Fellows Alum Brian Booker Connecting Memphis Students to the World

Brian Booker is the Founder of One Step Initiative (OSI), a nonprofit organization that aims to bring global education opportunities to the nation’s most underserved high school students. He is also a graduate of the New Memphis Fellows program, the city’s premiere community-wide leadership development experience for mid-career professionals. Nominate a future Fellow today.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”                                                                                                                                             – Lao Tzu

When I was young, I would look up at the sky from my neighborhood and see a world waiting be explored. I wanted to be an astronaut. Absent the support and guidance needed to help me realize my dream, I set my sights on another goal: graduate from high school.

Still, the pull of exploration stuck with me. After graduating from Melrose High School, I studied International Business and Japanese at The University of Memphis, and in 2009, I found myself in the study abroad office having a conversation that would forever change the course of my life.

While studying abroad in Japan, I realized that there were other ways to live and exist than what I was accustomed to growing up. I traveled to ten countries that year, and would visit a couple dozen more over the next few years. Everywhere I went, I found that people generally want the same things – to live life fully and enjoy the friendship of others. Maybe we weren’t so different after all, I thought.

Only 5 percent of all study abroad participants in the US are African American. I was the only African American male in my Japanese program, which included over 100 people from all over the world. I never imagined having these experiences as a youth at Melrose. I didn’t know these opportunities existed, let alone that they were accessible to me. This was my ‘a-ha’ moment.

One Step Initiative was born of the belief that if you can dream it, you can do it. We help underserved students understand that they do have the capacity to explore their world, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Exposure is key. Now I am in the privileged position to witness the growth of students who have traveled a full decade earlier than my first opportunity abroad.

It felt like a natural step to start OSI in Memphis. There is nothing better than coming back home to have an impact in your own community. Naturally this comes with its fair share of challenges; but, there’s growth at every stumble. I’m a firm believer that learning takes place outside of your comfort zone.

In fact, I have found that youth today are very interested in doing more in their communities. They are looking for ways to better themselves and their neighbors. I thought I would need to tell a lot of travel stories to get them excited about the program. To my surprise, they didn’t need much convincing! The challenge has been getting students to realize that they can do it too.

We took our first cohort to Ghana in 2015. Next year, we are thrilled to offer students from across Memphis access to Rwanda, Japan, Tanzania, Kenya, and Spain.

Programs are designed based on student interests and the level of impact. Students participate in orientation sessions for six months leading up to the trip. During the trip, they process their experiences through daily journaling and debriefing activities. Upon returning home, participants engage with their peers and community members, continuing the work of spreading global awareness at a grassroots level through community development projects.

What sets OSI students apart is their level of self-awareness and maturity. They return having a better sense of themselves, what they want to contribute, and how to interact with different people.

Take, for example, Timothy who overcame many hurdles to participate in our very first trip in 2015. I received a phone call from him his first week of school at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, thanking me for everything. It was simple statement, with a lot of meaning behind it. This is what keeps me going.

I really like the sense of positivity coming out of Memphis on the whole when it comes to equitable opportunity. I have seen education become a higher priority while building OSI. The number of students graduating who are career ready is at a historic high.

Still, more needs to be done. To equip youth with the skills and tools needed to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world, we need school administrators to recognize the critical value of global experiential learning and help us direct students to these opportunities. Foreign language study and creative expression should also be prioritized in all schools.

By supporting experiential initiatives at OSI, local employers, including the global corporations that call this city home, can have a direct role in developing a future, homegrown workforce that is globally aware and competent.

If you can dream it, you can do it. Together, we can empower our youth with transformative cross-cultural experiences that will set them up for success locally and globally.