founded The Conscious Connect and began distributing books to children who needed them, his mom mailed him that same series, comprised of dozens of books. They were the first that were given out.

The Conscious Connect was launched in 2016 “to spark a cultural renaissance, revitalization and redevelopment movement,” says Marshall, the organization’s president. Ending book deserts in Springfield became an initial goal, and the nonprofit has grown to include much more, such as giving kids and families better access to high-quality parks.

“We hope the future of Springfield is a more equitable and inclusive city for all residents irrespective of their background or the zip code they reside in,” Marshall says.

The organization began with an initiative called “The Root,” offering books in more than 65 barbershops, beauty salons and other small businesses.

When The Conscious Connect realized that The Root alone wouldn’t close the gap, the organization began building little libraries, or what they call “Houses of Knowledge.” What started in Springfield expanded to Dayton, and now there are 30 active Houses of Knowledge in the region, Marshall says.

Not only have more children gotten better access to books within walking distance of their homes, but that access is often to books that are culturally relevant and responsive to the population, Marshall says. More than 60,000 free books have been distributed by the organization.

“We really want to encourage a love of reading,” he says.

That naturally led to wanting to find more spaces for kids and families to read, which has resulted in the organization creating parks from land acquired and cleared by the Clark County Land Bank, adding benches, basketball courts, Houses of Knowledge or other amenities.

“We want all residents in South Springfield to have access to at least one pocket park and/or greenspace,” says Marshall, who is working on a doctoral dissertation with a focus on just that – “transforming vacant spaces into vibrant places” with a focus on southwest Springfield.

The organization has so far completed three parks: on Woodward Avenue, Linden Avenue and at the corner of West Grand Avenue and Plum Street. These were turning points for The Conscious Connect, says Marshall, a Springfield resident who also is chief diversity officer of the Dayton Metro Library.

“Literacy was never the sole objective. That was really just the vehicle for how we were revitalizing the community,” he says.

The impact that Marshall, 31, is making hits close to home. He was born and raised in Springfield, with plenty of access to books and nearby Davey Moore Park. The Springfield High School graduate and first-generation college student attended Wittenberg University, where he met Mbeseha.

The two met before their senior year, working the same summer job. They soon learned that they shared the same ideals and ambitions, says Mbeseha, 31. The trust between them grew in their final year at Wittenberg.

Marshall pitched to Mbeseha the idea of an organization committed to social justice and community impact during their first college homecoming after graduation.

“Karlos and I, we both want to make a difference in the community,” says Mbeseha, who now lives in Dayton and is working on a master’s degree in public health while also holding a Master of Business Administration.

Mbeseha has seen injustice in other ways. He was born in Cameroon, where he says his parents fought against tyranny. His father, a renowned lawyer in the country, left as a political asylee in the 1990s.

Mbeseha saw some of the best and worst of the U.S. when he moved here as a child, first in Dallas, Texas, and then when his family moved to Pennsylvania. They were well-off in Cameroon – although marginalized by the government – but poor in the U.S., he says. But one thing remained constant.

“Education was a foundation in my household. That was non-negotiable,” says Mbeseha, whose parents had to re-earn their degrees in the U.S.

In high school, Mbeseha read “The Shame of the Nation” by Jonathan Kozol, and it changed him.

“It became my mission to understand why people of color, specifically black people, are so marginalized,” he says.

Now Mbeseha says he wants to continue to learn the best of what the United States has to offer, in hopes that he can one day take it back to his home country.

The Conscious Connect has no brick-and-mortar home, and no full-time staff. Hundreds of volunteers have donated time and books, and the organization is largely funded by donations from private foundations and in-kind resources from community volunteers and small businesses.

The non-profit also partners with other organizations, such as with the Springfield City School District to create a local chapter of My Brother’s Keeper, mentoring more than 50 boys – most of them, boys of color. The Conscious Connect is also one of several local nonprofits partnering with Springfield’s Small Business Development Center as it implements a Community Navigator program to assist minority and underserved small business owners.

Aside from Marshall’s personal connection to Springfield, he says the city has been an ideal place to launch The Conscious Connect. The city is large enough to see the inequalities, but small enough to pilot solutions and quickly see results. Most of the group’s initiatives are tested in Springfield before launching in Dayton.

“We’re a microcosm of much larger cities across the nation,” he says.

The Conscious Connect has exceeded its initial goals, Mbeseha says, but the group will continue to help remove inequities and inequalities. The organization will remain vigilant.

“We’re going to keep doing this,” he says. “Whatever problem fits within our community structure, we’ll work on it.”

Read more articles by Diane Erwin.