About Us




Our Why

Everything we do at SPARK is driven by our deeply-held belief that when we are passionate, mindful, and well in our work, we are more effective at meeting the needs of those we serve daily.

Our mission is to collaboratively develop and sustain spaces of deep congruence where change agents can work both individually and collectively to (re) align their passions with their professional vision and purpose. We envision a world where change agents, through deeply connecting with their purpose, can ignite real and lasting change within themselves and in the communities they serve.

We know from our collective experiences that when we have authentic opportunities to deeply look at our own passion for and purpose in teaching, serving, and leading, then we are better equipped to stimulate deeper learning and more authentic change in our youth.


Our Team


Dr. LaMarr D. Shields

Co-Founder and Lead Facilitator


Dr. LaMarr D. Shields is an author, teacher, and thought leader who has dedicated his life to inspiring others to pursue a higher, more meaningful purpose and achieve sustainable value for long-term success. His extensive experience as a scholar-practitioner in the field of racial, ethnic, and academic identity among Black and Latino male youth, coupled with his depth of experience with fostering interconnectivity and deep engagement among educators, policymakers, parents, and other change agents, unique positions him as a leader in the field. As a member of the National Blue Ribbon Commission on Equity and Achievement and an Open Society Institute Fellow, he brings with him an unparalleled level of enthusiasm and complexity to this collaborative work. Dr. Shields is the Co-Founder and Director of Education and Innovation at the Cambio Group, a consultancy that works with schools and agencies both within the United States and internationally. As a former professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and a Teach for America alumnus, LaMarr is a teacher at heart and has a wealth of experience teaching and leading in both K-12 and university settings and leading in the non-profit sector.


Dr. Marina V. Gillmore

Co-Founder and Lead Facilitator


Dr. Marina V. Gillmore has built her professional career around working with youth and teaching, training, researching, and writing about issues related to equity and access, social justice, belief and value exploration, and self-efficacy. She holds a doctorate in Leadership for Educational Justice and has conducted award-winning research on the experiences of underserved youth in urban environments. Marina co-founded and directed the Institute for Educational and Social Justice, an organization dedicated to advancing educational and social justice causes through writing, publishing, and educational outreach projects. She currently serves as the President and CEO of Full Circle Press and Educational Outreach Center. Her educational consulting and teaching work has taken her throughout the country, with a strong emphasis on serving rural communities throughout the southeastern United States and linguistically and culturally diverse communities throughout southern California. As a former high school English and ELD teacher and a professor of courses ranging from undergraduate educational research courses to doctoral courses for school and district-level administrators, she has extensive teaching and leading experience at both the K-12 and university levels.


Marie Williams

SPARK Director of Operations


Everything Marie does is driven by a deep passion to succeed and make whatever she applies her hand to prosper in every area. As a wife, mother, minister, and business owner, she brings to SPARK the perspective that realizing personal and professional goals – with balance – is possible. Upon graduating with her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Graphic Design from Georgia Southern University, Marie had already built a portfolio working with educational events. This area of work allowed her many wonderful experiences and the opportunity to build relationships with deans, professors, and teachers who had a true passion for education, for training others and for sharing research in their respective fields. Over her career, Marie has managed over thirty educational programs, including many recurring annual events, ranging from 90 to over 2,000 participants. Over a decade later, she founded Williams Events, an educational training and event management organization committed to bringing relevant training to educators and service providers across the country.


Lori Benfield

SPARK Outreach Coordinator


Sparked by her fierce love for underdogs and belief in the transformative power of being truly seen and heard, Lori Benfield built her professional career advocating for youth and developing programs to support and empower them. She began her career as a juvenile probation officer, served as social worker in an inner city high school, and conducted investigations of abuse and neglect of vulnerable populations. Lori currently utilizes her Master of Social Work to direct programs to help youth in foster care achieve independence. She also oversees youth development programs in middle and high schools.

Lori is a lover of dogs, music, veterans, a vivid imagination, and a good story.

She currently resides with her dog in North Carolina, home of the mountains and ocean.


