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Turning to history to prepare for tomorrow

By Charlene Hunter James

Black History Month is once again upon us, providing a time to reflect on the history of African-Americans and the events which have shaped the course of history for many in this country.

During this time, one of the things that gives me pause for reflection is the belief that there are endless possibilities in our lives. AARP, the organization that I volunteer for and have the honor to serve as Texas president, refers to this as “real possibilities” which are presented to us at various stages of our lives.

This acquired new meaning to me recently when viewing the highly acclaimed movie, “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of three African-American women who advanced the U.S. space program. The movie provides a historical framework for African Americans who are prepared educationally and professionally but are denied the opportunity to grasp their “real possibilities professionally” for which they were properly prepared.

While African Americans and other minorities have certainly made great strides in this educational journey as well as in leadership and managerial roles, greater attention has been given to the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The reality is that African Americans continue to fall short in the education, training and professional placement where “real possibilities” can be attained.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2014, 84% of African Americans age 25 and older had a high school diploma or higher but only 19% had bachelor’s degrees or higher. That’s about 1.8 million people. When it comes to young African-American students, the Children’s Defend Fund’s “State of America’s Children” report showed that growing up in extremely poor areas contributes to youngsters not reaching their educational goal because “educational opportunities are becoming increasingly unequal across the United States.”

One promising solution has been the concerted effort to expose our youth and college students, to the area of STEM. According to the U.S. Department of Education, historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) “produce 27 percent of African-American students with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields.” Many of these students are young women. HBCUs make up three percent of all institutions of higher learning in the U.S. There are less than 10 in Texas.

At Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston, they’re reaching out to African-American middle school boys and exposing them to STEM programs that can lead to high-paying professions. They’re doing this with the help of Verizon, which sponsors the program.

“We’re showing the students that they deal with STEM-related projects every day in their lives,” said Rodney Bush, who manages the program for TSU. “It is eye-opening to see them realize science is involved in everyday programs like video games, cell phones and all technologies that they use.”

In addition to the education, the middle-school students are exposed to people making a living in STEM-related fields, such as engineers. Bush noted the year-round program is in its second year and usually picks up during the summer. The best part is that this isn’t the only program available to all our young students. The lists continue to grow every year across Texas.

Without a doubt, Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson were “Hidden Figures” for a period of time at NASA. Even before discovery, they performed important technical and professional tasks for the agency just like their other colleagues. When their expertise was finally recognized, it turned out that not only were they more than prepared; they were ready to meet the challenges that awaited them and make an indelible mark in American History. Today, there may or may not still be “hidden figures”, but we can rest assured our presence in space history continues to be well documented.

African American History should not be “hidden history” for it tells the rich background of so many who were willing to take risks for themselves or their children and sacrifice so that they or others could realize the real possibilities that could be a part of their lives.

Ms. Hunter James is a member of the AARP Texas all-volunteer Executive Council.

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