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Lamar Shambley: Bridging Racial Disparities in Language Learning and Study Abroad

Lamar Shambley: Bridging Racial Disparities in Language Learning and Study Abroad

Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs.

Hi friends, it’s Spiffy on Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making the world a more equitable place! I have one more interview for you this week. Today I’m excited to cruise around with Lamar Shambley, the founder and executive director of Teens of Color Abroad. Are you ready to be inspired?

Spiffy: Great to have you here, Lamar! What challenge are you addressing through your startup?

Lamar: Thanks for inviting me, Spiffy! Teens of Color Abroad, also known as TOCA, was created to address the racial disparities in language learning and study-abroad opportunities. We believe that when provided with international language learning opportunities, high school students of color, especially those from under-resourced communities, will become global ambassadors in college and beyond.

Spiffy: What motivated you to do it?

Lamar: My study abroad experiences in college inspired me to apply for global internships, expand my global perspective, strengthen my language skills, and eventually become a high school Spanish teacher in Brooklyn, which is what I do today. Unfortunately, I saw only a few Black students participate in study abroad and language learning experiences. I want kids from my community to have the same life-changing experiences I did.

Spiffy: I hear you. Can you elaborate on how you’re working towards a more equitable world?

Lamar: In 2020, we partnered with NaTakallam to create TOCA Online, a zero-cost virtual language learning program where U.S. high school students of color study Arabic, Spanish, or French, taught by refugees dispersed worldwide. Since the launch, we’ve enrolled over 300 students from 30 states in the program! With TOCA Online, we want to show our students that refugees are also people. Their stories, voices, and perspectives are compelling and can inspire our students to become more equity-minded global citizens.

Spiffy: I love that! Tell me about a recent organizational milestone or initiative. What impact does that make on your community?

Lamar: After years of being delayed due to the global pandemic, we launched our pilot high school study abroad program in Spain this summer. Our students immersed themselves in Spanish while bunking with host families in Seville, wandered among the architectural marvels of historic Granada, and got their feet wet in the surfing town of Cádiz. The summer experience abroad transformed our students and their families. One mom even commented that the program made her "a better parent"!

Spiffy: Please share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from it?

Lamar: When the emergence of the pandemic made it clear that studying abroad was at a standstill, I felt like I was facing failure with TOCA. How could we survive without travel? I had to go back to my ‘why’. I have an unwavering belief in the power of building community and connecting people across languages and borders, which could still happen virtually. We adjusted to the change, formed TOCA Online, and offered our students virtual cooking classes and cultural exchange workshops. I learned how to be adaptive!

Spiffy: You’re very inspiring! Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Lamar: Part of TOCA's magic is that our program has developed significantly because of the feedback and advice from the young people we serve. Students, never be afraid to give your thoughts and ideas—it could lead to the creation of something great!

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Lamar—it’s been an honor!

Lamar Shambley is a Brooklyn-based high school Spanish teacher, and the founder and executive director of Teens of Color Abroad (TOCA), a nonprofit that provides high school students of color with global language learning opportunities. Since 2018, TOCA has sponsored new passports for 20 students, served over 1,000 youth across the U.S., and provided more than $100,000 in scholarships. (Nominated by Brandon Parkes at Parkes Philanthropy. First published on the Ladderworks website on January 27, 2023.)

© 2023 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.