Imran Khan

Ashoka Fellow
Chicago, IL, United States, North America
Fellow Since 2016


This profile was prepared when Imran Khan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.
The New Idea
As an educator at Harper High School, labeled “the most dangerous high school in America” with 29 students shot in the 2012 school year, Imran remembers being baffled that his students were not latching onto one of the most important “keys” that could get them out of the violence – namely, their education.

Through piloting the Embarc program with key collaborator January Miller, Imran has since identified the hidden gap preventing youth from grabbing hold of that key: a lack of intrinsic motivation in students who cannot see the connection between educational attainment and increased quality of life. Embarc started as an after-school program in three Chicago High Schools and is now a leader in the field of experiential development. Embarc’s drives student success through social and cultural exposure, using a three-year, three-level approach that awakens students to the possibilities of their potential by dissolving the borders in the city and in their minds.

Imran recalls a classroom lesson on Hamlet, in which he posed a moral question to his students: if your mom is in a grocery store with your little sister, is it wrong for her to eat some grapes to test their ripeness, if she does not plan to pay for them? Rather than answer the question, the students expressed great confusion at the grocery stores that Imran identified in his prompt. Imran realized the wide disconnect between classroom pedagogy and the experiences these youth brought with them.

Imran has identified that poverty is “a physical manifestation of an internal lack of experiences” for the thousands of individuals living in the South Side of Chicago. While many of his youth had never left the four-block radius of their schools, Imran provides them with a series of immersive journeys that connect them and the larger Chicago community to the same cultural fabric, through exposure to businesses, universities, grocery stores, art museums, restaurants, and partners from over 200 institutions including Google and Leo Burnett. Many youth also experience an internalized sense of not belonging due to the segregation of their city. Embarc engages partner institutions to realize the structures they reinforce that cause this segregation and to act in changing them.

Chicago is one the most segregated metro areas in the country. The poverty rate for African Americans is at 33.6%, two times the figure for Caucasians. The unemployment rate is 14.7% for African Americans compared to 5.7% for Caucasians. The effects of institutional racism, redlining, and zoning laws have led to disproportionately different qualities of life for the black community in the South Side of Chicago, compared to the white communities that live on the North side and downtown. This has led to a segregated Chicago designed to leave minorities unable to access the resources and economic prosperity of Chicago. The youth who grow up in Englewood and other neighborhoods in the South Side experience the effects of this isolation and segregation in obvious ways: many have never left the few blocks between their school and home, and feel deeply unwelcome in other parts of the city.

Perhaps the most acute way in which segregation affects the lives of these youth is through the violence that permeates their neighborhoods and their schools. Chicago had 468 murders in 2015, and many of them happened in public places like parks and alleyways. Many high school youth in the South Side have personally seen others get shot. Students know more people who are in jail, or have been shot or killed than they do with a college degree. With students so focused on self-preservation day-to-day, it becomes difficult to understand the importance of educational achievement, or to plan for it long term. Without access to models of success, and lacking exposure to colleges, careers, arts and culture, many students move through their high school years with limited ideas about what is possible in their own lives.

Despite this reality of isolation, the school system continues to grow even more focused on academics and test scores. Nationally, publishing companies and government bodies continue to cite standardized testing as the answer to educational improvement, with students spending more time taking tests than ever before.

Instead, Embarc closes the opportunity gap for youth through deep cultural exposure to their city and its inhabitants, dissecting the issue of segregation for the students in Chicago Public schools.

Imran uses public education as a pathway to dismantle the structures and systems – including distribution of funding, gerrymandering, zoning laws and more – in a city that has been designed to keep a certain demographic from achieving its full potential
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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