How Representation Fosters Hope

By - August 27, 2020

Hope and The American Dream, a philosophy that in America you can be anything you put your mind to, are deeply intertwined—maybe even codependent. All students should have the hope to achieve any future. The problem is that hope doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In order to hope for a specific future, students need to be able to envision the possibility of said future—there's a big difference between being told you can be anything you want, and having tangible examples to inspire you.  

In 2019, the New York Times asked its younger readers whether they thought the American Dream was real. A number of young people reported that yes, it was...for some people. Colleen Northbrook, an Illinois teen wrote that, “Depending on your identity and background, it could be more difficult to achieve the American dream. As a woman, it might be harder for me to achieve the same American dream as a man. In theory, the American dream is attainable for everyone, but I’m not sure everyone can achieve the same version of the American dream.” 

Facebook first made its diversity figures available in 2014, and if Colleen had wanted to pursue a job in say, Silicon Valley, it’s easy to see why she wouldn't feel hopeful. Only 31% of the workforce was female. That shrunk down to 15% if she'd envisioned a tech role. We don’t know Colleen’s race, but in 2014 only 2% of Facebook’s entire workforce was black. As of 2019, those stats barely changed. The technical workforce at Facebook consists of 23% women. The number of black employees rose from 2% to 3.6%. “At Google and Microsoft the share of US technical employees who are black or Latinx rose by less than a percentage point since 2014.” 

Girls don’t just aspire to become ballerinas and nurses anymore (though kudos to any student who has those dreams). One survey found that 41% of girls want to go into STEM careers, compared to 32% of boys. Why then, are nearly 80% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science earned by men? Another study found evidence this discrepancy might start in elementary school, “Girls are less likely to be nominated for, selected for, and continue in the district’s advanced math program. Despite their comparable math scores, the program loses girls at every step — a phenomenon that could contribute to fewer women entering math-focused fields later in life.”  

How can we change these troubling statistics? How can we ensure that there’s no limit to what our students can become or achieve in life? What we need to do is start democratizing hope. We need to show young students tangible examples of people who’ve succeeded despite the stats. We also have to be extremely cognizant of not limiting a young person’s hopes and dreams, because being able to see tangible examples of successful people that look like them is incredibly powerful for students.

Emma Basmayor is an electrical apprentice based in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. A 2019 USA Today article profiled her dream of becoming a modern-day Rosie the Riveter, rallying the next generation of women working in skilled trades industries. It might just be working. In 2018, fewer than 1 in 20 skilled trade workers were female, but there was a 17% rise in women in the industry between 2017 and 2018—the highest percentage gain in 20 years. “Expanding the visibility of women who are already in the industry is a huge part of getting more women in trades,” Emma said. “In high school, I had never met a woman who worked in construction and I didn’t know it was something I could do. I was worried about my safety and my ability to be feminine, and I’ve realized that it’s completely unfounded.” Representation matters. It’s what fosters young people to aspire to any career dream.  

As of 2019, black men account for only 4% of doctors in the United States. To help combat this dearth, the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University has been hosting an annual Black Men in Medicine Symposium. In an article covering the event in Philadelphia Magazine, Cameron Rutledge, a young man in the LKSOM class of 2023, said this was a life-changing experience for him. “I didn’t grow up seeing many doctors who looked like me. I’ve never experienced having a black male physician or seeing or learning from one, but I got all of that in one night. To be in a room with doctors who’ve had these challenging experiences and to hear them talk about how to work up the medical ladder, that was something special.”

 Actor Ryan Reynolds just launched The Group Effort Initiative.  For his next movie project, his team is bringing on between 10-20 trainees who are, “Black, Indigenous, people of color or people from marginalized and excluded communities," people who are largely unrepresented on film sets, with the hope that this starts a simple trickle-down effect. If a young person of color sees people of color as camera operators, makeup artists, or cinematographers, it’s easier for them to aspire to those career paths.  

Hope is “a way of thinking that pushes us to action.” We want to make sure every student can pursue the actions that bring about the future they want. It’s up to those of us working with young people to ensure they see themselves represented across a wide array of career options. Maybe that means going out of your way to ensure the STEM video you show your class features women of color. Maybe it's as simple as writing a word problem where the construction worker or welder’s name is Colleen or Emma. Maybe when you show a picture of a ballet dancer, it’s a male dancer.  Create a project profiling a black, male doctor. Read an article about a female engineer with a long, storied career. Don’t gender careers. It might be a little more work, but it’s doable. Every student should be able to envision a reality greater than the one they’re currently in.  Let’s get all students hopeful for their futures. 


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