Listen up! This Miami teen shares her views on expanding access to STEM & creating a talent pipeline

Opportunity Miami
Opportunity Miami
Published in
7 min readJul 15, 2022

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By Nancy Dahlberg

Q&A with Leandra Hall

At 13, Leandra Hall was a Girl Scout with a passion for robotics and computer science. She also was aware of the lack of access and opportunities other students, particularly girls and those in underrepresented communities, had to STEM courses in Miami-Dade County. She wanted to give back and through a service project for a Girl Scout award (Silver and Gold), she started AfroTechie, an organization that teaches coding at summer camps and after-school programs.

Six years later, AfroTechie has expanded to include webinars, free resources, and more.

“My goal is to democratize access to STEM regardless of race, creed, and economic background, and make sure more people gain that exposure to STEM,” said Hall, who is now 19.

The MAST Academy graduate recently hosted webinars for the Girl Scouts of the USA about digital leadership and how to use the internet safely and meaningfully. She is also seeking 501C3 status for AfroTechie while she works towards a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Science at Spelman College in Atlanta.

We caught up with her recently while she interns in Seattle with Microsoft Explorer to learn more about her experience inspiring young students in technology and to ask her for her views on how to increase access to STEM education. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

As you know, there have been many efforts to accelerate STEM skills, particularly in lower-income and minority communities. Do you think that they’re really beginning to make an impact?

I believe that more needs to be done on a larger scale. I have worked with amazing organizations such as BotsForAll and Code Fever Miami that have done a lot of the work to bring in these programs to low-income, minority communities in Miami. But there’s still a gap because there’s still students who don’t have access to STEM, whether it’s in high school, middle school, elementary school. I do think that there’s been improvements made but of course there’s still more work to be done in bringing in more after-school programs, more in-school programs. It just seems that despite the efforts being made, there’s still this gap that exists.

What have you found to be the recipe for successful STEM efforts in a community?

It really is accountability, making sure that we hold ourselves accountable and that we are still committed to change. A lot of times when we work in these communities, they’re very excited to have these programs, but it’s sometimes just the lack of consistency. When we were there in Coconut Grove working out of the library, there were a lot of students who were excited about the programs and loved having this kind of stuff and we made some real-world impact but I am unsure if there’s been a [similar] program hosted at the library since. We have these programs and we see these results, but we’re not consistent in making sure we keep that engagement going in these communities.

What doesn’t work is a sort of one-size-fits-all type of program. Like going into each program that I host, whether it’s in Overtown or in Coconut Grove, or elsewhere, the learnings I may have gained in one city may not work in another. We always have to be adapting and making sure that in each community we address their differing needs, but still keep our content and our goals consistent.

What do you think has worked best in what you’ve done so far in your work?

For me, it’s always about relating to the kids. The way that we connect to children is not just by teaching them stuff but also finding out what interests them and bringing in those interests. What I found when I was doing my program at the library is that the kids were very interested in BattleBots, which is a TV show where robots compete against one another head to head, it’s kind of almost like an action-packed superhero movie where you see two bots fighting each other — and the kids really, really love that. So we decided that at the end of our program that we would host a robotics competition. But it had that head-to-head component where teams were competing against one another and that there were tasks that they needed to do and it was part of the driving motivator for the students to build a robot, program it well, and then practice because they had to compete. It is just finding those things that the kids love to do and bring it into the program — that is what works every time when we’re hosting a program.

Looking at the bigger picture from a community perspective, what do you think we need to be doing more of to build a diverse tech workforce in the Miami area?

That’s a really good question. I know Mayor [Francis] Suarez is trying to bring in all these tech companies and initiatives to Miami, and it’s working. I think a big component that should be added is to have these tech companies have some sort of program with a school because I think that creates a talent pipeline.

The big issue with STEM as a whole is that there is this increased demand for STEM workers but there is no labor force to back up the need for the workers. So in order to bring in more people to work in STEM and also diversify the talent pool, I think these tech companies that are being lured over to Miami should have a program to work with, either through the county or a specific school, to help introduce STEM concepts that can be baked into applications so that the students can succeed in the tech world in Miami or elsewhere.

How do you think Miami is doing so far in bringing in tech and building an inclusive diverse tech workforce?

I think that the recruitment aspect is there but I feel like we may be limiting ourselves to just cryptocurrency. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but I feel that there are other aspects of tech outside of cryptocurrency that we should be looking into.

In addition to that, I feel that as we are recruiting tech into Miami, we’re not necessarily keeping the people already in Miami here and that’s what makes Miami so diverse. We have a strong Hispanic Latin population, a strong Haitian population, we have these different populations from the Caribbean, Latin America, and elsewhere, but we’re not really doing much to keep them and bring them into this new tech world.

I think that if we’re going to recruit more tech, which is what’s happening, we have to make sure that we create programs to keep local residents here instead of having people come from elsewhere to fill all these tech job needs in Miami.

What can organizations and government do to ensure that local residents get a fair shot at these jobs?

I think a great untapped resource is the Miami Dade College system. It’s so expansive with many different resources. For instance, I was able to do an animation camp at a reduced cost. I think using the Miami Dade College system — which with all its campuses already gets close to communities of color and low-income communities and just communities in general — we can do more outreach to these communities and host more programs and bring these people to Miami Dade College because it has so much to offer. It’s a great pipeline from high schools or middle schools or elementary schools to teach in Miami or elsewhere.

What keeps you going?

I’ve always lived by the motto “Reach Back As You Climb” and so as I am gaining skills, whether it’s here at Microsoft or at school, I always feel a sense of satisfaction being able to give back with the skills that I’ve learned to those who don’t have the means, whether it’s going to college and winning these internships or just in general.

What keeps me going is seeing the change that I can make by democratizing access to this information, to tools, to resources.

And our last question is: What’s next for AfroTechie — and for you?

A big goal for me is bringing what I’m doing in Miami to Atlanta because I’m going to be in Atlanta for the rest of my college education. In addition to that, making sure I get the registered nonprofit status so I’m able to get more resources to continue the work that I’m doing. Everything I’ve done so far has been out of my own pocket but of course, I want to make it bigger and I need more help. So those are two big next steps for AfroTechie.

For me, my end goal with my degree is to work in an industry in tech that combines the arts, computer science, and activism and whether that leads me to Microsoft or elsewhere, that’s always been the goal. And then along the way, I may pick up a master’s degree.

For more information about the programs and more visit https://www.afrotechie.org/

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