Black women in STEM are doing the work. Why do we refuse to support them?

The past few weeks have made June feel like Black History Month for many Black individuals in STEM — complete with misguided attempts to support the Black community. Recently, I’ve noticed a number of non Black-led STEM nonprofits fundraising or being promoted as great ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Let me let you in on a secret: They’re not the ones doing the work. We are. 

If you are actively involved with STEM nonprofits or diversity and inclusion initiatives, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you. However, for those who are confused by the above statement, don’t panic. I’ll explain…through Rihanna. 

Why? Setting aside the fact that it provides me a perfect excuse to utilize Rihanna GIFs, it allows for me to explain this phenomenon and its consequences in an easily digestible format. LEGGO.

Like for many of my Black colleagues, this month has been one in which several of our colleagues and partners have decided to “check in” with us regarding the wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe. Despite being mentally and physically exhausted, and even as I’ve battled COVID-19 for the past six weeks (yes, we are still in a pandemic), I have had to field these phone calls. As a Black woman as well as the founder and executive director of a STEM nonprofit, Mbadika (BAH-GEE-KAH), I thought I had heard it all before this month. I was wrong. 

Several of those phone calls involved our partners asking for my blessing of their donations and social media shoutouts supporting several non Black-led nonprofits, especially around #BlackOutTuesday (June 2nd) and #ShutDownSTEM (June 10th). 

When I asked why these particular nonprofits were receiving their support and pro bono promotion, I was told it was due to their “phenomenal work” serving my community.

Rihanna gives a disapproving/suspicious look and rolls up the tinted car window.

Mind you, these are the same partners who know our track record fostering STEM in our communities for nearly a decade. Which made it strange to hear them never mention why they chose not to donate to us or at least our peers in the space, such as INTech Camp, Vanguard STEM, The Glover Center, and The Fab Lab HQ (just naming a few). Or even why they decided to not give a shoutout but…felt they needed our blessing.

Let me tell you, my blood boiled.

Rihanna is at a payphone outside at a desert gas station and throws the phone instead of hanging it up

After numerous calls, I finally asked a trusted partner, “Why them and not a Black-led nonprofit?” 

Their response? “What’s the difference between a Black-led and a white-led nonprofit? As long as they reach the same community, it shouldn’t matter.”

Rihanna is on stage with a microphone in front of her and she's saying "What?"

There seems to be a public misconception in the tech community (and based on Twitter, the STEM community as well) as to why there is a difference. So let me explain why the statement uttered by one of our partner’s is problematic, in terms anyone who has watched Shark Tank can understand:

Would you invest in a startup focused on hardware without a team or at least an expert in hardware? No worries. I’ll wait.

Rihanna rests her finger on the side of her face to ponder as she sits in a conference room-like setting

Truthfully, probably not. If you did, you would at least be reluctant, or force the founder(s) to hire an expert in hardware. Even hire a hardware team and bring onboard a CEO with experience leading a hardware company with their seed funding as a condition for gap funding or Series A. 

So… why does that logic seem to jump out the window when it comes to supporting Black-led STEM organizations? Aren’t Black people experts in being… Black?

Is it because non Black-led nonprofits have better branding? 

The executive director went to school with you? Or works out at your gym? Why?

Rihanna grabs a handful of popcorn to put in her mouth as she turns her head to listen to the person seated next to her at a sporting event

Their impact? If you’re impressed by the impact and accomplishments of a non Black-led STEM organization on the Black community, imagine the impact when an organization led by experts receives even a fraction of the support. 

So why the zero-sum game? Why can’t we support both? 

Rihanna is on stage with a microphone in front of her at an awards ceremony saying "We can only fix this world together"

It’s because there is no risk reaching out to those non Black-led organizations to offer support rather than doing the work of supporting Black-led organizations. You are able to proclaim your support of the Black community while simultaneously not risking alienation from your colleagues and network. 

