ESSENCE Empowerment: Building Global Leaders Through ‘STEAM’
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Breaking down the barriers within the technology industry was one of the primary topics covered during the STEM + The Arts (STEAM) ESSENCE Empowerment Experience.

Moderated by David J. Johns, Executive Director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, the discussion featured pioneers within their respective industries such as Wendy Raquel Robinson, actress and founder of Amazing Grace Conservatory; Beverly Bond, DJ and founder of Black Girls Rock!; Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code; Kim Worthy, STEM education advocate; and Wanda Ward, Head of the Office of International and Integrative Activities at the National Science Foundation. Moderator Johns jumped right in, posing the question of why it is important to have this discussion, especially when Black women are underrepresented in the STEM fields.

Bryant, whose organization focuses primarily on teaching computer programming to girls of color, said that it was important for minority girls to have a seat at the table when it comes to technology. With an estimated 1.4 million STEM-related jobs expected to be available in 2020, she expressed concern at the fact that African Americans only currently hold less than 3% of the positions available at major tech companies.

“So if we don’t educate our kids with these tools to be active participants, then we’re relegating them to second class status and really keeping them from the opportunity to build a better nation and do the things we want to do as technology creators, and not just as consumers,” she opined. Ward added that the conversation was necessary because far too often, the voices of African Americans are often overlooked.

“We live in a society where our voices are not heard in full volume. They’re not heard from the perspective of life experiences we have had and they’re to heard in a way that offers greater creativity to solving some of the most pressing and societal problems of the world today,” she explained. For Worthy, equipping our youth with the proper tools to engage in STEM program also gives them a sense of purpose in a classroom in which they may otherwise feel disempowered.

“When we expose our children to STEM and give them a purpose to use those STEM programs, we give them a reason to come to school everyday,” she explained, citing an example of a student enrolled in Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. The student, who had been a victim of kidnapping, helped develop an app that assisted other victims of kidnapping. She said that the student was able to do so because of her education provided her with a sense of purpose and desire to learn.

“Technology gets them that gateway to use their skills to empower themselves and empower their communities,” said Worthy. As the conversation progressed, talk shifted to relationship between the arts and STEM fields, and how the arts could help our students out beyond the classroom.

“It’s very interesting and amazing how the arts have helped test scores to blossom and to flourish in so many ways. So many people are able to learn through the arts without even knowing that they are learning. One of my professors at Howard always told us that there is no such thing as a dumb actor because when you think about it, you do so much reading, then you have to comprehend it and then you have to put it in context,” Robinson shared.

Though all panelists agreed that there’s still much work to do, Bond summed it up best, saying that the hard work starts with us. “We just have to start to raise the bar for our kids. We have to expect more and we have to give them the tools so that they can be their best selves,” she said. “I think that that’s something where we all have to jump in and become part of this village because they may not be getting it at home or in schools but we have to jump in and do what we can do to help raise the bar for our kids so that they’re not just consumers but are also innovators and leaders.”