Brandi Forte has had a full career. You name it, she’s accomplished it. And she attributes her success to her ancestors and hard knocks upbringing in Southern California. The Howard University graduate is a former journalist, speech writer, self-published author and Barack Obama campaign fellow. Most recently, Forte shifted the lion’s share of her efforts to her duties as the executive director of Amala Lives, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit providing empowering programs for at-risk youth, families and communities. Working as a resource and service provider led the mother of two to her latest venture: becoming founder of the Amala Lives Institute, a culinary arts and hospitality vocational school — the programs are six months long and tuition is income-based — located in the nation’s capital. Of the 53 non-degree, post-secondary institutions licensed in Washington, D.C., 12 are minority, women-owned. Proud to be amongst this group, Forte, 38, realizes the Amala Lives Institute was always her destiny. She talks to EBONY about her journey to creating a legacy building institution.
EBONY: Was becoming founder of a school part of your original plan?
Brandi Forte: A couple of years ago, I was looking at a news clip the Santa Monica Outlook did on me – a profile. It was highlighting the achievements of high school juniors and seniors. When I read it, it was so relevant. I said I wanted to be a well-known writer. I said I wanted to own a school – which is crazy. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. Decades later, reflecting on this, I always wanted to blaze a trail. I always wanted to be different. How many young Black people are opening up schools? That’s not trendy. I feel like education is so empowering. Owning our own schools, financial institutions allows us to be able to empower ourselves. I started really working towards it in 2013 doing the research, and three years later here we are.
EBONY: What is your vision for the school?
BF: The vision for my school, the Amala Lives Institute, is to be the premier vocational school for young adults in the District of Columbia. I want to take vocational education to a place where it’s out of the box. Right now, it’s very technical. We want to be cutting edge, with an emphasis eventually on the arts. I want to bring journalism, music production, some other creative elements. In June, the first addition will be music production. We are also looking at adding campuses in Compton, California and Atlanta, Georgia.
EBONY: What motivated you to get the project started?
BF: I had a very small squad. Initially, it was myself and my executive assistant. We were bidding on contracts for workforce training and the number one requirement was that you had to be a vocational institution. This meant the same schools were getting all of the contracts. We researched what you had to do to become a school, and we realized it was so lengthy, like writing a dissertation. I looked at it and said it would take me forever and years to accomplish. I chewed on it and chewed on it. I thought, ‘what if I could be a Mary McLeod Bethune, or Mr. Joe Dudley?’ These are our ancestors who opened their own institutions. I realized that this was something I was going to do.
EBONY: What type of student is attracted to the Amala Lives Institute?
BF: We’re attracting young people, men, people who otherwise may have not gotten a chance at life but want take another shot. We try to connect with them. They’re not just a number; that is what makes us different.
We have a student who is a single father of two and a returning citizen (from prison). He came because we were in his community. He could walk to our institution. Even though he’s in his 30s, he wanted something different. Even though his past was marred, he always talked about transformation. He’s symbolic of the young men we’re attracting. Those who need a second chance. He’s back on track and in a short length of time, we were able to make an impact.