The Women’s History Month that ended in March was themed “Women’s Education — Women’s Empowerment.” Women are integral to the fabric of the United States. The social, political, business and scientific contributions of minority women have both enriched our nation and challenged us to build a more perfect union. Sadly today, I find that the American Dream is often not the reality for young minority women, particularly those in underserved urban and rural communities. They are often prisoners of a failed education system, marginalized by both circumstance and expectation. This has to change. According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, by 2042 America will be a “majority-minority” nation, where ethnic minority populations, primarily Hispanic, will collectively outweigh the white majority. As our nation’s demographic composition evolves, its economic competitiveness, national security, and democratic commitment to the unique potential of every person requires that we work to ensure that all minority women are provided a fair opportunity to achieve.
America’s children have more options than anyone else in the world to pursue the education or career of their choice. Yet not all have access to these opportunities. As a result, at a time when more and more workers with strong science and math backgrounds are needed, companies nationwide are experiencing a growing gap between their job openings and the pool of properly trained applicants coming from the U.S. education system. This is not just a concern in human resource departments, but in national security circles as well.
In April, I attended a Council on Foreign Relations meeting to discuss the recent Council task force report that sounded the alarm on these education and workplace gaps. The study, chaired by former Chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education Joel Klein and former U.S. National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, concludes with the hope that “consideration of America’s education failings as a national security threat will mobilize new constituents, energize advocates, spur policymakers into action and attract increased investments in reform efforts.”
That’s an ambitious list of hopes that I want to see accomplished. But let me provide one small example of what energized advocates can do now. By 2002, after mentoring girls in middle and high schools for more than 15 years, I had consistently observed firsthand what Congress and others were reporting on: that young girls lacked access to information about career opportunities and the related educational paths. That lack of information, combined with gender stereotypes, often deterred girls from seeking careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (what are known as STEM careers).
My response was to create the nonprofit organization Girls Action Network (GAN). The mission is to shatter stereotypes and expand the opportunities for girls and young women, especially in STEM fields. GAN further seeks to promote awareness around the reality of our nation’s shifting demographics among leaders and decision-makers and how we must dismantle any preconceived notions when making admissions, funding and hiring decisions. GAN workshops expose student participants to life, education and career possibilities aligned with the values, skills and interests they already possess and those they want to develop.
One GAN girl was recently awarded a 2012 Fulbright fellowship. This is just more evidence of the possibilities for success when all of the stakeholders — a dedicated board, volunteers, parents, and partners — work together.
For the sake of the nation’s economic and national security, we must ensure that America’s minority girls are provided with the education they need to become political, scientific, national security and business leaders of the 21st century. Our investment in this human capital pipeline is paramount.
Education and empowerment cannot just be a slogan for one month of one year. It must be a commitment to ensure our country maximizes its potential and fulfills its promise to all Americans. As former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls.”
Elisa Basnight is a former Army intelligence officer, an attorney with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, founder and board president of Girls Action Network, and a 2005 TNJ 40 Under Forty honoree. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The above article is adapted from her Op-Ed published in the April 1, 2012, edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.