How One NYC Nonprofit Commemorates Juneteenth—and Its Importance for Our Current Moment
In America, June 19 is Juneteenth, a national celebration marking the day that the last enslaved Black Americans were freed in 1865—two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Many Black communities across the nation have observed the day for generations, often with food, festivals, and pilgrimages to Galveston, Texas, where emancipation was announced to the last enslaved people. Amid nationwide protests against police racism, Juneteenth has resurfaced in the news, with many calling for the day to be made a national holiday.
Here at Visit.org, we are committed to elevating the voices of Black leaders and organizations fighting for Black liberation and racial equality. We spoke to Yvonne Thevenot, Founder and Executive Director of Visit.org partner nonprofit STEM Kids NYC, about what Juneteenth means for her and how her organization is commemorating the day.
Please note that Yvonne’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you give a short description of what your organization does, and how it impacts the Black community?
Sure. STEM Kids NYC teaches kids from pre-K age to 12th grade how to code. We teach them engineering and design. We teach them robotics. We teach them experiential science, and we teach them creative technologies. The majority of our students are from predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods. So the impact STEM Kids NYC makes in those communities is that we are teaching students who would not otherwise be exposed early to STEM skills, so that they can have a better future in being prepared to major in STEM fields, gain a profession in those STEM fields, and elevate themselves out of poverty.
Is STEM Kids NYC commemorating Juneteenth this year and if so, how?
Juneteenth is one of those known facts by many people in the Black community—a lot of historical facts that are not in history books. What I find interesting is that organizations that would not necessarily celebrate Black Lives Matter, not necessarily highlight Black History Month, are now, because of the George Floyd protests, highlighting Juneteenth. Up until this year, no one has ever heard of Juneteenth. Nor was it ever considered a holiday.
So I’ll put it this way: STEM Kids NYC provides culturally responsive teaching every single day that we teach our kids. We don’t highlight a special event on Martin Luther King Day; we don’t highlight special events on “oh, great, on this day, this is what happened.” That is not how one begins to build in critical thinking. That’s no different than us saying, “Ah, let’s talk about E = mc2” out of nowhere when we’re teaching science, when we haven’t built in the foundation of what E means, what m means, what c means, and all the other frameworks behind the theory of relativity. So no, we’re not going to just highlight Juneteenth, because what we do every day, as a teaching practice, highlights that there are diverse people of all populations—not just Black, not just Latinx—that are in STEM, that are doing great, great things. In our summer program, we are activating a framework of STEM social justice and activism. And in there, we might touch on the fact that there are injustices that are now being brought up and illuminated. But in addition to that, more women are also being highlighted in STEM fields and so on.
So it isn’t like we’re pooh-poohing on a parade. But coming from me as a Black woman who is very well steeped in my history and also the context behind the experiences that many people who look like me have experienced since slavery has occurred in the United States, I’m not going to take that one item out of context just because predominantly white corporations are now highlighting it. That is not the right thing to do, and I don’t want to commercialize it in that way because that would be dishonoring my ancestors. So we’ll do it in a very natural way, but not just because dominant-culture organizations decided to highlight it. Because that’s the same as colonialism, where we’re told of non-dominant cultures what we can study, what we should celebrate, et cetera.
How can the public get involved in your work towards Black freedom?
Since we’re in the New York and New Jersey area, and since New York City public schools have closed, we have been teaching coding online. We teach about twenty-seven classes every week, Monday through Friday, multiple classes a day, from age five through age twelve. And where people can be involved is they can simply reach out to me to say, “Hi, I want to volunteer.” I will engage with them, I will send them when our classes are, and they are happy to come online to our classes and participate by supporting our teachers in teaching kids coding. In the first part of July, we’re going to be having not only coding but engineering, science, and other electives that are steeped in STEAM components. From July through the end of August, if individuals want to contribute their time or their talent, they can reach out to me and we can set them up with a number of hours or a class they would want. If they wanted to contribute monetarily, we on our website have a “Donate” page through Classy, so if they’d like to donate money toward that cause, that helps to further our initiatives in the communities.
