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Powerful Women Let's Talk - 112: Dr. Keli Christopher

Dr. Keli Christopher
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Dr. Keli Christopher

Dr. Keli Christopher is Shelley Irwin’s guest on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

The founder and executive director of STEM Greenhouse, Dr. Keli Christopher, is on a mission to prepare our community’s most vulnerable children for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Dr. Christopher shares her vision on this episode of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:

Narrator: Produced by women about women, Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world transforming who we are and how we live.

Shelley Irwin: It all started with an interest in math and science thanks to the Grand Rapids Public School Education, Dr. Keli Christopher has taken that interest to today as founder and executive director of STEM Greenhouse, let’s talk about this journey on this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk. Hello, powerful woman.

Keli Christopher: Hi, how are you doing?

SI: Doing fine. Good that you are here. Dr. Keli Christopher with one “L” and of course we are here to talk a bit about your journey. I'm going to get your day job out of the way, STEM Greenhouse, what is this all about?

KC: Well, STEM Greenhouse, we're all about preparing children of color for careers in science technology, engineering and math. And one of the things that really is unique about our organization is that we understand that a foundation in math and science are really critical to access STEM careers. You know, you can't just do robotics and somehow, you know, it's not okay if you don't have science or have a day of coding, but you're not proficient in math. So we want to make sure the students we work with have those foundational math and science skills to be successful.

SI: They will get back to that. But get me back to that young Keli, the memories of liking math and science

KC: Oh I don’t really have memories of liking math and science. Surprisingly, when I was growing up, I didn't like math. That was the thing I was ashamed of my math ability and I didn't know any women who like math. And so I just thought that math wasn't for me. I thought I would probably have a career as a writer, you know, something in journalism or perhaps become a teacher, which I did. You know, I'm an educator. But when I got to middle school, my middle school counselor put me in honors math. Now I wasn't honors like English student. I don't know if it was just the scheduling. It worked out better. You be an honors and was an honors math. And I was thinking I am not a good math student. I was so afraid and I tried to get out of it, I told the counselor I didn't want to take it. She's like, oh, just give a try. I went home, told my mom, I do not want to take honors. Might math. I mean, I was crying. I was like mom, I can do it. She called try to get me out of it. The counselors said just try it for one semester. And so since I thought, okay, I'm stuck in this thing and I've never been good at math. But I really just started to work hard and try and also math changes.

As you get older when you start getting into algebra versus when math is just about memorization. And if you can quickly recall that mental math, those multiplication tables and you just feel like you are horrible at math. But I really did enjoy the more the thinking type of math. And like I just became a really good student. I just started becoming an excellent student. I started getting all A's and even an A plus in math with just seemed crazy for me. But the reality was, I just have never been challenged. I had never really tried hard I had given up map in the 3rd grade. And so when I went to high school at that point, I have seen myself transform. And then I just decided I was, you know, I had additional people telling me, you know, you can get all A's in school and I thought oh that’s a thing you could try to have all A’s. So that's what I did. And I became the valedictorian of my high school. I graduated from Ottawa Hills high school. Yes, yep. But I think a lot of this journey is really simply because there was someone in my life who just wouldn't accept mediocrity, wouldn't just say, OK, well, you don't like math, OK, we'll just never challenge you in your life. And, you know, they like, sorry, you're going to try, just try it. And I'm so glad that she did. And that's really why I'm even here.

SI: So what happened after high school?

KC: Well, I wanted to, well first let me say, even though I was a straight A student, excellent in math and science, I would go to local engineering companies and it didn't seem like a field that I wanted to be in. I didn't really think about it back then. But the reality is that I did not want to grow up to be a 50-year-old white man. So seeing all these white male spaces, it didn't seem like a place that was welcoming to me. When I finally decided to go into engineering, it was because I had a friend who was a year older than me, black female. She had gone into engineering. And so I said let me try this engineering thing out. You know, and sometimes it takes that is will that's why it's in greenhouses successful because we want students to see people of color, people that look like them in these fields. And then it makes you feel like, OK, yes, this is for me.

