For more than 15 years, engineer Neirda Thompson-Pemberton has been dedicated to exposing children to education in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM). She is so passionate about children and STEAM, in fact, that in 2013 she launched a non-profit organization called FUNducation, of which she is the executive director.
Thompson-Pemberton notes that many disadvantaged children see STEAM fields as impossible to penetrate. So he made it his mission to inspire them with practical and fun technological activities with computers, robotics, artificial intelligence and programming.
Born in Brooklyn and of Haitian descent, Thompson-Pemberton earned her BA in Civil Engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) in Melbourne and her MBA from Webster University. After college, she worked with engineering firms and land development projects, while she volunteered with engineering-related children’s community outreach projects. She was also a member of the team that piloted a program called Woz Ed STEAM with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s Woz Innovation Foundation in 2019. The purpose of the project was to attract children to STEAM education through Palm View Elementary in the Manatee County and the program still exists.
Through FUNducation, Thompson-Pemberton collaborates with local organizations such as Unidos Now, Just for Girls, AMIkids Manatee, Microsoft and Greatness Beyond Measure with Ringling College of Art and Design. The organization also just received a $ 120,000 transformative grant from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, which, among other benefits, will allow it to hire another full-time staff member.
Now 43, Thompson-Pemberton, lives at Lakewood Ranch with her husband Courtney.
How has growing up in Brooklyn influenced you?
“In Brooklyn I was just a child, never black or white. There was a black Jewish community where I lived, but most of all I tried to survive every day.
“That’s why my father moved us to Florida in 1997. My grandmother was attacked, my father was beaten for an inch of his life, my brother was attacked and I was chased a couple of times. When we left our building, we didn’t know what was going to happen. Our neighborhood was the kind where kids would befriend the wrong kind of people to protect themselves.
“When we moved to Florida, I had just graduated from high school and it was a culture shock. I had never seen so many whites every day. In Brooklyn, we knew we would see whites if we went on the train to Manhattan, but here we wondered where the pockets of blacks were. Being Haitian-Americans, we found the Haitian community in Port Charlotte, which is where our father moved us. It was definitely an adaptation. “
How did you feel moving from a black community to a minority in a white neighborhood?
“I knew I had to adapt and I had to learn what it meant. I loved it here. And as far as my engineering background is concerned, it became clear what I had to do.
“In Brooklyn I didn’t know where to go, but in Florida I had an affordable option [Edison Community College] which allowed me time to research the next steps. I’ve had more opportunities here. I don’t think I would have become the woman I am today if we hadn’t moved. I had a different state of mind here: I was more driven to be a black woman in a predominantly white environment. “
Who influenced you in your field?
“My mother. She is not an engineer, but she came to this county as a newly married Haitian immigrant who was supposed to play the traditional roles of housewife and family caretaker.
“One day she wanted more. So she took a fast-food shift job, then learned to type and became a personal assistant. After a few years, she worked to become a certified nursing assistant and is now an LPN. And she never complained: she did what she had to do, from working all night to taking care of her kids during the day to going to school at night. My mom believed that it didn’t matter the circumstances. They are or what people mean. for you, it’s what you want and are willing to work for.
“My father also had a strong influence, coming to this country with Haitian grit and working hard to provide for our family.”
Have you experienced racism or judgment in your field?
“At an engineering conference, which also had a call for models, I was checking with a female colleague. We walked over to the table to check in, when we were told we were at the wrong table. The white guy gestured to check. -in model Now, you think we’d be flattered, but we said, “Well, we could, but we’re engineers.” He turned beet red in embarrassment and apologized.
“This next experience has happened more than once while I am being introduced to an event with a female colleague. When we are both introduced to the main person of the event and it is explained that one of us is senior, the main person reached out to shake hand to the white woman next to me. Fortunately, the wrong woman explains that I am the executive director of FUNducation. It is blatantly obvious what happened, to the point that it is embarrassing for the person.
“I’ve always wondered why the hypothesis is easy. We are both women, we are both in front of you. Why did you think the white person was older for me? Melanin is the only differentiating factor.”
Tell us about FUNducation’s work.
“We want to expose, engage and inspire today’s children to become tomorrow’s innovators. The reason we started was because a group of kids were asked what engineering meant, they didn’t know. Then, once we have it. Told them that math and science were the keys to becoming an engineer, they lost interest.We want to expose children to STEAM camps in practical and fun ways.
“We hope this commitment will inspire them organically through immersion in learning. We won’t win them all, but what I love about a STEAM education is that even if they don’t matriculate in a field, they are at least learning what develops the world around them and they will learn to think critically and solve problems with a STEAM mindset.
“FUNducation is open to all students, but we make a concentrated effort to reach girls, minorities and disadvantaged people. The gap in skilled workforce is large, but there is a bigger gap when it comes to these groups. . We have more work to do there. “
The FUNducation website contains a quote from William James: “The greatest use of a lifetime is to spend it on something that will survive.” What does this mean to you?
“When I’m long gone, I want Sarasota and Manatee counties to become a thriving and diverse pipeline for STEAM education, with children of all colors and nationalities.”
What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to do right now?
“When dealing with a black person, deal with them in the space they are in, and not as a color in that space.
“For example, a friend was looking for different talent for a project and asked for a contribution because I am a black woman. I was not contacted at the beginning of her search; she called at the end when she was looking to fill in the last one. space. I should have been contacted at the beginning of the casting so that qualified black people would have the opportunity to be considered for as many roles as possible, instead of saving a spot just for being different. Diversity and inclusion they are not an afterthought. They are about intent from the start. “
Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill