In 2014 Carl Talton, Willie Chambers, and Jon Nunn, three long-standing Black community members with deep roots in education and economic development in NE Portland’s Black community, recognized a problem. Dramatic disparities existed in youth of color’s exposure to or participation in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and, mathematics) activities or programs.
These disparities perpetuated the dilemma of underrepresentation and were problematic for Black and brown children in N/NE Portland, where schools historically received less funding, offered limited math and science classes, and provided even fewer opportunities for exposure to STEAM topics like computer science, robotics, and coding.
Far too often, STEAM learning for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) youth is gated behind systemic barriers put up by dominant systems. Entry into STEAM majors requires academic preparedness in high school, yet Oregon Black and Latino students are 25-30 points behind their white peers on math and science standardized tests by eighth grade. By the time BIPOC youth graduate from high school, STEAM higher-education majors are not even an option for them to pursue. Additionally, BIPOC communities are not represented in STEAM education or makerspaces.
To address this issue, Talton, Chambers and Nunn enlisted the assistance of retired Hillsboro superintendent Joe Rodriguez and set out to convene a coalition of like-minded members to prioritize the voices of BIPOC as agents of change and owners of STEAM learning and opportunities. From here, the NE STEAM Coalition (NESC) was born.
“The coalition’s purpose is to build a networked community of public, private, and community organizations, prioritizing its work from the ground up,” explains Jackie Murphy, Director of Programs at the Collins Foundation and NESC board member. “It is centered on BIPOC voices in hopes of expanding access to culturally affirming STEAM learning experiences and career pathways for BIPOC youth and families.”
Though NESC recognizes the importance of working alongside industry, the coalition also believes that perspectives towards collaboration have been informed primarily by business and have felt industry-centered and extractive.
“These partnerships often involved taking the “best” talent from or selling products innovated by BIPOC communities,” said Murphy. "It has rarely taken on the lens of building the STEM landscape WITH community BY community— in other words, 'Nothing for Us Without Us.'"