And so I went to university. Well, I went to North Carolina Anti-State University, which is a historically black college in Greensboro, North Carolina, for my undergraduate degree. And then I went to the University of Illinois for a master's degree and PhD, both an agricultural engineering undergrad in graduate school and at University of Illinois, of course, there were no other. There had never been a black person to get a PhD in agricultural engineering there. So these spaces were not particularly welcoming and it takes a certain amount of confidence to pursue a career win in a space where nobody looks like you. But that also it helps you build strength in some areas like I know now, you know, because I did that. I really don’t feel like there's anything I can’t do. It prepares you in ways that you don't expect. I would. I mentioned this one time in a post on linked in that, you know, I didn't realize they getting that PhD the what I was really exercising was just that muscle of just working hard excelling despite obstacles despite social, you know, discouragement to being socially out of place. Those things were important. And so now I can be in space is in. That doesn't bother me because I just had, you know, I I was I had so much racism and stuff that I experienced already that at this point, I'm not saying I'm an expert at it, but I've done enough that I have overcome that. It's not as big of a deal.

SI: And yet the 3rd black woman to receive your PhD in agriculture engineering in the world is yeah hold.

KC: That's what I mean well, I was the 3rd one. So there's people that come after, you know, there was the first one. I remember when I was an undergrad, there was one person, one black female from the Caribbean who had a PhD in Ag engineering. No American women, African-American women at that time. So when you're in, you know, when you're always the only one many times, there's no African-American males either. And there weren't a lot of people coming up behind me like there was no, you know, I think the University of Illinois just got their second black person to get a PhD. And I got mine, you know, almost 20 years ago. So that just shows you that the spaces are not really changing. We're not doing enough to address those systems that prevent people of color from being successful in these field.

SI: And let me follow up with that. And I'm quoting you because of these experiences. I promise that one day I would try to personally make it easier for students of color to succeed, pursue, feel supported in stem. And that's why we're here.

KC: And that's exactly right. You know, I worked as an engineer and I'd seen stem programming going on in the community and in just the world in general. And I just thought to myself, wow, I don't really see how this is going to help you. You know, oftentimes the people who are developing these programs either they're not a person of color. They don't really have that background understand what it's like to be a person of color in the spaces or they might be a person of color, but they don't have any background in engineering. How can you create, you know, program when you don't really know, as you know, as an educator, perhaps as a teacher, what is required, what level of a skill is necessary to be successful? So I definitely can bring something to that space. Having lived experience that so few people have. That's really what has made, you know, STEM Greenhouse successful.

SI: They also say relationships are as important as curriculum in Urban K through 12 expand here.

KC: I have a YouTube channel. I have this one video and I just posted it recently it is a YouTube video of students just dancing, OK and what they want to be when they grow up. It has nothing to do with STEM okay but we're celebrating their culture. They're getting a feeling of belonging. That's more that that's more than half of the battle. You know, this idea sometimes people who want to promote STEM to children they want to say” Oh STEM is easy, STEM is fun. It is it fun sometimes, but we want them to work hard, but we want them to know that you can work hard, but you can have fun. You can be in a space where you're cared about and loved among your friends. And that's really one of the privileges a lot of white students have always had is that they've been able to be in environments where there's a lot of white people doing stem. And that's just normal to them, well has to be normal for our kids to for them to be successful. You know, nobody wants to be that only little chocolate chip in a vat of vanilla. You know, it's does is just not a comfortable space. And so as we build relationships with students, they don't care how much you know until they you know how much you care and believe me, they're 12, 13 years old, OK?

SI: They are doing life.

KC: Just imagine yourself at that age. You know what is going to make you come after school twice a week for a whole school year to learn math and science when you've already been in school all day. You know, at some point when I was doing this program, I realized they were coming because of me, not because they just, you know, we're so focused on their future. But they knew that I cared about them. And I had an expectation for them to be successful.

SI: So what's the answer?

KC: Well, life like I say it. The key is really just making sure that students understand that you care about them. You know that. I don't say okay, I'm only going to work with the smart students or the only the students who are struggling. We want to take you from wherever you are and just help you go further in life. That's just it's pretty simple. If they hear over and over again, you can really be whatever you want to be. You're not limited to what you see around you. They just have to continuously see this. And that's why it's called us STEM greenhouse. You know, I didn't say it's going to be the STEM weak, you know, or the STEM day of coding.

SI: That's right. Things bloom….

