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Adding Arts to STEM spells opportunity for students of color

Bishop T.D. Jakes in Dallas is working to teach science and math to populations that have been educationally underserved in the past.
Image: Bishop T.D. Jakes at the Potters House in Dallas in 2012.
Bishop T.D. Jakes at the Potters House in Dallas in 2012.LM Otero / AP file

Striding across the stage of his internationally renowned megachurch, The Potter’s House in Dallas, Bishop T.D. Jakes regularly employs his booming voice to preach messages of faith and redemption to a congregation of thousands. Jakes’ robust presence on social media and a dedicated YouTube channel mean he most likely reaches far more than the 30,000 members the church says it has on its rolls.

But not all is well outside the church that Jakes help build: In the course of his ministries, he has seen how unemployment and low-employment disproportionately affect people of color.

To address those concerns, Jakes has spent the last two years developing the T.D. Jakes Foundation, an organization dedicated to teaching minorities traditional STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) but adding Art, now STEAM, to offer disciplines that will lead to sustainable, high-paying jobs and careers, according to projections by the Institute for Arts Integration & STEAM, a group that helps grade-school teachers with arts-related curriculums.

“We want to hone in on specific areas that are bearing down on our communities,” Jakes told NBC News.

Jakes, who has written seven New York Times best-selling inspirational books and won a Grammy for his 2003 album, “Wing and a Prayer,” said he has built numerous relationships with business executives over the years and has leveraged his vast reach to attract corporate sponsorships around the nation.

“I want to take advantage of the tremendous gifts of relationships I have in a way that changes who are the haves and have nots,” he said.

People of color, women and those in low-income demographics “have to work harder just to get an interview,” according to researchers at the Center for Household Financial Stability of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The idea behind the Jakes Foundation, according to president and CEO Hattie Hill, is to arm minority candidates of all ages with STEAM training and knowledge so they can perform well when interview opportunities arise. Those jobs then build economic stability in stressed communities, she said.

Kirk Sykes, area executive director of Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, was emphatic in his support of Jakes’ mission.

“Many are referring to STEM or STEAM as the civil rights movement of the 21st century, so this is huge,” Sykes said. “When our kids can excel in algebra and other areas of math, we eliminate the gatekeeper who has held us back from high-paying jobs.

“When we can change the outcomes academically, we can change the trajectory of our communities.”

Hill added that the foundation “is trying to fill the gap with people who have been blocked out but want to do a good job and people who need it.”

While Hill declined to name the foundation’s partners as of now, Jakes says he has raised $5 million through corporate donations for its launch. Professionals from companies in each discipline of STEAM will come into Dallas-area public schools and organizations to start sharing their knowledge throughout the year. The program would expand to other American cities as well.

“I know there are good people in corporate America,” said Hill, who has worked for 30 years as job creator for African Americans and women. “But we still don’t see the progress in equal hiring that we should.”

The T.D. Jakes Foundation will focus on facets that include connecting global corporations with talent; running programs like STEAMLife, a summer camp for children ages 5 to 16; and creating “Dream Centers” to connect people with experts in education, life skills, financial literacy and job placement.

“I have talked to a lot of CEOs and there is lots of excitement,” Jakes said. “There’s a lot of buzz generated that is galvanizing. ... We included the arts because it’s been proven to be most effective when working with youths who already have an interest in music, film, TV, etc.”

Jakes said he has “an aggressive goal” to raise $100 million to create sustained housing in African American communities across the country, as well as career preparation.

“I’ve never chartered these waters before,” Jakes said. “This isn’t just about creating opportunity for tomorrow, next week or next month. This is about creating generational change — work that will continue for decades to come.”

Jakes and Hill cite projections from a Brookings Institution report that automation in the next 10 years will lead to the displacement of 30 million global manufacturing jobs. So, they consider this a prime opportunity to immerse underserved communities, especially youth, through education and training, into the vast job markets where specific skill sets will be needed.

“We have had the mentality that, ‘Hey, I’m not good in math’ and that’s OK with most people,” Sykes said. “But you’d never hear someone say it’s OK that you can’t read. Well, focusing on STEAM helps us get out of that mentality. It’s how other communities have been lapping us and, therefore, getting into the choice colleges and getting the choice jobs.”

Sykes said he hopes this is only the beginning of others boosting STEAM-focused education. “The idea of forming a community partnership with the church is something we haven’t really leveraged,” he said. “I hope others follow Bishop Jakes’ lead.”