In addition to your organization, what other groups should people support in order to make an impact on Black freedom?
I’m not the keeper of all of that history because as an entrepreneur, I’m very well-steeped in education and maintaining the livelihood of my own company. But one other organization that people can get in touch with would be the Jim Crow Museum. I think a lot of people really need to steep themselves in historical context. It isn’t just a matter of writing out a check to Black Lives Matter if they’re going to continue on with utilizing their lives in a way that’s still surrounded with privilege. While they’re still privileged, there’s still Black people and Brown people that are being incarcerated disproportionately; there’s still Black and Brown students who are being pushed out of school because of behavior. So there’s so much more work that can be done, but the first thing is they need to read about the context of how these systems that were steeped in racism have formed. So one is the Jim Crow Museum.
Another is Repair the World, a great organization that brings in a number of different people of diverse cultures to enact different social justice issues. In New York City, there’s a number of different organizations. One of them is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. There are a number of Black and Latinx students that suffer from mental illness. Essentially, there are many education policies that are steeped in racism, which is why a disproportionate amount of Black and Latinx kids get expelled every year, because of zero tolerance policies. One child has a bad day, and then they get suspended, and disproportionately that happens to more Black boys than any other group. So, because of that, because the safe haven has basically let them down, that’s trauma. And so mental illness is a really big thing.
There’s also the New York Civil Liberties Union. That’s just kind of guaranteeing basic rights. There’s a lot of youth who are on the streets that get stopped and frisked daily. That just happened to one of my teachers, who’s a millennial, two days ago. The Open Society works with, basically, tries to instill vibrant and tolerant democracy, democratic practices, in various communities. And those are key. The Black Lives Matter movement and all of the subtopics could also be looked at. If one would just go to their website and contribute, there’s lots of resources there.
How can Visit.org’s corporate customers impact real change in a sustainable way?
I think wherever people are in the world, there’s social organizations that are there specifically to support a population that has been marginalized and pushed to the edges, particularly after they are released from prison, often on very minor charges. Not everybody is going up for grand larceny with a gun. Some people come from prison by just having marijuana in their pocket, but because they continuously keep getting in trouble, they might have increased years in prison. When they exit, then there has to be organizations that are supporting them to try to find jobs, and it’s very hard when one has a charge.
So one way that companies who might be reading this blog could help would be in the sense of hiring practices. Rather than just going into an organization and saying, “I want to help”—because it’s not sustainable. It will wear off, I know, because this is not the first protest that I have seen since I’ve been on Earth. Lynching started after slaves were freed. So Juneteenth brought on an onslaught of freed Black people being lynched, and I do mean strung up by a rope, genitals cut off, and oftentimes burned to death, sometimes alive. That was what a lynching was. And people came in droves to watch it, because of the hatred of Black people. Today we see the same thing done by many people in the police force with guns, and their reasoning is because they felt like they were in danger, when most of the people that they shoot do not have any weapon at all.
So what I think many companies need to do, instead of going into the communities to see if they can help, is to go deeper into their own human resources departments. How many women are on the board? How many women are actually hired in these, especially tech jobs? How many people of color? Where do they actually recruit? Do they go to the historically Black schools, or do they go to the local communities and really have an effort to actually hire people of various cultures? I think the changes could be made by people within their own sphere, by just making changes to the way that they hire, the way that they pay. Women, especially Black women, are the lowest paid in any profession—Latinx women as well—and then women make less than men. And these are all figures that are facts; this isn’t me just making all this up. Maintenance people go in the basement, and they really don’t have good working conditions. And especially now, they’re doing the most essential work so that companies can reopen and bring back their employees in safely.