Our Board

We believe that everything is better with a little help from our friends. Our SPARK Board of Directors and Advisory Board collaborate to form a team of big-picture dreamers and leaders from the education, nonprofit, and business sectors who work behind the scenes to make sure that all of our experiences, trainings, and the decisions behind them align with our vision
and mission.

Our SPARK Alumni

Part of the magic of SPARK comes through the connections built among participants and between participants and our SPARK team. We are committed to fostering spaces where our SPARK alumni have opportunities to continue to engage with each other and our team.

Our Story

“When we least expect it, life sends us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.” Paulo Coelho

We are passionate about this work because it is so deeply connected to our purpose and our calling as educators, thought leaders, and change agents committed to making a deep and lasting impact on the lives of those we serve.

We both had those unforgettable mornings where we woke up and dreaded getting up, getting dressed, and going to teach. Yet because we knew individually in our hearts that teaching was a calling, we knew we had some deep work to do. And we got to work.

We read, we reflected, we went back to school, we made some fundamental changes in our lives, we altered the definition of what teaching and learning meant to us, we wrote, we spoke, we trained, we collaborated, we learned from and studied with mentors, we collaborated and – after all that work – we came together to bring to you the very best of what we have to offer.

Our story is one of authenticity. We are not immune from struggle ourselves, but we have worked hard to overcome those struggles in meaningful ways. We have developed a seven-part framework for our Spark work that we not only teach, but live and breathe ourselves on a daily basis.

So this is it – the culmination of years of our efforts to inspire change agents, both individually and collectively, to delve a little more deeply into the passion and purpose present (or absent) in their professional lives.

We’re ready to work together to get to the heart of the matter. Are you?

– LaMarr and Marina, Spark Founders

Our Approach

There is a need for teachers, educational leaders, and other change agents to renew and refocus on their passion for their work, while also being equipped with new tools, frameworks, and methodologies not only to stay engaged throughout the coming years, but also to serve as leaders in their respective schools and organizations to help colleagues stay engaged and effective in meeting the needs of those they serve.

As leaders serving youth, there is a temptation to sometimes almost entirely on our external lives. We often feel that we must constantly be doing something in order to bring about transformation. But an extensive and growing body of research and practice illustrates that we must also do the work required to ensure that our internal lives – our attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, and values – align with our work and professional missions. Our SPARK experiences encompass this work through their design and implementation.

SPARK provides teachers, educational leaders, and other change agents with the strategies and support necessary to foster leadership, connectivity, and transformational change in schools, nonprofits, and other organizations. In order to continue to develop schools and organizations that foster growth and youth success, professional development needs to continue to foster teams of committed change agents who are focused and have access to high-quality continuing education that delves beyond the surface and gets to the heart of what it means to teach, lead and serve with purpose.

When teachers, educational leaders, and other change agents develop greater connections with themselves and what they do, they can then forge stronger connections with youth. Personal engagement and professional connection are paramount to fostering youth engagement and achievement.

Research around schools and agencies serving disenfranchised and struggling youth consistently shows that they struggle with faculty and staff retention and that faculty and staff report leaving because they feel disconnected and disengaged from both their own professional purpose and their daily work. Research also shows that those leaders charged with leading schools and organizations with the most disenfranchised and academically underperforming youth are in need of deep support and quality professional development.

Our curriculum is deeply rooted in both scholarship and practice. The research foundations of our work include, but are not limited to, the areas of:
  • Teacher stress, burnout, and retention
  • Crafting personal narratives as a form of empowerment
  • How educators and school leaders shape belief and self-identity
  • Systems thinking, reform models, & ethical decision making in schools and non-profits
  • Teacher self-efficacy
  • Motivating and empowering teachers and other change agents to engage struggling youth

Donate

100 percent of all donations go to support our SPARK scholarship program, which makes it possible for deserving teachers, social workers, and other change agents to attend one of our SPARK experiences and, in turn, transform the lives of the youth they serve daily.


Donate Now

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We believe that connection, dialogue, and community are the keys to sustained growth and change – both internal and external. Sign up here to join our mailing list and we’ll keep you up-to-date on all SPARK-related happenings.


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