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A conscious connection

A conscious connection

Mary McCarty October 05, 2023

Karlos L. Marshall ’15 grew up in a home that was anything but a “book desert.” He devoured volume after volume from the Black Americans of Achievement collection proudly displayed in the antique family bookcase, where he learned about the lives of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and countless others.

“I was inspired by these people, long before I was old enough to understand the full magnitude of their achievements,” he recalled. “They made me see the possibilities for my own life.”

He gradually realized that many of the other kids in his Springfield, Ohio, neighborhood weren’t so lucky. And that planted the seed for the nonprofit he would co-found while pursuing his master’s degree at the University of Dayton, aimed at ending book deserts and park deserts in the region. 

The Conscious Connect Community Development Corp. has distributed more than 65,000 free books and reading materials and established a literary ecosystem consisting of 110 locations to distribute free books, including 30 miniature libraries,  or “houses of knowledge,” as Marshall calls them.

Co-founder Moses B. Mbeseha ’20 recalls the genesis of the project: “We grew up in households where literacy was king, and we spent our summer days in the library. We wanted to ensure that for a generation of Black students in our community.”

Their work has been honored with international awards including the United States Library of Congress Literacy Awards Best Practice Honoree, as well as the Forbes 30 Under 30 lists.

“Being named to Forbes 30 Under 30 was a monumental accomplishment — not only for us, but more importantly for our community,” Marshall said. “Joining the Forbes alumni network of esteemed entrepreneurs and change-makers opened a lot of doors for us. We hear so much about the Midwest brain drain, but this is evidence you can be recognized on global platforms for making a difference in your hometown region.”

In 2021 Marshall was named the inaugural chief diversity officer for the Dayton Metro Library. The move followed nearly a decade-long career at UD, most recently as the manager of the Greater West Dayton Incubator.

Since joining the library in 2021, he has promoted diversity training for all staff members and initiated a social justice speaker series as well as “Tiny Stacks” concerts featuring local musicians. “We have become a cultural hub for diverse populations,” he said.

Now 32, Marshall has accomplished all of this while raising his son, Trey, who was born during his freshman year of college. After graduating from Springfield South High School, Marshall won a full scholarship to play football at Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania. After his son’s birth, he transferred to Wittenberg University in Springfield, losing most of his scholarship money — a significant blow for the first-generation college student. “I wanted to be there for my son the way that my father was there for me,” he explained.

Karlos L. Marshall '15


Marshall worked multiple jobs throughout college. 

“Family support was huge, but it was still an adjustment,” he recalled. “As a young father, I wasn’t able to get involved with student organizations ... . But being a father also gave me a heightened sense of responsibility and a sense that I am here for a purpose.”

That maturity and drive were apparent to his mentors at Wittenberg, including Nancy McHugh, then chair of the Wittenberg philosophy department and current executive director of the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community at UD. Marshall joined a group of students who participated as co-learners with detained youth at Clark County Juvenile Detention Center. 

“Karlos was so wonderful with them, so honest and straightforward,” she said. “He was showing them a different path forward by the way he acts and lives.”

His desire to live close to his son prompted Marshall to attend graduate school at UD, earning his master’s degree in higher educational administration in 2015 and his doctorate in 2022. During an internship at the Wesley Community Center in Dayton, he became inspired to create his own nonprofit. 

“It came out of being in the community and seeing the need,” he said. “It was a very Marianist value to serve the most vulnerable populations.”

He adapted an assignment from political science professor Steve Neiheisel to create the blueprint for The Conscious Connect. He was assigned the task of creating an organizational overview and told Neiheisel he wanted to start his own nonprofit.

“Dr. Neiheisel met with us and gave us initial advice on how to structure the board,” he said. “We really appreciated his flexibility.”

By the time Marshall picked up his master’s diploma, The Conscious Connect was a newly minted nonprofit. The initial effort involved placing books in barber shops and beauty salons. “We thought kids should be reading about Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson and not just Mickey Mantle,” observed Mbeseha, who is director of health equity programs for the Fitz Center. “We wanted our books to have cultural relevance.”

That mission has expanded exponentially. The Conscious Connect has created three urban “pocket parks” in Springfield in formerly blighted neighborhoods; two more are being developed in West Dayton. 

Other projects on the horizon include a fair housing unit available for rent, a business incubator in Springfield and a Dayton-based headquarters building on North Main Street. The organizational philosophy is to consult with members of the community to assess their needs.

“They work to understand the strengths and assets of a community by engaging and strategizing with the community,” McHugh said. “Many people look at an urban space and see it as desolate and abandoned. The Conscious Connect looks at urban spaces and sees possibilities.”

“Many people look at an urban space and see it as desolate and abandoned. The Conscious Connect looks at urban spaces and sees possibilities.”

It’s an approach that was nurtured during their years as Flyers,  Mbeseha said: “The starting point of our Marianist values is recognizing that each of us has the ability to partner and engage with the community in positive ways. Karlos really lives up to that.”

Concurred Marshall, “UD has played a major role in developing a sense of social responsibility and civic duty.”

He also gives much of the credit to his parents, Kevin Marshall Sr. and Adrianne Nichols: “My dad talked a lot about social justice and civil rights. And my mom was always the most loving and caring person, even to complete strangers. She taught me a deep understanding of being in community with others.”

His mother even provided the first — and most meaningful — book donation for The Conscious Connect: her complete set of Black Americans of Achievement.

Flyers promising forever