Reaching Back to Get It and Bring It Forward: The Sankofa Global Project

05/09/2016 11:46 am ET Updated May 10, 2017

Recently my beautiful 25 year old daughter, who grew up in Manhattan, moved back to New York City after attending college and working in another state. She rented a room in Brooklyn in a big house with five roommates. She told me, "I still have friends here, but I want to meet more people. A lot of people come to New York because they're the best and brightest and they're ambitious; they want to accomplish important things. That's why I wanted a house with a lot of roommates, to start to meet more of these people."

I thought of her words when I received an invitation from Tracy Gray, Founder and President of The Sankofa Global Project, to attend New York State Senator Kevin S. Parker's breakfast award ceremony. Tracy Gray is going to be honored as a community educational leader for her work with The Sankofa Global Project, a dynamic not-for-profit organization whose mission is to increase the number of women and people of color in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (S.T.E.A.M.). She had been my daughter's kindergarten teacher, all those years ago, and she's one of those best and brightest people with the ambition to accomplish important--even crucial--things.

When I first met her, Gray was a teacher at my daughter's independent school. Gray was kind and warmly encompassing while also being strict, fair, and creative. She was precisely the teacher every parent wants for their munchkin just starting an academic career.

We had a mutual friend, another mom, another one of those dynamic change-the-world people, and we saw each other a few times outside of school. Over the years I heard good things about her career. Last year we got back in touch and I invited Tracy Gray to be a guest on my BlogTalkRadio show, Independent Artists & Thinkers.

Gray perfectly personifies the independent thinker. She started her career in an underrepresented community where she discovered that she needed to learn how to teach. That discovery set her on a journey as an educator, and she devoted her career to developing interdisciplinary curricula by creating and directing diversity and intercultural programs. She studied progressive educators and worked both as a teacher and as an administrator; she was always designing programs for diversity as well as for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics.

For two years, Gray was the Director of Studies at The Carey School in San Mateo, California. She told me that her brother is an engineer at USC, and she participated in the MESA Madness program, a once a year event where high school students get to experiment, tinker, build, and design using USC resources. The program was developed to help educationally disadvantaged students and to encourage them to consider careers in the sciences.

Gray took her experience back to the Carey School and scaled it down for elementary students. She also participated in a Race and Technology workshop at Stanford University. There she met with a number of students of color. These were brilliant young people, all of them superstars in their high schools, yet they uniformly told Tracy the same thing: they were struggling with science, technology, and math at Stanford, and they would have benefited from doing hands-on S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) work in elementary and middle school. "Don't wait for high school," they told her. "It has to start earlier than that."

In 2011, the idea for Sankofa was born. In 2013, Gray launched the organization. "Sankofa" means "to reach back and get it and bring it forward" in the Twi language of Ghana. Her vision is to "Bridge the Gap. Inspire. Mentor. Lead."

To talk with Tracy is to be inspired. She's passionate and enthusiastic about the three programs The Sankofa Global Project offers: Tinker Days, Workshop in a Box, and S.T.E.A.M. Innovation Lab. These programs offer the students direct hands on experience with tools, work tables, real-life science experiments, and digital literacy and web design. These programs delight, educate, and nurture kids who get to roll up their sleeves and play and create and tinker and problem-solve for themselves.

"But we do more than that," Gray says. "The idea is to do professional development. Our programs aren't just for students, they're for the community. We do professional development with teachers and parents to work together to see what are the needs of the community."

Community is a cornerstone of The Sankofa Global Project. Gray mentioned a citizen science project she led in West Oakland that concerned a primary need of the community: food stores. In 2014, in West Oakland, there were 58 liquor stores and 0 grocery stores. "It's called a food desert in an economically disadvantaged community," Gray explained. There were lots of corner stores but no grocery stores. "How do you address this?" she asked. "Information! For example, if you don't know there's a farmers market two blocks over, you'll go to the corner store or buy fast food. You have to get the information out to the community."

In January, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Student Dream hosted the I Have a Dream Workshop on Inclusive Youth Entrepreneurship in partnership with the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) initiative and the White House Council on Women and Girls (CWG). The purpose of the event was to share ideas for improving access to S.T.E.M fields. Preceding this workshop was a roundtable with stakeholders in the S.T.E.M. ecosystem.

Gray was there at the invitation of that lovely mom we both knew. President Obama issued a call-to-action for bringing S.T.E.M. to all students; Gray answered the call with a brief, and the Obama administration was excited. At the 6th and final White House Science Fair, the White House announced that The Sankofa Global Project was made a cohort for 2016's My Brother's Keeper Initiative and the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Now Gray is being honored, and Senator Parker's quote to me for this article explains the importance of her vision to reach back and bring it forward:

It is with great honor that I award Tracy Gray and support the Sankofa Project initiative. Mrs. Gray is an innovative educational leader who has brought endless opportunity for students throughout the city, including my district. Her initiative offers many students an amazing opportunity to grow and learn about jobs within the technological field, that without the program may not have been offered to them. Mrs. Gray is breeding a generation of children who will be confident, knowledgeable and prepared on how to effectively be innovators within the technology field, no matter their race or gender and for that she deserves to recognized.