“What does it take to cultivate safe, empowering and culturally sustaining STEM spaces for Youth of Color from low income backgrounds?”
In Fall 2018, I helped lead a multi-year, multi-site NSF study designed to answer this question.
As a Black woman who had once been pushed out of STEM, I was deeply invested in exploring this topic and, even more importantly, was acutely aware of how racial microaggressions, culturally hostile curricula, limited access to diverse mentors, and lack of academically rigorous learning opportunities contributed not only to STEM push out, but to systematic spirit murder of Black and Brown youth. Dr. Bettina Love (2016) defines spirit murder as “the denial of inclusion, protection, safety, nurturance, and acceptance because of fixed, yet fluid and moldable, structures of racism” – features that have been continually identified as primary features of the STEM field writ large, and K-12 STEM spaces in particular.
Though I was profoundly familiar with the racial harm of STEM spaces, I had yet to experience the power and potentiality of race-conscious and justice-oriented STEM spaces. That is, until I started working with ListoAmerica and the MESA program at an Anaheim middle school – two culturally situated and community oriented STEM programs in Orange County, California. While a large portion of the STEM field continues to struggle to meaningfully address the disproportionate push out and mistreatment of Students of Color, ListoAmerica and MESA appear to have “cracked the code” on how to foster safe, engaging, and racially empowering learning spaces for Youth of Color: they develop and deploy homeplace pedagogies.
My conceptualization of homeplace pedagogies is anchored in bell hooks’ seminal work, “Homeplace (A site of radical possibility)” where she theorizes homeplaces as spaces of refuge that engender love, healing, humanization, nurturance and restoration for Youth of Color. Importantly, homeplaces serve as protective barriers against the terrors of white supremacy and racial violence. Crafted by Women of Color, homeplaces play an indispensable role in the survivance of Youth of Color because they “include caring for one another, for children…in ways that elevated our spirits, that kept us from despair, [and] that taught some of us to be revolutionaries able to struggle for freedom.” This latter piece is crucial, and showcases how homeplaces are not merely spaces of survival, but also dynamic sites of resistance, liberation and radical possibility.
Unlike traditional STEM spaces, STEM homeplaces are animated by love, critical consciousness, and a deep set commitment to communal uplift – all foundational features of ListoAmerica and MESA, and explicit commitments espoused by the two Women of Color educators that participated in this study.
The following features encapsulate what STEM homeplaces can and should do for Youth of Color, and the tangible strategies that Juliana and Lisa – two Women of Color educators that lead these programs – employ to cultivate safe, empowering, and culturally responsive STEM spaces. Using hooks’ homeplace as site of entry, I name these race-conscious and justice-oriented strategies ‘homeplace pedagogies.’
STEM homeplaces provide students with frequent opportunities to discuss, process, and heal from everyday racism.
The WOC educators in this study expressed a staunch commitment to seeing, supporting, and listening to Students of Color in ways that validated their experiences with racism in schools and in STEM. In both classrooms, caring for students meant having conversations about surviving and combating racism, and sharing stories with the intent to humanize students that were suffering from racial battle fatigue and spirit murder. Juliana recalls a time she helped students to heal from a racist incident at school, explaining:
“Then when one of them shares a story about what happens in school, especially with the whole Trump thing … how because they’re darker skinned how people were judging them, and people were calling them names, and they were being racist…They would come in here, and they would be down. I’m like, guys, you’re going to get people like that everywhere you go.”
This was the start of a rich conversation, and Juliana eventually facetimed Latinx friends, family members and community stakeholders who shared stories of how they confronted and survived racial oppression in STEM. These community conversations proved to be healing for the youth in the program, who continued to persist in racist STEM spaces because they knew they were fortified by a loving community that would help them survive any and all barriers to STEM success.
STEM homeplaces actively protect students from racist domination in school, in society, and in STEM.
In addition to providing spaces where students could discuss, process and ultimately heal from racism, the WOC educators in this study went above and beyond to protect their students from racist harm that occurred beyond the program walls. Juliana shared a powerful story about how she vigorously protected a “very very shy” Latinx student from being pushed out his collegiate STEM major, recalling:
“He wants to be a doctor. He wants to do medicine, and he’s a DACA…The school was trying to charge him international fees because he was a DACA..So, I called, and I pretended I was the mom, and I said, ‘look, my son has been living in California for several years, since he was two. He’s not an international student. He’s just a DACA student. I know there’s a law. I’m going to call my lawyer.’ So, they transferred me to the dean, and the mom was here [with me]. I was just pretending I was her…The mom was crying. The lady still calls me. She still sends me messages. She still comes. She’s so grateful…. It was intense, but people take advantage of [Latinx and undocumented people], and that’s why we’re here. We’re here for all that. It’s just not one thing. It’s so many things.”
