Non-profit ‘cultivating an ecosystem’ for Black girls to thrive in STEM

Web Summary: Black E.S.T.E.E.M. is a collective focused on providing Black girls the tools and supports they need to thrive in STEM. Dilshad Burman with more on their mission to create systemic change.

By Dilshad Burman

An Ontario-based non-profit organization is working to encourage young Black girls to forge careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related fields through programming designed specifically for them.

Black E.S.T.E.E.M. (entrepreneurs, scientists, technicians, engineers, economists and mathematicians) is a collective of Black women, girls and allies who are endeavoring to create an educational experience wherein Black girls are given the encouragement and supports they need to thrive in STEM.

President and founder Shayle Graham, a former educator, says their research reveals that while Black girls may show interest in STEM, an alarmingly low number end up in those fields.

While in school, she felt her interest in STEM fields was never fostered.

“I remember growing up as a Black girl in the Jane and Finch community, I didn’t know that I had the opportunity to be a scientist or an engineer. I didn’t know that my identity could even be connected to being a mathematician,” she tells CityNews.

As a teacher, she continued to see “deficit narratives being projected onto Black girls in these subject areas,” leading to a lack of confidence and diminished interest. “Black girls are not encouraged to pursue that … as a result the highest paid professions, which lead to sustainable development of communities, are rarely occupied by Black women.”

Supporting Black girls in STEM

Hoping to fill the gaps she saw in the system, Graham gathered a group of like-minded individuals under the Black E.S.T.E.E.M. umbrella to work on possible solutions that would see more Black girls pursue their interests in STEM fields and turn them into careers.

“We are looking to transform the entire landscape — creating new educational pathways for Black girls because the ones that we need to see in order for Black girls to be successful, don’t exist,” she explained.

The goal is to spur systemic change so that instead of being dissuaded from worthwhile and lucrative careers, Black girls can confidently see themselves succeeding in them.

“Our vision is cultivating an ecosystem that nourishes creative learning spaces for Black girls through culturally responsive programming and partnerships,” said Graham. “We design programming for participants with an intentional deliberation that disrupts educational pathways that are steeped in racist, patriarchal, and other oppressive ideologies.”

The organization is funded by provincial and federal grants as well as partnerships with various institutions. They are also currently fundraising and donations from the wider community are welcome.

Guided by their target audience

Black E.S.T.E.E.M. works in close partnership with a youth advisory committee called Black Royalty, which provides suggestions on how they can best reach their chosen demographic.

“When making decisions [with regards to] Black E.S.T.E.E.M., oftentimes I look at myself and the other strong personalities on the advisory committee,” explained committee member Yemi Detut. “We are basically the target audience and we are able to come up solutions for anything we encounter regarding Black E.S.T.E.E.M., whether it’s programming or publicity.”

Detut says the organization provides a pedestal that amplifies the voices of Black girls as well as helps them learn how to make their voices heard.

“It’s something that we can see a reflection of ourselves in,” she said.

Programming catered to the needs of Black girls

Black E.S.T.E.E.M. holds workshops and classes for girls between the ages of 10 and 13 that offer training in STEM fields as well as mentorship, empowering them to feel confident in those areas.

One of their flagship programs is called “Melanin Poppin'” where participants explore cosmetic chemistry.

“[The program focuses on] on the skincare of melanated skin tones. Through the subject we are exploring building the skills of Black girls as chemists, but in conjunction with the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur,” explained Graham.

The organization has also partnered with the York University Lassonde School of Engineering to create a program called “Colour Coded” that introduces Black girls to concepts of coding and robotics.

“We’re exploring the world of computer science, building the skills and confidence of black girls [in these areas] and how coding and robotics applies to their lived experience, their cultural legacies and the intersectionality of their identities,” said Graham.

Black E.S.T.E.E.M. also aims at encouraging entrepreneurship and have partnered with TD to create a “Black Girl Boss Bootcamp” program.

“It’s focusing on entrepreneurship as it connects to financial literacy,” said Graham. “We’re addressing those underlying tropes of what is preventing black girls from having access. So we talk about financial literacy, we talk about generational wealth building.”

In addition, the organization shares the achievements, both past and present, of Black women on their social media pages to highlight them as examples of what Black girls can achieve. The also interview Black women in STEM industries and one participant says that kind of representation is essential for young girls like her.

“It’s showing black girls around the world that they can do anything and that there are people that look like them that have made a difference in the world,” said Serenity Green. “It really shows them that they can make a difference too.”

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