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Want to see more Black Faces in Science & Technology? Here’s how to make that happen today.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Last week, Janaye Ingram, the Washington DC Bureau Chief of the National Action Network, wrote an impassioned article about the lack of diversity in science and technology careers, (We Need More Black Faces in Science and Technology Fields, The Loop 21, May 25, 2012).  The impetus, this Best Buy Commercial:

Not a single woman. Not a single person of color. I read the rest of her article and I nodded in agreement with each sentence.  (Read her piece, it is a must). I can totally relate to everything she is saying and where she is coming from. We do need to see more Black Faces representing the opportunities and successes possible in the science and technology.  (Make me wish had a special African-American version #IamScience Story Collider to email to her right now). Though, I often complain about the numbers of African-American (and Latin and Native American) scientists and engineers there are, I have this to offer to Ms. Ingram. There are more of us than you may know.  Students, inventors, professors and educators from a number and variety of STEM disciplines that could spin your head are at the helm and ready to be role models and community leader. Right now.    The reality is that science doesn’t command much media coverage and in special affinity media outlets, science is pretty much non-existent. Instead, young people get a lot of this:

An immediate remedy would be for The Loop 21 and other Black media outlets that claim to have commitments to sharing news and opportunities with the community to step their games up.  Include more science and tech news and highlight African-American scientists, inventors, and engineers. Feature more positive news stories of the Influencers, the achievers and Movers and Shakers in Education, Science and Technology.  Each year, The Root lists the Top 100 – 100 Most Influential African-Americans of the year. Ebony Magazine publishes a similar list, too.  And guess what groups of people rarely make this list: Scientists and Engineers.  I agree that our students should know names of amazing role models like Mae Jemison and March Hannah, but who is going to tell them about these amazing people?  Where will they read about these role models or learn about all of the these exciting career opportunities in STEM? In media outlets like these.  This is low-hanging fruit.

Which brings me to a point I make often: Black Media has an amazing opportunity (and responsibility) to serve its readers by providing more in-depth science news coverage, (1, 2).  So much of what becomes our subjects of our conversations begin with what we read or heard on the radio.  It’s time the conversation to change, to mature.  It’s past time for the Black community to have very serious conversations about science which includes access to quality education so that young people can pursue these 21st century career opportunities.

I agree, education and economic opportunities are at the heart of this disparity.  I support the work that the organizations like the National Action Network and the National Urban League are doing to address these issues, but these issues are complicated. It will not be resolved by simply signing new legislation or hosting forums.  In November 2011, I spoke before Executive Committee of the St. Louis, Missouri  NAACP chapter. As members of a local Biotech Diversity roundtable that aims to increase the number of African-Americans participating in the growing biotech industry in the region, they asked me one question. How do we increase the number of African-Americans entering science?

The short answer: We raise the profile of education and science in the African-American community and deliberately offer the resources that students need to be successful in science.

That takes time, and the how you tackle this problem depends on when you would like to see measurable results: in 5 years, 10 years or 25 years? I cannot refute the studies that say that interacting with students at younger and younger ages is the key to engaging students in STEM, but that also mean we don’t get to see those Black Faces in Science Technology for at least a generation.  That’s a long time to wait.

I would like to see some immediate results, which would mean an increase in the number of students attaining degrees in STEM and accessing good-paying career opportunities before retire.  That would mean focusing our community attention and resources for students who are high school seniors and presently enrolled in college.  It means not addressing the problem of inadequate preparation at the system level.  It means taking a tough stance and working with only those who possess the grit and tenacity to work their asses off in an overwhelmingly unfair system.  It means possibly passing over some really passionate and bright kids who don’t have the grades. (This last one really bothers me the most, because these are these students I really enjoy working with.) It means being hard and fast to get some impressive results. I told you it’s complicated.

Right now, students do a whole lot of juggling in the dark – manage your time, take care of other relatives, work after school and in the summer, figure out how study, secure financial aid, etc.  If we, the Black Community, are really serious about creating a formidable and sizable STEM workforce, then we need to put our money and energy where our mouths are.  We’ve got to create an environment that allows students to put their full attention to doing well in school. It means organizations and individuals providing the financial aid, supplemental education, mentoring, as well as emotional/psychological support to these students so that they can focus on their studies – and nothing else.

