Is Society Putting Too Much Pressure On Black People To Succeed In STEM?

Desiréia Valteau
Written by Desiréia Valteau
**COMMERCIAL IMAGE** Thirty-one teens from the IBM-affiliated P-TECH school in Brooklyn, NY, a collaboration between IBM, City University of New York, and the New York City Department of Education, participate in New York City College of Technology’s 78th Commencement ceremony on Monday, June 4, 2018. Photo: Augusto Menezes/Feature Photo Service for IBM

Since sixth-grade, McKenzie, who just finished her freshman year of high school, has been coding. She learned it through STEAM:CODERS, a Pasadena, California nonprofit that has been teaching coding and other computer-related skills to underserved communities since 2014.

McKenzie told Moguldom that she was not excited at first to acquire the new skills.

“I really wasn’t that fond of waking up on Saturdays going to computer class,” said McKenzie. “I didn’t know what it was about and wasn’t excited at all.” However, over time she could not wait to attend the sessions.

“I like that they do a lot of introductory courses and they are very versatile,” said McKenzie. “I enjoy going to the classes and recently finished their cybersecurity unit.”

Every day, African Americans are told about the wonders of learning how to code. Various organizations have sprouted up all over with initiatives to get more participants interested in not just coding but STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 15: Clarence Wooten Jamarlin talks with Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur Clarence Wooten, who sold his first tech business for $23M. They discuss Bitcoin’s long-term prospects and how blockchain has opened up new capital-raising opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Statistics often site how far African Americans lag behind their white counterparts earning STEM degrees and entering STEM careers, including the National Urban League’s State of Black America report, which provideds a benchmark for thought leadership around racial equality in America.

Is society putting too much pressure on Black people to succeed in STEM?

People in the hood aren’t using words like STEM but that doesn’t mean they’re not doing it.

Zakiya Harris, co-founder and chief education officer at Hack the Hood in Oakland, California.

“In technology, African Americans are so far behind, sometimes you have to push,” said Beverly Allen, an African American woman who has worked in technical positions at the California Institute of Technology for 20 years. She is the university’s director of Institute Business Systems Project Management Office.

Allen continued, “It’s going to balance out but if you don’t push some kids and say, ‘You need to major in this or that,’ or just to expose them. It’s kind of like throwing a bunch of paper wads on the wall, not all of them are going to stick. So, I don’t have a problem with pushing the kids and I don’t think we’ve gone too far. They’ll get to a point when they’ll say, ‘You know what? This was interesting and fun. I learned a lot, but this is just not where my passion is.’”

Since 2014, the nonprofit, Oakland-based #YesWeCode has helped thousands of young women and men from underrepresented backgrounds across the U.S. to find success in technology.

Zakiya Mackey, #YesWeCode’s deputy director, told Moguldom, “I don’t think organizations are forcing less-than-represented demographics to pursue this. I think it’s more of a call to say, ‘Although you may not know anyone who looks like you in this field, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the skills or know-how to be in this field. You can do this just like anybody else.”

While women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, less than 30 percent are in science and engineering, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. For example, their data shows that just 10.7 percent of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women and 11.1 percent of physicists and astronomers are women. The numbers in STEM for Black women are even lower.

“We have to be the proactive ones,” said Mackey. “As a Black woman, we are the lowest number in the tech sector and if we don’t put more Black women into these tech spaces, our stories will not be included.”

Zakiya Harris is the co-founder and chief education officer at Hack the Hood, an Oakland, California-based organization that teaches tech and entrepreneurship skills to youth who use what they learn to get local small businesses visible online. “We need to teach girls that they can fly for the sky and that they don’t have to start dummying stuff down in middle school and high school, which is where you really start seeing that decline amongst girls related to engineering, science and math,” Harris said.

While majoring in or having a career in STEM are obvious ways to close the digital divide, the other aspect is making sure that African Americans and girls or young women are exposed to it — even if they may not see themselves in a traditional STEM role later in life.

“We tell parents all of the time that we are not trying to produce computer programmers,” said Charmayne Mills Ealy, the director of operations at STEAM:CODERS, which targets elementary and high school students. “What we’re doing is inspiring, encouraging, and giving them exposure. We need a broader scope of what coding is and you need STEAM.”

The term STEAM, as it relates to STEM, incorporates arts and design in the mix.

Ealy, whose organization has partnerships with Caltech and the ArtCenter College of Design (also in Pasadena) added, “Maybe you are more prone to the arts and design part of engineering or the robotics part as opposed to coding. They will make the choice if they want to move on up the academic ladder.”

Harris told Moguldom that many underserved young people are already in STEM/STEAM and may not even realize it.

“Every young person is addicted to their phone,” said Harris, whose nonprofit has been working with under-resourced teens and young adults since 2013. “Every young person is addicted to social media. They may be passionate about making beats, taking photos, or maybe they’re into blogging. I dare you to show me a teenager that isn’t already in technology.”

Harris continued, “The reality is because the language and framing are often created by the system, aka power that tends to be white, we don’t use those words. People in the hood aren’t using words like STEM but that doesn’t mean they’re not doing it.”

For Mackey, there is no distinction between STEM and STEAM. “Innovation is birthed off necessity and when I think of the melaninated people of this earth, we are innately creative, artistic, and visually expressive people. Our innovation has naturally become part of our art form.”

McKenzie, who’s been coding since sixth grade, just finished her freshman year in high school. She has future plans to go into entrepreneurship or marketing but she would like to see how coding plays out in that. “I’m going to continue taking coding courses at my school and through STEAM:CODERS throughout high school,” she told Moguldom.