I can’t help but wonder why it took someone like me — a Black, disabled, female filmmaker and social activist — to knock on the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s door and do the work of breaking down barriers between groups working for the same goal: increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM disciplines and opening up pathways to success for our nation’s marginalized communities.
Many of the groups that are participating in our forum, “Changing the Face of STEM,” have been working on the frontlines fighting for the future of STEM but this is the first time all of them will be working together in the same room. Maybe it’s fallen upon me to break down these barriers because of who I am and what I represent. Maybe I’m the one to do it because I’ve so often had to make a place for myself and others where there hasn’t been one before. Maybe I’m the one to do it because of all the progress we have made and all that we have left to accomplish. I have never believed in settling for less than our full potential.
Although there is no scientific evidence to support distinct racial differences, the social implications of race, especially in America, run centuries deep and nationwide. So while race may not be a valid construct, racism is a reality, and it still retains the power to marginalize entire segments of society based upon people’s features or their skin color. On May 22, Georgia Democrats selected Stacey Abrams as the first Black woman to be a major party’s gubernatorial nominee in the history of the United States. While this is huge news, it still begs the question, “Why did it take so long?” While the civil rights movement of the 1960s created some political access towards racial equality, the levy of the verdict of Brown v. Board of Ed with “all deliberate speed” still has not caught up economically or socially in many ways.
There is a new “movement” underway, a tsunami of change that is going to alter the face of our nation’s future workforce, particularly in STEM fields. While STEM careers have paved the way for financial prosperity, participation in these fields for historically underrepresented populations has lagged disappointingly behind. For example, today only 1 percent of doctoral mathematicians are Black and brown, 6 percent of medical school graduates are African American and 5 percent are Hispanic. This is a severe deficit in relation to a changing racial demographic in America.
History can attest to the fact that there is a brilliance in the barrios, the inner cities and on the reservations. Women are just as capable as men and there are some areas of expertise that only a woman can provide. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the National Academy of Sciences has just installed its first female president, Marcia McNutt.
I am a visionary and I truly believe that it’s not our past that defines our society, but our future. I have a vision of what that future looks like: a future where children aspire to more than minimum-wage jobs, our young men look forward to more than gang membership and gun violence, and our young women can be equally educated and equitably compensated for their work. These young men and women can be tomorrow’s scientists, engineers, mathematicians and doctors despite being labeled as underprivileged and poverty-stricken. We can give them the opportunity to know that they can be scientists or engineers or doctors.
The good news is that the past does not have to dictate the future, and change is coming! On June 12, nonprofit organization URU The Right To Be, Inc., in collaboration with the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, will present “Changing the Face of STEM: A Transformational Journey.” It will bring together remarkable trailblazers and groundbreakers in STEM-accomplished men and women from largely underrepresented minorities, including African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics. In attendance at the National Academy of Sciences that day will be thought leaders from across industry, academia and politics, as well as 250 Black and brown D.C.-area schoolchildren and their families.
If America is to continue its role as a world economic leader, however, it must compete on equal footing with emerging global powers. It must inspire, educate and recruit a STEM workforce that reflects the changing racial and ethnic demographics of our culture. To change the current dynamic, we need to change participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine so that representative populations from across society benefit equitably from our STEM economy.
STEM provides new pathways to engage civic, social and human justice causes. STEM can be a new source of empowerment. The America of tomorrow is created through vision and work today.
Please join us on June 12 as we plant the seeds of change for both our country’s culture and its scientific future which should include traditionally underrepresented groups like girls, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, the disabled and other marginalized people.
Crystal R. Emery is a producer, author and filmmaker known for producing socially-conscious storytelling on a variety of platforms that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.