Recently, an article featuring Dr. Edray Goins, a Black mathematician and past speaker at BEAM, gave a glimpse into what it can feel like to be “the only one”. His perspective is a compelling reminder that while STEM careers can be rewarding and exciting, for students coming from historically marginalized communities, the world of STEM can also be incredibly lonely. When you look around a math class and find you are the only person of color or the only woman, it can be a demoralizing experience. STEM spaces are often dominated by people who either accidentally or overtly send the message that underrepresented minorities don’t belong.
Because of the social and emotional dynamics that come with pursuing STEM as an underrepresented minority, STEM preparedness for our students means more than academics. Beyond foundational math and science skills, students need opportunities to grow in their confidence and self-determination needed to excel in a social environment that can be hostile. Ayinde, our College Support Coordinator, and Sylvia, our High School Programs Social Worker, are tackling this aspect of STEM preparedness through a new BEAM initiative: empowerment groups.
Sylvia leads the Young Women’s Empowerment Group while Ayinde organizes the Young Men’s Empowerment Group. Sylvia and Ayinde share their thoughts on this special project, why they launched it, and what they have learned so far.
What is an empowerment group?
Ayinde: So I think for me, the core of it is, identifying your own viewpoints and your thoughts on yourself and where you stand in society at large. Because I think, especially at the time around high school (college too), there are so many factors that go into how you see yourself, and so many of those come from outside sources: friends, family, media. The point of an empowerment group is to center that, so that the primary source is internal, the primary source is coming from you.
Sylvia: For the women’s empowerment group, that [title] is word for word what we are trying to do; we are trying to empower women. I look back on myself in high school and I think if I had had a support group like that I would have been more confident. Girls are raised to be careful, and boys are raised to take risks. So we have conversations about this within group, and the goal is for them to feel empowered to do anything that they want to do regardless of gender. But also it is a safe space. So I think it is a very therapeutic space. But also a space for them to feel empowered to reach their goals, and reach their potential. I want them to get to a point where they want to accomplish goals not because they are perfect but because they are brave and want to do these things for themselves.
Why empowerment groups? How did you get this idea?
Sylvia: As the social worker in the office, and at first as the only not mathematical person in the office, it felt like BEAM was missing something and there was something in my toolbox that I could add. And so I was helping a student with a summer program application, and I really encouraged her and kinda pushed her. She got in and she said it was great, but privately she told me about a actually really traumatic experience that happened during the program. It got me thinking about what we do here at BEAM and how we sometimes put them [students] into places where they are the only one (race or gender), and it made me think about how we can support our students more holistically. And so I sat down with Ayinde.
Ayinde: Having experience with another non-profit (as an Oliver scholar), and part of my experience then was them preparing us to be in spaces where you are going to feel like an outsider or an outcast. So having had that experience coming to BEAM, I knew we needed to move in the direction of grafting conversations like that. But it wasn't until my conversation with Sylvia that I started to see how we can go about having those conversations. The other part was I went to an all boys middle school. So I have had thoughts about boys and how they perceive their ideas about manhood and how those ideas grow, and I wanted to have space to talk about grafting one's identity for a very long time.
BEAM is about math, right, and STEM access? Where do the empowerment groups fit into that mission?
Ayinde: One of the biggest things that, I think, is getting spoken about more these days, but still not enough in my opinion, is the aspect of what it means to belong and feel like you are a part of a specific career path: to feel as though you are a engineer or a mathematician or a scientist. And lot of things go into that. A lot of things affect what students believe about themselves. I think both directly and indirectly they [empowerment groups] allow us to make sure our students know the importance of how they view themselves. Specifically, because the majority of the students in the men's group are seniors, we talk a good bit about how they view themselves and when that view comes in conflict with how the people around them view them. What I am trying to do is prepare them for when they go to college, and they are away from their friends and family, and they are in that 100 student math class, maybe with only 5 or 6 people who look like them, and maybe feel like they are the only ones struggling, when that moment comes, that is not a reflection that they don't belong in that space.
Sylvia: I agree with a lot of what Ayinde is saying, I think with women there is the other layer, of the fact that women are not represented in STEM. Also I think that currently all of the women in the women’s group are women of color, which adds another layer. So making sure that they feel confident in themselves that they can succeed in STEM if that is what they want to do. Or, if it is not, that they still have that confidence in themselves and allowing them to feel comfortable in spaces that are predominantly male dominated. Little things like when they have a disagreement and they want to share it. Or if all of the people raising their hands in the class are male, that they can feel comfortable raising their hand. Empowerment from within is something they have to keep moving at. And I think that is where it intersects with STEM. Also feeling comfortable asking for help. When you have a space to talk about stuff that you can't talk about at home or school, then it leaves more space to get more out of school. They can unburden themselves, and concentrate more on school and applications and other stuff.
How has hosting empowerment groups changed you?
Ayinde: I always wanted to create a space for young men to talk about what it means to be young men and what that means for them specifically, not what they have observed, what they've been told, but internally. But beyond really being able to do that in a concrete way, it has been seeing what that impact means: what it is now. To see a group of young men who are open in various different ways. These weren't boys who I was ever worried about them expressing themselves or having emotions, but how much that has evolved in terms of how they talk about things with each other, and how much they talk about their issues, and what they are going through, and how much they trust each other with that and to some extent me as well, to share these kinds of things with each other. The idea of brotherhood and what that looks like in its most ideal form has been something that I have thought about for quite some time and it has really been a dream to kinda see that form in this group.
Sylvia: I think I finally have found my niche at BEAM. I have always helped with this and that, and was very passionate about helping co-direct a BEAM site. But in this I think I have found my baby. Because I can go up to a funder or a donor and say that this is what I am doing and why it is important. I think being able to impact the girls the way I do is really great and really powerful, knowing that they know they have a mentor in me and that they look up to me.
Can you tell me about a moment that was particularly beautiful or meaningful that happened because of these groups?
Sylvia: There was one silly moment, they girls had left and I overheard them saying “oh, this is actually really cool!” I have gotten text messages from students saying thank you. There was a particular group that got pretty emotional. The girls were digging deep into feelings that they maybe hadn't been able to to share in other spaces. It was really good to see them being strong and willing to share these feelings. I think every group has its own special moment, but that in particular was really special.
Ayinde: Similarly, there are a lot of moments. One that I particularly think about was a little bit early on. In the beginning the men's group didn't have a lot of people who were consistently coming. One week, it was just myself and two students and I was worried that everybody felt like they didn't really feel the purpose of coming. That was the first time that one of the students asked a question, saying: can we talk about this thing? It led to a really beautiful conversation about identity, and at the end of it the student told me that he was really happy and it meant a lot to him that he was able to talk about it. So even though it was a small amount of people at that time, it was important and it mattered.