It’s quite ironic — a community that prides itself on risk being too risk-averse to #AmplifyBlackSTEM. Am I right? 

Rihanna raises her hands and shakes her head as she says "Show of hands"

However, if you’ve been monitoring the tech community for the past few years, it isn’t that surprising. Why wouldn’t America’s tech community force Black people to serve or be subject to abuse by non Black-led STEM nonprofits? This dynamic reflects “the country’s history of forcing Black people into servitude and subjugation,” as Tiffani Ashley Bell stated in her viral article, It’s Time We Dealt with White Supremacy in Tech.

If you’re wondering how, let me offer some insight into dozens of your fave nonprofits. 

The majority hire Black people, especially Black women, only into lower level roles, which require the most interaction with Black communities. These roles are typically also the lowest paid and may place Black staff members in precarious situations on a daily basis, including working late hours in high-crime neighborhoods, also known as the “consequences of an urban environment.”. When the work is done, those individuals are denied a promotion or pay raise due to pay caps for certain roles or lack of experience.

Rihanna takes a sip of tea and shakes her head as she puts the cup down

If the nonprofit “can’t find one” (a Black person) who can do the work they’ve promised to their supporters, they will hire Black-led nonprofits to create and implement their programs for a pittance. 

Boom! The cycle continues of Black people fostering STEM in their communities being subjected to systemic racism. 

I know this because I’ve experienced it first-hand and have heard this story time and time again from my peers. It’s the reason BBHMM is our anthem.

Rihanna singing the lyrics "Pay me what you owe me. Don't act like you forgot." in the music video for BBHMM

For example, Mbadika was once asked by an international STEM organization with at least 12 clubs, which receives annual six-figure support from a big box tech retailer, to implement a year-round, 25-hours-a-week STEM program in a major metropolitan area… for $24,000.  This number was supposed to cover a full-time salary for at least one instructor, materials, and transportation to the program site. When we asked to negotiate, we were ghosted and soon discovered we had been blackballed by many foundations for not taking the offer. 

We later discovered that a non Black-led competitor was offered $300,000 in order to implement the same STEM program by this particular STEM organization. 

Shocked? Don’t be. It wasn’t the first time. I have over a decade of similar stories.

Rihanna is on stage at an awards ceremony saying with conviction "And still we prevail."

Takeaway: A TRUE ally does not take a platform away from those who’ve been traditionally silenced. They OFFER their platform. 

Hence, if your fave decided to take the platform offered in this moment from the Black community to serve their nonprofit, THEY’RE NOT AN ALLY TO BLACK PEOPLE.

Rihanna smiling and winking

Upset? Pissed off? That’s good. Turn that into action. Stop the cycle. 

Amplify Black STEM leaders, educators, and organizations. 

Especially the truly unsung heroes of this work. Any guesses?

Rihanna on stage at an award ceremony (flashes to the audience) holding an award and saying into a microphone "It's women. It's Black women."

Tell your friends, colleagues, and your network, regardless of whether they are in the tech community or are involved in STEM education, to amplify Black STEM.

Rihanna on stage at an award ceremony standing behind a microphone saying "This is their problem too."

For my Black peers and true allies, who represent the entire spectrum of humanity, ensuring our voices are heard by continuing to provide their platforms to foster STEM in our communities:

You are not alone. I see you. I hear you. 

This concludes my TED Talk. 

Now, I must return to my work and our mission: Ideas and those who create them. 

There is still much work to do.

Rihanna, with her eyes down, lifts a golden crown and places it on her head.

Mbadika (BAH-GEE-KAH) is a nonprofit organization based in Boston which fosters STEM through hands-on workshops and digital resources, including an educational television show, MLAB, to ensure everyone can #BuildMakeLearn. Follow Mbadika on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Netia McCray
Netia McCray

Netia McCray is the founder and executive director of Mbadika. (Photo credit: Kyeana Jones Photography 2019)

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