Paving the road to success for disadvantaged youngsters
By Mary-Love Bigony, University Marketing
LeKisha McKinley’s life could have turned out quite differently. The fifth child of a hard-working single mother, she grew up in an East Austin neighborhood plagued by adversity. Now a graduate student in Texas State’s McCoy College of Business Administration, McKinley escaped the fate that befell many children in her situation because of her insatiable love of reading and her mother’s unwavering commitment to her family.
Giving youngsters from similar circumstances the opportunity to thrive educationally and personally is McKinley’s focus today. To do this, she started a small community-based program, the AKC Institute of Learning. And while it started small, she has big plans for it.
“We focus on increasing intellectual maturity in disadvantaged youngsters and minimizing the disparities these communities face,” she says. “We introduce them to various educational options, cultures and languages.”
Breaking the Cycle
McKinley remembers the community in which she grew up as frequently being crippled by helplessness, a lack of education and financial destitution. “I often thought, ‘Is this what life is all about? Is this where it ends?’” she says. “As I looked around my community, the answer was a firm ‘yes.’”
She became determined to break the cycle.
“I decided to work to improve underserved communities by helping community members rise up intellectually; to help them find foolproof, well-informed ways of developing and honing their native talents to promote self-sustainability, economic independence and social welfare.”
A bright spot in McKinley’s life has been her mother.
“My mom has always been so strong, and as I got older I started to realize everything she was going through,” McKinley says. “I’d hear stories about other people’s parents turning to drugs, abandoning their children and sending them to live with other people. But my mom never did any of those things. She prayed constantly for strength, kept an upbeat spirit, stayed active in our lives, and always made sure each of us had what we needed.”
She says her mother never missed a chance to show her support. “We would get so many little awards in school and sometimes I’d say, ‘Mom, you don’t have to come today, it’s just a Citizenship Award.’ But she always did. It just shows me how much a mother’s love and support can influence you in the right direction despite everything else going on around you.”
A Stellar Undergraduate
Following her graduation from high school, McKinley enrolled in Texas State as a business major. Dr. Michael Keeffe of the Department of Management was one of her professors, and he calls her “the epitome of the well-rounded university student.”
“Besides maintaining an unusually high GPA in my class,” Keeffe says, “she had an impressive resumé with considerable work-related experience. She financed most of her college education through part-time work at the Texas School for the Deaf and was elected vice president of the Employees’ Club by her colleagues. She was fluent in American Sign Language, had excellent computer skills and tutored teens at her church while she was an undergraduate. She also wrote poetry when time permitted.”
McKinley says her work at the Texas School for the Deaf changed her life. “That’s when I developed my love for learning about different cultures,” she says. “Deafness is a different culture, of course. There are norms that are acceptable there and things that are not. Just to have that knowledge and awareness really opened my eyes to wanting to learn more.”
Dr. Gail Zank taught McKinley’s marketing research class. “I knew she was a special person back then,” Zank says. “She was one of the brightest, most motivated students I had ever had the opportunity to teach. In addition, she was involved with organizations outside the classroom where she could make a difference. I wrote a recommendation letter in 2003 in which I stated ‘I have no doubt that LeKisha McKinley is someone who will use her intelligence and personality to better impact this world.’ As it turns out, I was certainly right.”
The Power of Words
While she was in high school, McKinley read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance.” It was one of the things that made her determined to break the cycle of suffering in her own community.
“Emerson wrote that when a man searches outside himself for strength he finds his greatest weakness,” she says. “Communities are the foundation of society, and people are the bedrock of a community. So we must not look outside our community for help.”
McKinley says two books had a tremendous influence on her: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois and The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson. “Basically, both these books say that the point of education is to share and spread knowledge,” she says. “And I started thinking, ‘I do have all this knowledge, all this information, that’s just bottled up and waiting to go somewhere.’”
She knew where she had to start. “If I was going to make real change happen, I had to go back into my community and give back — at the street level — to ensure that community members had access to valuable mediums of self-expression and enlightenment to become optimistic, strengthened contributors.”
She founded the AKC Institute of Learning to do just that.
AKC stands for Aunt Kisha Cares; she started out with her nine nephews in mind. “When they enter the job market, or even post-secondary education,” she says, “I want them to know how to interact with people of different backgrounds and in different environments — just to have an awareness that the world is a vast place. I want them to know that they have the ability to learn anything. They control their destiny.”
McKinley says she wants to continue to focus on disadvantaged communities for the time being. “There’s a lot of ingenuity in our communities — and I’m sure in everyone else’s communities — but oftentimes in the black community we face issues with broken homes and financial problems, so the creativity relinquishes to all the other factors,” she says. “You start focusing on the day-to-day and not what the world is like just above you. I want these children to think, ‘Well, what’s above the day-to-day survival?’”
A year after starting the AKC Institute of Learning, McKinley enrolled in Texas State’s MBA program in Round Rock. Eventually she wants to take her ideas into diverse schools and serve diverse audiences.
“When I graduate I’d like to turn it into a full-time teaching institution,” she says. “It’s something our entire society needs. I want to open it to all children, not just disadvantaged youth. We know that America is behind some other countries in science, technology, engineering and math, so I want to introduce these subjects early on and make the children more comfortable with them.”
Dr. Enrique Becerra is one of McKinley’s professors in the MBA program.
“LeKisha is a hard worker who is eager to become more effective and efficient,” Becerra says. “She is a single mom struggling with the issues of motherhood, life and going to school. What impresses me about her is her desire, including the effort she puts into it, to learn how to integrate details and the big picture to be able to make sound business decisions.”
In fall 2010, McKinley received a $10,000 scholarship from the Texas Business Hall of Fame. In the essay she submitted for this award, she outlined her vision.
“I will spread my relentless passion for promoting stronger, better and more economically sound communities until the weakest link becomes as dependable, reliable and unbreakable as the rest of the links,” she wrote. “I will inspire and infuse determination and perseverance in others and encourage boldness, individual empowerment and an eager spirit to succeed.”