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Chicago Defender – Building a STEM Pipeline for African Americans

By Andrea L. Zopp

Last week I hosted a workshop on the economic outlook during a conference at Living Word Christian Center. Entrepreneurs, faith leaders and lay persons gathered to share ideas and learn best practices on how to grow their businesses, churches and, ultimately, improve their communities.

I shared some good news and some bad news. The good news is that key economic indicators show that the nation’s economy is showing signs of recovery. Retail sales are up.  So is franchise ownership. Add to that an improving job market and an increase in home sales and you have the positive signs that the economy is getting better.

As the nation rebounds, companies that will see the most growth will be those that embrace new and emerging technologies.  The digital and social media revolution has changed the way businesses interact, engage with customers and tap new markets. Many of the jobs being created now and in the future will rely heavily on workers who are proficient in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. In each of these areas, African Americans are woefully underrepresented – and that’s the bad news.

On Tuesday, May 7 the Chicago Urban League will convene business leaders, community stakeholders and policy makers for its annual Summit and luncheon with a focus on STEM education and careers. We will discuss how public and private partners can work together across various sectors to increase African American participation in STEM education and careers.

African Americans are already behind, so we need a more deliberate strategy to get more African Americans into the pipeline to STEM careers. The economic indicators I mentioned earlier speak volumes about where we should be focusing our efforts on education, job training, and even school field trips to companies that hire STEM workers. In STEM, there are direct pathways from education to careers that provide middle income wages and economic empowerment that can strengthen families, neighborhoods and communities. We need to know how to get there.

STEM education has to be accessible to all students no matter where they attend school. We have to level the playing field in our public schools. Other ways to connect people to STEM jobs are career fairs that show them what these jobs look like. Public-private partnerships are another great way to build access and connect people to training and jobs. It’s a new day. Companies want to engage with the African American community to build a skilled workforce and train workers with the requisite skills.

Chicago is already taking positive steps. Chicago Public Schools, in partnership with City Colleges of Chicago and several corporations, has established five Early College Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Schools (ECSS). This public- private partnership has had a tremendous impact at Michelle Clark, George Corliss, CVCA, Lake View and Sarah E. Goode high schools. The corporate partners are Cisco, Verizon Wireless, Motorola Solutions, Microsoft, and IBM.  Together, this effort connects high schools, colleges, and the workforce in an effort that prepares our children to succeed in college and in their careers.

At the Chicago Urban League, we see job seekers who were displaced because they were unable or unwilling to learn advanced skills needed to compete in today’s job market. If you want to make it in the new world economy, you have to bring your A game, and a lot of African Americans are doing just that. We’ll be recognizing some of our local innovators at this year’s Summit, including: Neal Sales-Griffin and Mike McGee, founders of the Starter League, a software school housed in the 1871 tech hub; Jackie Lomax, founder of Girls 4 Science, a non-profit that exposes girls ages 10 to 18 to STEM careers; Fareeda Shabazz, principal of Crane Tech Med Prep; and  Jason Coleman, Seun Phillips and George Wilson, founders of Project SYNCERE, a non-profit that provides STEM education to students with the goal of increasing the number of minorities in the talent pipeline.

We need to raise the visibility of African American innovators who are blazing trails in these fields. Right here in Chicago there are women and men who, in addition to having outstanding careers, have dedicated themselves to cultivating the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technology experts.

Our keynote speaker on May 7 will be Exelon President and CEO Christopher M. Crane, who is no stranger to the benefits of technology. An expert in the electric utility industry, we look forward to hearing his take on how the corporate sector can play a role in building a diverse STEM workforce.

To find out how you can be a part of our annual Summit and luncheon visit us online at www.thechicagourbanleague.org. Ensuring that our community participates in STEM careers is essential to securing our economic future. We all have a responsibility to build the STEM pipeline. We hope you will join us in this conversation and that it will lead to meaningful action.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.