Little Women of Color: Confronting STEM’s Diversity Problem

West End Healthline

By Jené Carter, MD
When I began residing in the U.S. permanently sixteen years ago, I was unpleasantly surprised to discover the disproportionately low number of BIPOC professionals in many fields, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) being among them. Raised by parents who worked for the U.S. Department of State, I spent much of my childhood overseas, where I was shielded from many of the painful issues that negatively affect people of color in the U.S. such as systemic racism and health disparities. 

While being away from the U.S. offered a sense of protection from overt racism in some ways, it did lead to me becoming very familiar with the experience of being the only African American person in my class from a young age. This experience brought with it a silent, persistent sense of not belonging since the age of seven or eight, which I have continued to struggle with even into my early career.

The lack of BIPOC representation in STEM fields became even more clear to me as I pursued medicine as a Black woman in America, encountering few teachers or mentors that looked like me along the way. These experiences led to two important desires that have become passions of mine: to increase exposure of young female-identifying BIPOC to STEM careers and to decrease negative thoughts and low self-esteem in this same population. 
In August of 2020, I found a way to begin to make these aspirations a reality by founding a new organization called Little Women of Color (LWOC), which is a youth program for female-identifying BIPOC, ages 7-12, that promotes STEM scholarship and positive self-image. LWOC was originally envisioned as an after-school program, but COVID-19 led to a change of plans. I chose to instead develop the program utilizing a virtual format: Monthly virtual meetings are currently held every fourth Saturday from 10:00am – 11:30am for 9-12 year olds and from 10:45am – 12:15pm for 7-8 year olds. Older and younger participants meet separately to complete an activity around identity and self-image. During this time, all the students have the opportunity to explore how they see themselves, and talk about what it is like to be a female-identifying person of color. 

The STEM portion of the day occurs during the overlapping time (from 10:45 to 11:30). For this segment of each meeting, we invite a guest-speaker—a woman of color currently working in an area related to science, technology, engineering, or math. Through this experience, LWOC participants have the opportunity to connect with many women of color in a number of fields and ask questions. So far, they have had the chance to hear from a chemist, a pharmacologist, a math teacher, an occupational therapy student, and from me (a family medicine physician). Upcoming speakers this year include a psychiatric nurse practitioner and the founder of a local science-promoting youth program.  

Since the organization’s founding, LWOC has received multiple donations, and a grant from the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians. There are four individuals currently working alongside me to assist in various areas of the program, including developing the self-image/identity curriculum, managing LWOC’s social media and blog posts, and facilitating the monthly sessions. We have had the honor of partnering with local organizations like the University of Minnesota’s University YMCA, the MN Academy of Science, the St. Paul YWCA, and Sprockets. LWOC will also be starting monthly sessions for parents of program participants before the end of this academic year. 

Registration will reopen later this spring for the 2021-2022 academic year. To fill out an interest form, make a donation, or read our monthly blog series called “We STEM from Greatness,” which spotlights women of color in STEM throughout history, please visit the Little Women of Color Facebook page (@Littlewomenofcolor). LWOC is also on Instagram (@Littlewomenofcolor) and Twitter (@Lilwomenofcolor). For additional questions about the program, or to learn how you can help, please email littlewomenofcolor@gmail.com.
Jené Carter, MD, is available for appointments at Allina Health United Family Physicians (651-241-5200).

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