In February, the United States celebrated National African American History Month. This year’s theme, “Black Migrations,” highlighted the challenges and successes of African Americans as they moved from the agricultural South to industrial centers of industry in the North, Midwest, and West -- showing true courage and faith in pursuit of their dreams and reshaping the demographic landscape of America. Learn more about this year’s theme in the Presidential Proclamation on National African American History Month, 2019.
On February 27, 2019, the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity hosted a celebration of National African American History Month. Held at the Department of Energy (DOE) headquarters in Washington, D.C., it was broadcast live across the DOE complex. This year’s program included special guests who shared their pathways to success as African-American men and women. They shared their perspective on how to best support the next generation in gaining access to opportunities, particularly in the fast-growing and rewarding science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
We must come to understand that what makes a person -- it's not the shape of their nose, the color of their skin or the texture of their hair, it's the brain, the most fascinating organ system in the entire universe.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson participated in a fireside chat, which was moderated by Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity James E. Campos.
In his opening remarks, Secretary Carson took the audience on a virtual tour of Washington, D.C., pointing out the contributions to our nation of many overlooked and unsung African-American inventors and scientists. He went on to discuss how a greater awareness and pride in these stories can profoundly impact the aspirations of young African-Americans. What makes a person, he explained, is not the shape of their nose, the color of their skin or the texture of their hair; it’s the brain, the most fascinating organ system in the universe.
I asked Wallace Jefferson to serve on our Supreme Court, the first African-American, and it was an opportunity to send a message to every young African-American young man or young woman that you can be on the highest court in the state of Texas.
Asked about how the reverse migration of African Americans back to growing Southern cities like Houston is empowering new generations, Secretary Perry described appointing the first African American -- Wallace Jefferson -- to the Texas supreme court as a teachable moment. He urged the audience to find the teachable moments where we can practice equity and make a difference with the choices we make. Secretary Carson pointed out that the modern world makes it easier to find out where the jobs are than it was when his parents migrated from rural Tennessee to Detroit.
The thing that became crystal-clear to me is that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you is you, it’s not somebody else, it's not the environment.
The next question asked Secretary Carson to tell his personal story of turning his life around.
Secretary Carson spoke with quiet humor about growing up with a domestic-worker mother who cracked the code on what it takes to be successful and who insisted on his reading books, a first step that changed the trajectory of his life, as he went on to become a successful neurosurgeon. "The thing that became crystal-clear to me," he concluded, "is that the person who has the most to do with what happens to you is you, it’s not somebody else, it’s not the environment."
Additionally, Director Campos moderated the “Migration Fueling STEM Education and Participation” panel, which included Johnathan Holifield, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities; Dr. J’Tia Hart, executive briefer at the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at DOE; and Dr. Njema Frazier, director of the Office of Experimental Science at DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The panel discussed the critical role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and how access to education for African Americans has enhanced DOE’s mission and benefited the country has a whole.
I aim to be a spark to the next generation. I think it is key to volunteer.
Johnathan Holifield described his mission to connect underserved and disconnected populations to our nation’s innovation, entrepreneurship and research opportunities. He also stressed the broad applicability of the “HBCU way,” not just to its statutory mission population of African Americans but to any first-generation or low-income American. Dr. Njema Frazier was the first African-American woman to graduate with a physics degree from Carnegie Mellon and to receive a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Michigan State. She spoke of how being “the first” shaped her life and about her work to inspire women and girls of color about STEM careers. Dr. Hart pointed to the power of mentorship and volunteering and explained how she works to impact the next generation of African Americans to get involved in STEM fields.
Thank-you to Secretary Perry and Secretary Carson and the other esteemed panelists for sharing their perspectives. For those unable to attend, below is the program in its entirety.