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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Giving Black Girls A Marine Biology Boost

Black women are underrepresented in STEM professions. LA-based EmpowHER Institute is out to change that. (Photo provided EmpowHER website.)

by Aziah Siid

A normal day as a marine biologist can look like diving the beautiful reefs, or working up samples from the laboratory. Regardless if they’re swimming with fish, or writing findings for a publication, one thing is certain: Black girls and women deserve to occupy the profession. 

Making that possible is EmpowHER Institute, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides a social-emotional learning course to middle and high school girls. Through one of its summer programs, the organization gives 12-17-year-old girls of color the chance to become marine biologists for three weeks. 

Black people only represent 3% of marine biologists in the profession. In addition, Black or African American students represented only 1.95% of graduates in Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.

“Our goal as an organization is to support our girls in breaking generational cycles of poverty, and we believe the best way to do so is through career and college readiness,” says Dawn L. Brown, president, and CEO of EmpowHER Institute. 

The institute has been around for 20 years and is the only nonprofit organization in Los Angeles County that has a  program fully integrated into the school day.

The core programs, EmpowHER Girls Academy and EmpowHER Leaders Academy are taught at 13 schools throughout L.A County by experienced EMpowHER staff. They’re also designed by the institute from a trauma-informed, culturally inclusive perspective, specifically for girls. 

“We teach a social-emotional learning, skills-based learning, and mentoring course,” Brown says. “They are learning everything from how to manage our emotions, to financial literacy, to how to prepare for a job interview, and how to navigate microaggressions in the workspace.” 

100% of EmpowHER girls that stay with the organization graduate middle school and high school, according to Brown.

A Working Girl Summer

For many students from low-income backgrounds, the idea of attending colleges like the University of Southern California and the University of California may seem out of reach, or a big dream. 

As an EmpowHER girl, participants not only have the chance to step foot on the USC campus but also to sleep on the campus for one week. 

“We partner with USC, which is great,” Brown says. “We surveyed our girls last year, and less than 10 of our girls had stepped foot on the campus, even though they live in the community.” 

During the remaining two weeks of the program, students return

EmpowerHer’s Social Justice STEAM Camp combines science and environmental justice issues to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on Black people. 

“The goal of it is for them to look at marine ecology and the impact of climate change or marine ecology and compare that to the resiliency and impact of climate change on marginalized communities,” Brown says. 

In addition to snorkeling, and kayaking, girls have the opportunity to receive their scuba diving certificate. But for many, learning how to swim is the first step.

Last summer, 25 girls participated in the free camp.“Of that 25, five of them could swim. The rest of them hadn’t even swum before,” Brown says. 

But thanks to EmpowerHer’s work, “We actually have 13 and 14-year-olds who are scuba diving certified, and nobody else is doing that, especially with Black and Latina girls.” 

Girls that participate in the EmpowHER Leaders Academy, the core program designed for 9th-12th grade girls, are also offered a four-week, paid internship with one of the company partners.  

Similar to the decision to focus on marine biology, the institute wants to expose their 16 to 18-year-old girls to exploring and finding careers where they are underrepresented.

The Greatness Teen Summit 

A major part of the organization is an annual teen summit, where all the institute’s participants gather for a day of workshops, mentorship, and interaction.

In April, over 500 EmpowHER girls and 200 women volunteers attended this year’s summit at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The theme, “Leaders Today. Changemakers Tomorrow,” reflects the aspirations EmpowerHER has for its participants.

“It’s this amazing full day of learning, education, celebration, and empowerment for our girls,” Brown says of the summit. 

Overall, Brown believes it’s critical for the girls to be able to learn something new while having fun and to have visual proof that they can achieve their dreams.

“It’s important that our girls see reflections of themselves so that they know they can really, truly attain greatness,” she says. “We really work with the community because we are the community. We come from the communities.”

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