Keli Christopher founded the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit STEM Greenhouse six years ago to help K-12 students — in particular, children of color — along an academic path more comfortable than she experienced. As the first Black person to receive a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from the University of Illinois, Christopher endured a challenging and isolated path through higher education. Her mission now is to increase students’ exposure to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the greater Grand Rapids area, where she still sees a diversity gap in STEM education. Earlier this month, Christopher was a featured speaker at the Southeast Grand Rapids Community and Economic Development Conference hosted by the Grand Rapids African-American Community Task Force. In an interview with MiBiz, Christopher discussed inequities in the nonprofit sector as well as the ongoing barriers to engaging more non-white students in STEM education.
STEM Greenhouse was founded in 2014. How has your work changed over that time?
I’ve always had the same mission and vision for STEM Greenhouse. It’s a metaphor for having a place where children can grow and learn as opposed to a lot of STEM programming that’s like a day of coding or a week-long STEM camp. Vulnerable children, children of color, really require more educational enrichment opportunities over a longer period of time. I wanted relationships that would last several years with these students, and I want them to be successful as they approach college.
How does your organization function? Are you going into the schools?
It’s an after-school program twice a week. It typically runs for most of the school year, though not every month — October through April is the general time period. Our goal is to do 20 weeks of programming, 40 sessions of after-school STEM, focused mainly on science and math. The program is currently for middle school students. There is a desire to increase, expand and do different things. We just don’t receive the funding to expand the program to additional schools.
(My talk at the Grand Rapids conference) is about the lack of equity in funding to nonprofits. Nonprofits like mine founded by a person of color do not receive a fair share of grant dollars in our community. … That inequity leads to additional inequity. People of color are not allowed to impact their own communities, even though we have the most resources and skills to do that.
Who are your main funders now?
One of our most successful partnerships is with the Steelcase Foundation. They have been really great about identifying programs that are impactful and are supporting those programs. Steelcase is really the only foundation that’s given us significant support.
How many employees are at STEM Greenhouse?
There’s me and I have an assistant. That’s it. There is no funding. … Like I said, there’s systemic racism in philanthropy. Donors generally feel more comfortable giving to people who look like them. Until people get more comfortable supporting people who they don’t look like, we will continue to perpetuate the system we say has a problem and we want to eradicate.
A local researcher recently told me the COVID-19 pandemic is a “big test for philanthropy,” which faces “justifiable criticism” that it could “extend the concentration of power and resources.” What’s your response to that idea?
I can’t necessarily say that I know what foundations are doing, but in terms of education to the vulnerable students living in poverty: Virtual learning is not an ideal mode of learning for them. It’s not always easy for parents to get the resources they need for their children, for whatever reason. I’m trying to let people understand these are problems in poor districts but not in districts where parents have more resources. I can imagine that after this pandemic there’s going to be an even larger gap in educational outcomes than there were prior, and the gaps were huge previously.
Since founding STEM Greenhouse six years ago, are you seeing more diversity in STEM fields?
No, which is the sad part and why I’m doing this. When I got my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, I was the only Black person to get a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering at U-I. STEM fields are not diverse, though some are a little more diverse than others. In terms of people of color, we have a long way to go. I’m trying to fill a pipeline so there can be more STEM professionals in the future.
What are the barriers to that? Why aren’t more people of color getting involved in STEM?
One of the reasons is our education is typically inadequate. The second, when you go into these fields, there’s a lot of racism. Once you get in college, you’re socially isolated. First I went to a historically Black college and university — thank God — so I could learn in an environment where I wasn’t the only Black person. Then at U-I, I was the only Black person. I was by myself all of the time having to do science and activities alone. This makes it more difficult, less fun and more challenging. No one wants that stress on top of what else they have to achieve in their lives.
There’s academic preparation that needs to increase. Throughout their education, a Black child these days is not getting an equitable education to begin with. There’s no one like you in the profession. I want my students to see someone who looks like them. There’s something about self-efficacy that’s so critical. If you don’t ever see yourself in that career, it’s impossible to envision yourself doing it.