For Juliana, protecting students and their families is a crucial part of fostering educational equity and STEM persistence for marginalized students. Her love for students is palpable, and she admits, “I could almost put my hands in fire” to ensure that they get an equitable and racially just STEM education – even years after they graduate from the ListoAmerica program.
STEM homeplaces catalyze students’ ability to survive and resist racism in school and society.
In addition to protecting, affirming, and supporting Students of Color, the WOC in this study simultaneously prepared them to transformatively resist oppressive conditions that existed beyond the school context. To do this, they were intentional about fostering students’ critical consciousness through race-conscious and justice-oriented STEM education. For instance, after realizing how the hotel industry was exacerbating pollution and environmental racism in the local community, Lisa designed a MESA unit that helped students research and “fight back” against corporations that were disproportionately polluting and exploiting low income Communities of Color. The students, whose parents and families are employed at the resorts, viewed justice-oriented STEM projects as a way to protect and uplift their communities from environmental racism.
Lisa reflects on the project outcomes, explaining that the students:
“…wrote to the hotels, they wrote to the city…They went to talk to the mayor and they explained their project, why they were concerned. And then what they did was they addressed it and they had the head of the hotels of Anaheim come and listen to what our kids tried to say. And I think what I want is for them to also have a voice in their world and I want them to understand that.”
Importantly, Lisa’s incorporation of critical consciousness, activism, and agency were strategic, and went beyond superficial interests in simply making STEM more interesting or engaging for students. She is clear that her choice to transform MESA into a civil service learning space was intended to empower Youth of Color to make tangible change to the oppressive conditions that mediate their lives and schooling experiences.
The findings from this study provide preliminary insights into the programmatic features, pedagogies and mindsets that foster resilience and retention for Students of Color in STEM. Specifically, STEM homeplaces are spaces where marginalized students can name, process and cope with the trauma of everyday racism; be lovingingly and vigorously protected from educational pushout and racist microaggressions; and gain the critical consciousness and transformative agency to not only survive oppressive conditions, but also to actively transform them.
In order to foster such a space, the Women of Color educators readily leverage culturally situated and identity specific pedagogies – or “homeplace pedagogies” – as a way to increase students’ feelings of safety, nurturance and validation in the program. These “homeplace pedagogies’ purposefully foster feelings of safety, healing, agency and critical consciousness for Students of Color, who in turn leverage the empowerment they gain from these racially affirming and radically loving spaces to transform the oppressive conditions that permeate their lives and schooling experiences. The Women of Color educators in these spaces were committed to protecting and uplifting their students, and readily leveraged community cultural wealth – including social connections, financial resources, familial networks and linguistic skills – to challenge and transform the matrices of domination that threaten to harm their students both within and beyond the STEM learning environment.
Ultimately, in my time working with ListoAmerica and MESA, I learned that STEM homeplaces are not only possible, but they are necessary for remediating long standing issues of racial equity and access in STEM.
Additional Resources for Educators and Researchers:
Scott, K. A., & White, M. A. (2013). COMPUGIRLS’ standpoint: Culturally responsive computing and its effect on girls of color. Urban Education, 48(5), 657-681.
Ashford, S. N., Wilson, J. A., King, N. S., & Nyachae, T. M. (2017). STEM SISTA spaces. Emerging issues and trends in education, 3.
Morales-Chicas, J., Gomez, M., Gussman, M., & Kouyoumdjian, C. (2022). A Cultural Wealth Approach to Understanding Latin@ s’ STEM Mentee and Mentor Experiences. Equity & Excellence in Education, 1-15.
Rincón, B., Fernández, É., & Hinojosa, J. K. (2020). “I wanted to follow in her footsteps”: Activating, Nurturing, and Extending Community Cultural Wealth for Students of Color Entering STEM Pathways. Teachers College Record, 122(9), 1-36.
This work will be featured at the 2022 Connected Learning Summit. To learn more about this topic, please join Dr. Tiera Tanksley on Wednesday, July 27th at 12:00pm for the session “Inclusive and Community-Driven Research and Design.” Check out the schedule and register today!
Guest post by Dr. Tiera Tanksley, Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations, Policy & Practice at the University of Colorado Boulder