Inspiration Through Education

As a native Oregonian, growing up in “the numbers” and living in a predominately white environment, I was different. Sports gave me an outlet and an opportunity to fit in even though I was not like most of my other classmates. Like many black boys, I wanted to use sports as my way out of a life of poverty that I had grown up in. Fortunately, I was able to earn a scholarship to play football at Portland State University and that paid for college and helped take the burden off of my parents. I took advantage of my time at PSU to become a multi-sport athlete, in addition to being involved in many student organizations. Once I graduated from PSU, I worked in Corporate Procurement for the next 12 years. During that time, I volunteered with a local non-profit organization that was culturally-specific, rites of passage program for middle and high school-aged black boys. This sparked my desire and passion for non-profit work and the opportunity to positively make a difference in the lives of others.

Unfortunately, in 2008 this program disbanded because of a lack of resources, but I still had a passion and desire to help others through non-profit work. After this program closed, I started a youth program that focused on young kids of color in the area of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. Our goal was to get young boys and girls excited about technology and engineering using LEGO’s to inspire them to one day become engineers.

Over time we began to grow, and my passion for this line of work grew as well. I saw that getting black and brown kids together and teaching them how to build structures, code robots, and give presentations was something that our community was missing. It was the exposure to something different that excited me because growing up, I was never aware of or around activities like this, and I learned that many black families in our community hadn’t either. Most programs that provided activities like these were not accessible in our neighborhoods. The ones that were available were only in white neighborhoods, and you had to drive long distances just to get involved. Then if you were a person of color who wanted to get your kids involved in these programs, you had to face that they might be the only kids of color participating and/or the cost to participate was very high. These were barriers that were common 10+ years ago and unfortunately are still barriers that communities of color face today.

In 2013, my co-founder and I established Building Blocks 2 Success (BB2S) with the desire to not just be a LEGO program, but to develop a STEM-focused organization that was intentional in providing STEM-related programs and activities to underserved and underrepresented youth in the Portland Metropolitan area. This work is important because there are no other organizations like ours that specifically focus on early education serving black and brown youth using STEM to inspire and motivate them. Our focus has been to help our students understand that it’s okay to be different, and to encourage them to be critical and analytical thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders in our community using STEM.

We also want to change the narrative that black and brown youth can be more than athletes and entertainers. By developing strong relationships with our students through mentorship and coaching we strive to build their self-esteem and confidence so that they can one day pursue further education, degrees, and jobs related to these career fields. Obviously, doing this work in the black community has a lot of benefits. But it also has its challenges. We are always fighting over the same dollars in our communities. I hear it all the time from nonprofit leaders–we are forced to fight over the same small piece of the pie in order to provide services that directly affect the Black community.

More recently, there have been more dollars allocated to Black student success programs, but overall it seems as if the funds are not as available when it comes to supporting Black students in areas in which white communities continue to excel. This furthers the disparities in the educational achievement gap from communities of color. The lack of access and opportunities for communities of color is highly evident. Unfortunately, our communities and schools continue to start far behind our white counterparts. This starts early in their lives, so our young people have to navigate the educational system already behind and they have to constantly play catch up. And this game of catch up follows them when they move into higher education, and then into the workforce.

This cycle doesn’t have to stay in motion, and philanthropy has a role in moving us in a different direction. As I stated earlier, a lot of the success that the black community has had been by pushing through barriers, and if I were offering philanthropy advice about how to help eliminate barriers, I would ask you to rethink your grant application process. Navigating the grant application process is something that all nonprofits must face. In some cases, just completing the grant applications is cumbersome and exhaustive. Nonprofits must spend so much time completing long grant applications that by the end of the process, it doesn’t always line up to the dollars that we receive or hope to receive to meet our proposed outcomes. Also, the limited communication between nonprofits and funders means that we are finding out about opportunities at the last minute, and then scrambling to submit applications. Something as simple as not being in the loop from the beginning means that we are missing out on opportunities because we just didn’t know about them.

I would also suggest that funders invest in organizations with not just dollars but with staff, partnerships, and core resources that ensure that our organizations can grow and are successful. Invest long term and not just for that grant cycle. Highlight the work that is being done with these organizations. Get other foundations and grant-making organizations on board to support the work we are doing. Use your resources and influence to ensure that our organizations are supported and sustainable. Understand that it’s hard to continue to constantly fundraise because it takes time away from our mission and where we want and need to spend our time and resources. These are easy fixes and will make the relationships between philanthropy and nonprofits stronger.

I do this work because I see that we are making an impact on our communities. I see that the work we are doing is important and as a black man leading an organization in a city that has very few examples of leaders like me, it’s important to leverage the relationships that we’ve built with our communities. We’ve built trust and have already overcome hurdles that may have put people off, make them feel skeptical of other organizations, or feel that those organizations can’t be trusted.

I also see young people who are excited about learning new things and being different from who society thinks they are or will grow up to be. I am working to change the narrative that all black people are criminals or that they are not smart enough or that they can’t be this or they can’t be that. I see brilliant, intelligent, non-threatening black and brown children, and I hope that they will grow up not having to deal with the years of oppression or systematic racism that our generation and many generations before us have had to endure. I see our kids using their intellect and innovation to create new and amazing things. I see the breaking of generational poverty cycles that have plagued our communities and have held us back as a people through the eyes of black and brown children who see possibility. And I see kids that we’ve invested in reaching their goals, pursuing their dreams, going to college, being leaders in our communities, and changing the way things have been to the way they want them to be.

– Antonio Jackson