KC: …but it takes time. You know, we have to cultivate environments where kids want to learn. So I'm not going to create a space where they're uncomfortable. I'm not going to create a space where they're not loved. That's the environment that you have… and then, you need to have time, you don’t just throw seeds in the air like “good luck,” you know, we give a kid a week of STEM camp and expect them to be an engineer. You know, you're 12 years old. Somebody is going to have to walk with you. It's just like having a personal trainer vs, you know, going to a one-week boot camp. Sometimes you need that person to say come on, you can do it year after year, day after day. That's what is the helps anybody become successful, really. So I'm just applying common sense, but I have found a common sense is sort of revolutionary. It’s like, we're going to, you know, help kids day by day, they're not going to become an engineer after one day of coding. And that's a hard concept for someone to grasp, especially in the schools that we’re in because there's no science teachers in these schools. These are middle schools, our community doesn't have enough science teachers for its all of its students. And generally it's black and brown students that don't get those science teachers, their middle school and they don't have a science teacher. Only 5% of black 11th graders in Kent County are proficient in math. We're not going to have a STEM pipe line at all, let alone a diverse STEM pipeline because children of color are starting to outnumber white children in America's schools. So we're going to have to address this problem. All students are going to have to have an opportunity to learn. And this is for everyone's benefit.

I often tell companies we're not doing this just for the kids because it's “just” and it's the right thing to do, this isn't a sustainability plan. There's no other people, these are the people that are going to have the jobs. So if you're not investing in their education, you won't have anybody to hire and they're already experiencing that. So many companies cannot find anybody to hire, let alone a person of color. So if we live in a community that doesn't have enough science teachers for its students, and we're not doing anything about it. But we expect, for tomorrow, to have all the doctors and the nurses and engineers…we're just fooling ourselves.

SI: Solution would be?

KC: Part of the solution is organizations like the STEM Greenhouse, because, you know, our track record is very…it's just been very successful. You know, the students in our after school program, they have four times more growth in math and students in other STEM programs. The students in our summer academy, the average student grows two grade levels in five weeks in their math computations. So those are amazing results. I shouldn't even have to beg for money, but that's what I do.

SI: But there's only one doctor, Kelly, Christopher Ha, how do we expand it?

KC: Well, like I said, it's not rocket science. Part of it is diversity. Research has shown that all children learn best from someone who's demographically similar to them.

So a white female will learn best from a white female teacher, a black male will learn best from a black male teacher. 85% of the teachers in the schools are white female, so it's not really surprising that black males are most underperforming group. That is a demographically dissimilar teaching profession. So if I have, you know, in my summer academy, we have 5 black male teachers. Somehow miraculously, everybody is learning. But it's partially because of that intentionality around getting staff that looks like the students that we serve. And then as you know, that we've been very successful with that.

SI: Does your 17 year-old know how passionate his mom is?

KC: Well, my son says, “Mom, you're always so extra. Like you always have to just go.” You know, he thinks I just do too much. But yeah, so he gets it. It's a little bit overwhelming for my kids there. I have a 17 year-old and a 13-year-old daughter and she wants to be an engineer one day, an imagineer because she's a Disney fan, too. So imagineers are the engineers that work for Disney World and we're Disney fans.

SI: Yeah, I want to get to some fun facts. Goodness gracious. You are a Disney World fan. Disney villains, your favorite, so you can get away.

KC: Haha. Yeah, I mean, I really like Disney villains in that, you know, I’m not alone. In addition, you know, I just kind of lean towards - I don't know what that is - like in Harry Potter. And I’m in Slytherin house, which is sort of the evil one. It's a weird thing, but I think there's part of me that is very rebellious because to be quite honest, in the spaces that I'm in, I am a disrupter. I'm an agitator. Not everybody likes me. I kind of like it like that. So I think I identify sometimes with villains, not that I'm evil. But just that, you know, I don't mind not being liked. And that's one of the difficulties with leadership is that you have to, you know, sometimes you have to get comfortable with not pleasing everybody. And in my case, you know, I consider myself an advocate for children and some people are going to like what I say and some aren’t.

SI: Hey, so dancing was the first thing you ever taught. What’s this mean?

KC: Well, I started teaching dance when I was maybe in the 11th grade and I was taking dance classes, you know, tap, jazz, ballet. But I was especially a good tap dancer. But even now I dance. And so, you know, like I said in my YouTube channel, I had the students dancing. We recorded some additional videos and recently and again, there's a challenge, like a TikTok dance challenge. And so me and the kids were doing that. I just incorporate that into a lot of the work that I do because I like dancing. And it helps me recruit students, and everything. So yeah, I taught dance as of like a volunteer for 4H when I was in high school. And I remember that was also was my first opportunity to do fundraising and I guess it was a little bit of a nonprofit because I was teaching. I was a volunteer dance teacher in like a community center and I wanted the kids have a regular recital, like other little kids when they take dance lessons. But they don't have costumes and things like that. So had to raise money for the costumes and I would to try to take them too Broadway performances and things like that. So they could see dancers. It was just, I mean to for someone who's an 11th or 12th grade, that's quite a bit. When I look back on and I'm like, wow!

