URBAN AGENDA: Mentoring Underrepresented Black and Brown Youth for Careers in Tech

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 4/29/2021, midnight
Any casual observer of New York’s economy would have to agree that technology is driving growth in private-sector jobs that ...
David R. Jones Contributed

Any casual observer of New York’s economy would have to agree that technology is driving growth in private-sector jobs that bring good salaries. New York’s tech sector is growing fast, generating opportunities for young people who have the skills and training to secure jobs that can lead to real careers.

One of the big problems with this promising scenario, though, is that Black and brown people from low-income communities are not getting access to these jobs, which can offer six-figure salaries. A report this year by McKinsey & Company found that Black workers were underrepresented in the highest paying industries – information technology, financial services and professional services – while being overrepresented in front-line jobs that tend to pay less and offer few if any opportunities for advancement.

While New York City offers a robust landscape of tech and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills-building programs and initiatives, the programs tend to be unevenly distributed across the city with most being concentrated in Manhattan, according to research by the Center for an Urban Future. Well-run programs designed to enroll learners from overlooked populations – like Per Scholas, with locations in Brooklyn and the Bronx – do exist, but there are too few of them. As a result, many underserved communities which could provi

Part of fixing the problem of underrepresentation of people of color in the tech field, which is key to chipping away at the income inequality and broadening economic opportunities, is recognizing the dimensions of the problem. Barriers to expanding pathways into technology careers for Black and brown people can be found in both the workplace and our education system. For example, the profile of the tech workforce is largely white and Asian male, making it a challenge to convince low-income people of color that they are welcomed and can be successful in the industry. There is also a lack of visible role models, mentors and support systems in the workplace and education system to ensure that Blacks, Latinx individuals and women are prepared and have access to the necessary skills training, networks, and education to succeed.

Preparing young people in Harlem, Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx for jobs in the tech sector is the focus of a new collaborative initiative led by a team of academics with roots in these communities. The Harlem Gallery of Science (HGS) is a partnership between the City College of New York, CUNY’s premier science and technology campus, and the nonprofit corporation Science and Arts Engagement New York (SAENY). The Gallery uses culturally sensitive experiential learning programs, teambuilding exercises, and interactive exhibitions to attract and prepare its target group -- underrepresented youth (ages 11-24) -- for undergraduate education and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) fields.

Stephon Alexander, an accomplished physicist, cosmologist, educator, musician, author, and President of the National Science of Black Physicists is the Gallery’s executive director. The DeWitt Clinton High School alum’s journey from the Bronx to the upper echelons of science and academia makes him a perfect role model for youth. Dr. Alexander is credited with developing the Gallery’s mentoring program, which recruits undergraduate and graduate students from schools such as Brown University, City College, Columbia University, Howard University, Michigan State University and Vanderbilt to mentor middle and high school students from targeted communities. The program’s current cohort of 10 mentors, each paired with one middle and one high school student, have similar experiences and come from similar backgrounds as the youth they are paired with.

“This is about empowering these young people using innovative, project-based learning models to connect with them, with a focus on shared experiences, interests and aspirations,” said Stan Altman, another Bronx native and professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College and part of the SAENY leadership team. “By getting them excited about the sciences and tech, building their self-confidence through interactions with tutors and mentors who are telling them, `I did this, so can you,’ we can get them on a STEM career path.”

The Gallery was created to support City College’s efforts to address the digital divide’s impact on low-income communities and engage underrepresented youth to pursue higher education and tech careers. A top priority for 2021 is finding permanent physical space to accommodate the Gallery’s programming, exhibitions, community activities and performances. SAENY has initiated a capital campaign to raise the additional funds to build out space at a site in Central Harlem – it already has $2 million on hand.

Innovative and forward-thinking initiatives like the Harlem Gallery of Science represent the kind of investments that can serve as a bridge connecting the fields of technology, science and arts for Black and Latinx students. It is a model that should be scaled and replicated in urban areas where great young minds -- and the next Stephon Alexander – are waiting for their opportunity.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.