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Black scientists, community leaders want Black youth 'to see possibility' in STEM

More data, recognition of disparity, early and ongoing support needed, experts say

Feb 20, 2022

She's now working to improve the situation for younger students in her hometown of Calgary, in her role as youth advisory lead for Realize Your Potential (RYP), an education and mentorship program supporting Black youth. The organization is adding more STEM learning and introducing students to careers in those fields. 

That might look like hands-on experiences for younger kids, showing them science in their everyday lives, Bonaparte says, along with mentorships for and giving advice to high schoolers about opportunities in STEM and the pathway to those careers.

Lack of information and opportunities

"I don't think there's a lack of interest," said Desiree Henry, a co-founder of the Realize Your Potential program, who is now based in Toronto. "It's mostly a lack of information being provided to Black youth, as well as opportunities."

Henry, who recalled being the only Black student at her elementary school until she reached Grade 7, said support from clubs and her community helped her push through racial bullying and mistreatment she faced at school. With the RYP program, she wants to help a new generation prevail against education system barriers. 

Desiree Henry is one of the co-founders of Realize Your Potential, an education and mentorship program in Alberta supporting Black youth. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Javonte Blake and Jahzara Atkins, siblings currently enrolled in the RYP program, say the learning environment is different than in their regular schools, where discussions about race or Black history aren't present or make others uncomfortable.

Sitting amongst Black students and teachers at RYP, as well as being encouraged to ask questions and share her thoughts make the program "fun," said Atkins, 11. "We get to speak our opinions about the subject ... I like that part because I get to speak my mind."

Blake, 15, said he appreciates the different approach used, from engaging resources such as TED talks to slowing down to explore subjects more completely. The teen admits that some of his friends "think it's just extra work for no reason" to spend Saturdays in an additional class, "but I know why I'm doing it. I'm doing it so that I can get a better education and better myself."

Calgary students Javonte Blake, second from left, and his sister Jahzara Atkins, second from right, said their extracurricular classes with Realize Your Potential are different than regular school. The pair are seen with their siblings Amiyah Bullens and Trevon Blake. (Submitted by Tenecia Atkins)

Bonaparte wants young Black students to see a world of opportunity. "I want them to see possibility ... I want them to see that people that look like them are succeeding in the fields of STEM and that's also attainable for them to do so as well," she said. 

"I also want to provide them opportunities to explore the possibilities that exist in STEM earlier on in life ... so that they can really understand what it means to be a part of this."

It's a sentiment shared by Daniel, who along with running a lab and conducting cancer research, is busy with multiple initiatives — working with Black academics across the country to study the issue and pushing forward the Canadian Black Scientists Network — in hopes of moving the dial.  

"If we're saying ... 'Nothing for us without us,' then as a Black community we need to realize that we have to be flooding every single profession with as many Black youth as possible so that they can achieve their potential in all these professions." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nazima Walji