That’s a tall order I know.  However, I believe it is possible and it starts with families (immediate and extended).  When communities create an environment of support for learning and study, students benefit.  Here are my list of recommendations I made to the St. Louis NAACP Executive Committee.

1. Provide parents with the resources they need to feel comfortable discussing science and technology.  No adult likes to feel as if he/she cannot have a reasonable conversation about current topics with his/her child.  I think social service and civil justice organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League are ideal for providing these resources to parents, grandparents and other adult influencers. 

Parents set the tone and general path to achievement. In my many years of mentoring and working with young people, it’s parents/guardians who more than anyone else who really set the bar of expectations for students.  Other adults can help and are definitely beneficial, but it’s parents who say to children I think a certain life is what I have in mind for you or what I will/not tolerate in your behavior that sets up what opportunities a child is able to take advantage of.  Community organizations and church communities are great resources, providing a safe place for adults to speak with each other about parenting and opportunities for their teens.  These organizations can foster important conversations such as:

  • Defining what success means to me
  • Developing an outline of success
  • Setting explicit expectations for my child

2. Re-prioritize education for children. Students whose parents/adult influencers who are unequivocal in their dedication to their children’s’ education – which includes comprehension, not just grades and good conduct and extra-curricular intellectual interests tend to be more driven, ambitious, and excel.  This has to be more than words.  For some families, this may be very difficult.  Some students need to work or take care of other siblings/relatives in order for the household to stay afloat.  This is why and where community support comes to play.  When other adults, say extended family members – especially those without children or those who are better off financially – can really make a difference.  Offering rides to after-school programs, helping to pay for summer camps or freeing up the young person’s time so that they can fully participate in educational opportunities can be make  big difference. This creates an implicit understanding in children that the adults in their lives are working to achieve certain objectives through daily/seasonal activities.

3. Redefining SUPPORT.  The most important myth I think needs dispelling is this one: Tutoring is only for remedial learners.  Students really need get into the habit of locating supplemental education resources.  They need to know how to find and create a community of support and assistance in their educational pursuits.  Study buddies and study groups for all subjects should be identified immediately.  Don’t wait until you think you’re doing poorly to get extra help in a subject.  After-school clubs, summer programs, and academic competitions are also good places for support – academically and intellectually.  Plus, let’s not forget the importance of mentors.   This strategy is about deliberately aligning yourself and your children with people/programs/resources that connect them to other high achievers.  I know that participating in such programs can be financially and socially interruptive, especially for kids from single-parent or economically strapped families.  I know from first hand experience, but trust me that these opportunities yield big payoffs, particularly when it comes to post-secondary opportunities like access to scholarships, internships via networking, better grades and letters of recommendations.

In summary, access to science and technology careers will require a higher education. And success in higher education means understanding the culture of academia and high achievement.  It’s time to abandon the notions that some subjects are just not for some students or that they will ‘figure it out eventually’.  It’s also time to dispense the idea of luck or pre-destiny as the reasons why some make it and most don’t.  I’m tired of gambling away the future of bright and promising students.  Success is a deliberate strategy not a lottery.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. priddseren 12:33 pm 06/1/2012

    How about we go with Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and NOT focus on the color of someones skin. I want to see individual working in the careers of their choice and article like this while well meaning is actually perpetuating the divisions between people based on race that have no meaning at all. I work in the IT industry and there is never a team with some sort of majority race, it is always a mix of people from all over the world. There is nothing else to do here except let people be free individuals. This is the only idea or concept everyone needs to be concerned about, being a free individual and respecting the fact that all others are as equally free and individual as you are. Anything else is just perpetuates division.

    Link to this
  2. 2. DNLee 11:49 am 06/4/2012

    I’m with you. I want to see people study and work in whatever capacity they see fit.
    However, if I can help you to understand how powerfully important it is for young people from marginalized groups to see someone who looks/sounds/relates to them in careers in STEM, then I must.

    And I disagree with you, articles like this are NOT perpetuating the divisions of people based on race. No, it is the historical (and often very oblivious) systems in place that don’t allow children/young people from poor families – whether urban or rural, persons of color or of palor, and females to fully embrace their interests in a variety of subjects such as math, science and the arts.