SI: No wonder you are who you are now. You really like the movies. What movies do you suggest?

KC: I just like movies in general. I'm not like action adventure type of person. I don't want to pay anybody to raise my blood pressure. But generally just dramas, I do like Foreign films. I really got into that when I was in graduate school watching a lot of foreign films and Chinese movies, especially. But yes, I just, you know, I'm just kind of a movie fan.

SI: How important are the awards that you've received? And I'm leading the question because I hope you're going to say that you don't put your Giants award in a box and never see it again. You’ve earned these.

KC: Well, you know, initially when I started receiving some awards, I thought “Wow something like the Giants Awards is a really big deal in our community” and I thought “Am I, you know, at the Giants award level?” but I'm starting to kind of know my worth, I guess you could say, in a way that I maybe didn't know back then. The things I do, the risks that I take and there have been some risky things, that professionally people have advised me not to do because they were afraid that I would insult or hurt someone's feelings or something. And I did it anyway. And so now beginning to think “Okay. I am a little bit; I am out there a little bit willing to do some things that other people aren’t willing to do.” It's humbling. It is a you know, you don't do this work for recognition. But when someone recognizes you, for example, I just won an award on Monday from the Urban League.

SI: And that award was?

KC: That's Nolan Groce Business Leadership Award. And that was, you know, that meant a lot because again, it shows that people recognize and they see what you're doing. That's basically what it’s saying is “I see you. I see that that you're trying. This effort that you're making on behalf of the children in our community.”

SI: And that it’s working.

KC: Yeah, There's some there's movement there. People see the results.

SI: So what's next for STEM Greenhouse?

KC: Well, STEM Greenhouse is a small organization, but it's a big idea. You know, it's really ready to go to another level. We now have a high school program that we're starting at Central High School in Grand Rapids Public Schools. We have elementary school programming. We teach science during the day in two middle schools, all the 6th, 7th and 8th graders at two schools because they deserve to have a science class. And, you know, they deserve to have dissections and use microscopes just like any other middle school student. And so we need to be in all of those schools, not just two schools, but all the schools that don't have a science teacher. You know, we really need to be there. So there's a lot of potential for growth. There's a lot of kids in our community that need the support.

You know, I'm just always looking for partners, people to come alongside that want to see a more equitable future for our children. I mean, it's actually gotten worse. I was interviewed for a documentary about educating black boys and Spectrum Health, their supporters of my summer Academy. And the reason that I was in this documentary is because there are fewer black males in medical school now than in the 1970's. You know, we're going backwards as a society in terms of how we are preparing children of color for the future. And yet these are the children, they're the majority. Children of color are going to be in the majority of people very, very soon. So we're just doing ourselves a disservice if we're not able to give them the quality of education they deserve.

SI: So fund Keli Christopher ASAP to see how we can help. You bet on that. But what motto, do you leave us with? What's the take-home message for me?

KC: Well, you know, I guess this is a motto, this is a family motto and this moto came from my grandmother’s aunt and she would say “I cover all the ground I stand on.” And you have to like move your head and you have to say “I cover all the ground that I stand on.” And what that really means is that I'm not less than anyone. You know, any time I meet someone, I never go into it intimidated. You know, I'm in the nonprofit space. My job is to beg, but I never come in with a beggar's attitude. You know, I thought it was kind of interesting that, you know, and this is for powerful women. And I'm thinking we have come in to so many spaces where I'd really did not have the power. But power is a mindset. You know, I mean, my mind was I had the power, but the reality is I didn't have the money. I mean, I'm always asking for resources and things like that. But I don't feel like I'm lesser because of that. I feel like a wise person would partner with me and would help me with this cause because the work is so great. And so like I said, you know, every room I walk into, it’s like I cover all the ground I stand on. That's my motto.

SI: And you’ve brightened up this room. That's for sure. STEM Greenhouse under your leadership. Keep up the great work Dr. Keli Christopher.

KC: thank you so much.

Narr: Produced by women about women. These powerful podcast focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let’s Talk? Get additional interviews at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcast. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, it’s underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.

Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.
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