Right now, a young woman with a master’s degree from Harvard works as a biologist.
A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago earns a living selling her artwork.
Several doctors tend to their patients. Engineers design bridges and computer programs. Entrepreneurs run businesses that improve the lives of those around them.
What do they have in common? You could say that they are all young women of color who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and that would certainly be true. Or that they’re all excelling in fields with below-average representation of women of color. But there’s something else that ties these women together, something life changing that gave them all a personal bond through elementary, middle, and high school—The Chocolate Chips Association (CCA).
“Chocolate Chips Association is all about exposing, inspiring, and empowering our young female leaders to have a passion for science, technology, engineering, entrepreneurship, art, and math,” says Karen Jones, the CEO and Executive Director of CCA. “Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of females in those related careers.”
Years ago, Karen Jones was in the same position. As a young woman, her interest in science and mysteries led her to volunteer at the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, where her uncle worked. This early exposure influenced her decision to pursue a career in biochemistry and program management. After spending over 33 years working in the pharmaceutical industry and a lifelong involvement with volunteer organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, Salvation Army, and United Way, Karen has dedicated herself full time to running the CCA and helping introduce young girls of color to opportunities in STE2AM.
Karen raised her children in Lake County, Illinois, and observed that they were often the only black students in their classrooms. This lack of diversity can be discouraging, especially when students don’t see role models who look like them. This imbalance unfortunately carries over into the workforce, especially in STEM areas. According to Yale Scientific, women represent 52% of the college-educated workforce, but only 29% of the science and engineering workforce. BIWOC are even more underrepresented:
- Latina/Hispanic women make up only 2.3% of the science and engineering workforce
- Indigenous women make up only 0.07%
- Black women represent only 2.5%
(NSF NCSES, 2019)
A Hands-On Approach
The Chocolate Chips Association works to inspire young girls to go into these fields by exposing them to the endless career opportunities available. The hands-on workshops make science approachable and fun, covering topics like coding, robotics, engineering, art, finance, and entrepreneurship. Activities like frog dissection expose them to topics that may not be covered in school, and civic and volunteer events like the annual Sickle Cell Disease Awareness Program inspire a passion for service.
A large part of the program involves collaboration with speakers from every possible career in the STE2AM fields. Because, as Karen says, “We can’t be what we can’t see.” Not only does hearing from women professionals in the arts and sciences help the students discover interests they might not know they have had, and provide inspiration of what they can achieve, it also serves as a valuable networking opportunity and opens doors into academic programs and employment offers.
But first, before any dissecting, concocting, or calculating can begin, the girls learn the most powerful lesson of all—the value of their self-worth. Regarding the mental and emotional elements of career success, Karen says “we know that we have to do right by ourselves. And that’s why we focus so much at the beginning of our sessions on self-esteem, self-advocacy, loving yourself, and knowing your worth.”
Remember the Art Institute grad? When she began with the Chocolate Chips Association in first grade, she was so shy she wouldn’t even leave her mother’s lap. After spending over a decade in the program, she gained the confidence and independence to pursue a career in art and the entrepreneurship skills to turn it into a profitable business.
A Community Effort
As a nonprofit organization, CCA relies on donations and sponsorships. They have partnerships with several local corporations, such as Abbott, AbbVie, Grainger, Comcast, Pfizer, and Baxter. Not only do these sponsors provide vital funding, they are also a valuable source of speakers. But covering all the costs for things like scientific supplies and tools, space rental, and interactive field trips also requires donations from individuals. If you’d like to help out, you can learn more at https://ccassoc.org/get-involved.
Looking for a more hands-on way to get involved? CCA also needs volunteers to help plan and coordinate events, speak to the girls, and serve as mentors. Even during this time of COVID distance learning, some volunteers are still needed in person to help pack up STEM kits that get shipped out to the students.
COVID has actually had an unexpected effect on CCA. From the LifeWorking office, Karen leads virtual classes that allow for safe but still collaborative learning. Because these sessions are virtual, girls who live farther away, even out of state, can be part of the program.
In the next five to ten years, Karen hopes to continue this expansion across the country—and, eventually, around the world. “Our ultimate goal is collaborating and partnering with someone in every state to get access for our students,” says Karen. These partnerships with corporations and community programs will provide a vital source of funding, speakers and teachers for the classes, and networking and mentorship opportunities.
CCA has been operating since the early 2000s, and those who are science-minded and data-driven might be wondering about the program’s success rate. Simply put, does CCA work? Yes. Out of the alumni who have kept in contact, a staggering 75% have gone on to pursue careers in STE2AM fields. And not only has the program inspired young girls of color to pursue careers in STE2AM, but it has provided an environment of positivity, community, and life-long friendship. In fact, five out of the six current board members are parents of CCA alumni.
We have to keep in mind the importance of the role that parents play in the success of their children. After all, even if the child has a curiosity about STE2AM and an immense desire to learn, they’re still at the age where the actions of their parents play a huge role in determining their success.
“We need the parents to take the time, provide the access, the opportunity, and drive these kids to these programs. Kids can’t drive themselves. We need parents to believe in these programs as well,” says Karen. “So I think the biggest thing is investing in our children and investing in ourselves to let them know that we can be anything we want to be. Just give us the shot and we got it.”
To learn more about the Chocolate Chips Association and how you or your child can get involved, visit https://ccassoc.org/.