To help pay my way through college, I worked full-time at a community center’s 24-hour daycare. There, I met a very active little boy named Marcus, who always seemed to get into trouble. But Marcus took to me and I to him, and we bonded over, of all things, bridges.
Yes, bridges – concrete bridges, the overpass variety that spanned highways, suspension bridges, all kinds of bridges. At night, I would put Marcus’ mat beside me and he would go on and on about bridges. At the end of the year, I met Marcus’ mom, and I gave her a gift for Marcus: a book on bridges. She looked at me and said in more colorful words, “You know that boy ain’t gonna be making any bridges, though. What black boys do you know drawing and making bridges?”
Fast forward to 2016 when, back in Nebraska, I ran into Marcus’ mom in the mall. Twenty years had passed, yet we recognized each other immediately. I asked about Marcus and learned that he, the boy who loved bridges, had been in the Nebraska State Penitentiary for the past 15 years.
As angry as I was with Marcus’ mother for not supporting him long ago, I felt even greater sadness for Marcus for his missed opportunities. Even today, just 2.4 percent of structural engineers are African American, as are less than 1 percent of executives and managers in Silicon Valley.
It’s not for lack of talent, intelligence, or creativity that blacks are underrepresented in these spaces. Black children simply are not being prepared to participate in careers in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics – STEAM.
This is why I created Brown Toy Box, a subscription box service, delivered monthly. Rather than sending samples of the latest makeup or a sock of the month, Brown Toy Box sends amazing STEAM-themed content that exposes kids to specific topics where representation has been limited.
The act of play and early exposure to STEAM share many of the same benefits. Both cultivate a child’s curiosity, executive function skills and creative thinking. The goal is to leverage Brown Toy Box to provide early exposure to STEAM for black children, while cultivating interest in and excitement for the various areas of STEAM. Our approach is unique in that we are intentional about addressing the issue of cultural representation and identity in play. As well as containing an activity, experiment and/or toy, every themed box includes a book featuring a real-life black trailblazer who has made remarkable achievements in that theme’s particular area. Or, the book will feature a fictional child protagonist who reflects and represents the children we are serving.
The bulk of our business is direct to consumer. Parents, grandparents and black-child advocates who know the benefits of STEAM exposure can purchase boxes through our website. That said, I’ve always known that the children who could benefit the most from our boxes would come from families that could least afford them; so, we have piloted a school partnership program that will be rolled out fully for the 2018-19 school year. We are focused specifically on working with Title 1* and charter schools in communities that serve student bodies that are 90 percent African-American or greater. (* Title 1 is a federal program providing funds to schools and school districts serving high numbers of economically disadvantaged children, with the goal of ensuring that high-risk students meet at least the minimum proficiency on state academic standards and tests.)
The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2015 by Drs. Nicole Hair, Jamie Hanson and Barbara Wolfe titled “The Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement.” In the article, the researchers concluded that the influence of poverty on children’s learning and achievement is mediated by structural brain development. To avoid long-term costs of impaired academic functioning, households below 150% of the federal poverty level should be targeted for additional resources aimed at remediating early childhood environments.
In the tech world, we often hear of the leaky pipeline that leaves the tech industry without the rich benefit of a diverse workforce. When it comes to blacks, tech doesn’t have a leaky pipeline, it has a busted hose, and we are working to correct that. While many STEAM programs are emerging that are directed at underserved middle school and high schoolers, there is virtually nothing that captures the hearts, minds, and imaginations of younger kids.
So how can you help?
Specific to our work, we ask that you sponsor a club, a classroom or ideally, a school, to receive our STEAM-themed boxes for their students. Organizations can sponsor a specific theme, a particular month or even the full school year. You never know which theme will help a child discover his or her passion! We hope to build children’s confidence early on, encouraging them to participate in STEAM programs throughout their school experience and beyond as they choose career paths.
Additionally, we encourage you to find ways to elevate and amplify the visibility of African Americans working in the jobs we want those kids we serve to see. Schools are always excited to welcome African American professionals working in STEAM to visit and share their experiences with students. And students, of course, are always excited and receptive to seeing people who look like them doing amazing things.
When I think about Marcus, I can’t help but think about how schools, his family and the rest of us failed him. Marcus’ interests in engineering should have been encouraged at that early age; instead, he was discouraged from pursuing his dreams. How many more Marcuses are out there? We must change the narrative and be intentional about encouraging African American boys and girls to pursue careers in STEAM. These industries are driving the growth of the U.S. economy, and our children deserve to be participants in that. So, it is for Marcus and all the little black boys and girls living in Vine City, Macon, DeKalb County, and the Pittsburg area of Atlanta just as much as Pittsburg, PA that I do what I do. Together, let’s make STEAM accessible, representative and fun.