    Articles like this one DOES make it obvious that these divisions and unfair systems exist. What it DOES do is make some people uncomfortable with these glaring (unfair) realities. Perhaps that is why you may prefer I ‘leave it alone’ and just ‘let people be free’.

    However, I cannot credit my success in education, life or science, to society/folks just letting me be free and figure it out. I had many people (some knowing & others not) who encouraged, supported and mentored me every step of the way. Neither can I ignore the fact that I have had many road blocks, deterrents, and some personal/professional IEDs set along my path for no other reason than I was a female or black or from the inner-city.
    No I will not ignore it, and yes, I want to see more Black and Brown faces in STEM. I write this blog, I do my science and my outreach with the very goal of replacing myself with as many copies of me – brown faces, female faces, enthusiastic personalities, inner-city kids, 1st generation college graduates, kids from working class families – in STEM careers before I shove off of this planet.
    Yours kindly.

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  3. 3. Katoya318 2:33 pm 06/5/2012

    Good article!
    My son is on a wait lest for a STEM elementary here in Seattle – we are proudly a science family!

    So excited to introduce him!

    Link to this
  4. 4. DNLee 10:08 am 06/6/2012

    Congrats to him and to you. Seattle is great STEM city. Until he gets his call, I hope you all have fun enjoying the informal science and tech learning opportunities I now Seattle has to offer. I’m hoping to visit there myself in October. I’m looking forward to the Space Needle!

    Link to this
  5. 5. ibrother 1:42 pm 06/8/2012

    I currently live in Seattle & yes, it is a great STEM city and as a matter of fact, the science center is currently having a science festival with events happening all during the month of june.

    I am also a member of a non-profit men’s organization, the breakfast group and produce their podcast.
    The organization mentors and gives scholarships to Seattle high school boys of color. Saturday is the 18th annual all achiever award ceremony where students get scholarships for positive changes in their lives.

    I also am helping historian & story teller Delbert Richardson in his exhibit the uspoken truths. We should never forget where we come from & that this country was built on the backs of many, but only a few have been able to benefit.
    Delbert has original artifacts from mother Africa, chattel slavery, jim crow & his most recent is with african american inventors.

    I have produced some videos of him and another historian, Yaw Davis. Here goes a clip.

    I have an advanced degree in computer engineering and have fallen in love with digital media. In addition to the podcast, I also have collected interviews and am now streaming events. I recently did the Seattle Urban League Young Professionals leadership summit.

    DNLee, make sure you look me up when you visit Seattle.

    Link to this
  6. 6. zackboston 8:01 am 06/12/2012

    Hello DNLee! Thanks for your great article.

    Thought you might be interested in the 10 year old Learn2TeachTeach2Learn. Boston teenaged youth teacher provide free hands on creative STEM activities in summer camps to over 500 elementary & middle school youth in housing developments, churches, community centers and youth agencies located in the neighborhoods most in need of ed resources. Amazing things happen when youth mentor other youth and design activities that are relevant to their lives. This model was started by the great Mel King.

    We don’t have a lot of slick promo materials because we quietly focus on the youth and we do things word of mouth, but you are always welcome to visit if you come to Boston. Here is a little essay that Mel and I wrote about the program, a description of the program and a link to our little informal blog where you can see a little of what our youth can accomplish! If you know any folks who might be interested in supporting us, we are in great need in this economy. . . tho we have managed with nickels and dimes for 10 years:

    Informal blog:

    Technologies of the Heart essay:

    Technical program description:

    Link to this
  7. 7. zackboston 8:04 am 06/12/2012

    p.s. The organization Iridescent, based in LA but spreading across the country, does GREAT family science/technology education. I think this is a really potent idea for getting our youth into STEM. This year, L2TT2L is going to try to have at least one family STEM making event for our youth teachers and their families modeled after Iridescent’s program.

    Link to this
  8. 8. computersciencce9999 5:31 am 08/20/2012

    Completely agree. Need more female African American in Computer Science doing Software Engineering. There are so many jobs. they get around $100,000 a year. Seriously, African American Community needs to wake up.

    Link to this

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