I think that rather than have people jump onto a bandwagon that might be new—that might not even need their help, honestly—it’s more of having dialogue within their own sphere to see, “Is my community welcoming, or do we have local townspeople call the cops on Black youth who don’t look like they belong? Is my park welcoming, or are people just being mean to others who are not part of the neighborhood?” And most importantly, the companies where people can earn their living, where many, many people don’t get a chance to get the interview because the HR hiring practices only reach out to certain organizations that are still predominantly of the dominant culture. I’m not saying don’t join, don’t volunteer—those are all admirable. But many companies that I see that are large and mostly owned by dominant-culture people have issued denouncements of killings of Black men, particularly George Floyd. I think all of that is admirable, but the real work and the real proof of sincerity is going to be in changing the way that they run their companies, changing the way that people are treated. Most corporations have staff-level people, so non-C-level managers, paying the bulk of their healthcare. And they earn the least. And so it’s really just taking a look at all those practices to see, “Where can we institute equity? Where isn’t there enough equity? What does equity mean?” And let’s just be in action to change those policies immediately. Immediately.
Would you like to share any other thoughts on Juneteenth?
I want to make a point about Juneteenth because people probably won’t read the historical context. They’ll probably just see the byline, “Twitter and Square are making it a holiday,” and that’s what’s causing this flurry. I just want to be careful of that.
What really did happen was slaves in Texas weren’t told that they were free. The white slaveowners knew but didn’t tell them. So there was no way for them to know. When people from the North were on their way to travel to Texas, many of them didn’t make it to share that. They were being cut off at the pass and being killed. So there was a big delay. Texas is a large state, mind you. There were a lot more slaves in those large states doing a lot of things for free. That’s why Texas is a state of wealth now, because of the generational wealth. So when the slaves finally were told, it was June 19th, but months after everyone else had already known that they were free. What that looked like was a denial of equitable education.
The majority of textbooks come from Texas. Texans are controlling what the majority of kids in the United States read. I think that America needs to demand that the textbooks—history, science, English, all—get repurposed to have a more equitable lens. A more inclusive lens. That is really the work that must be done. That must be done to commemorate. I don’t really want a holiday. I’d rather see people at work in action, making these changes that could be sweeping, for the good of our country.
Is there anything else you’d like to discuss further or anything that you wish I’d asked you?
In America and, I’m probably willing to posit, in all parts of the globe where children are learning, the curriculum that we normally ingest and are shaped by in school generally doesn’t have non-dominant cultures. Particularly in America. And what happens is if we don’t really understand why the Pilgrims and others who came over from Europe pushed out the indigenous cultures, and America continued to push out those cultures, if it’s not explained and interrogated in classrooms, then people begin to have a fallacious thought about how America was formed, without understanding that it was all steeped in racism back then.
When Native American children were taken from their own families to be forced into what’s called the Carlisle School and then forced to speak English, their hair, which was a big part of their culture, was cut. They were not allowed to wear their Native garb and forced to wear American clothing, thus erasing their culture. Those things aren’t talked about in school.
And so what STEM Kids NYC tends to do is, in our way, insert things that have been hidden or erased in the STEM curriculum. We can insert “hidden figures” in our lessons. And it’s done on a daily basis. We also have contracts with private schools, who are predominantly white and affluent, and we have a huge contract now with a corporation where we’re teaching 111 of the employees’ children coding. And they’re predominantly white and predominantly affluent. We still provide the framework of showing those children, ages 5 through 12, different populations.
The reason for that is so that those children can see that everyone doesn’t need to look like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs that’s in technology. There are many others that look like other people that they see. So when they do have hiring practices or decisions for their business, my prayer, really, is that those children will govern themselves more equitably because they’ve been taught by teachers on my team who are of diverse cultures themselves and we introduce to them people in STEM of diverse cultures. So that impact I’m looking to have is broader than just in the Black community. That’s what we’re about.
Yvonne Thevenot, or “Miss T”, as her students affectionately call her, is a native of Springfield, Ohio. She is an educator who firmly believes that “education is a form of resistance, and that everyone is a scholar who is capable of learning.” She received her Master in Education from the University of Southern California, specializing in K-12 STEM curriculum and instruction, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Systems from the University of Dayton. Ms. Thevenot is the former Director of academic programs for Youth On The Move In The Community, where she implemented a STEM-based afterschool program and day camps. She enjoys sailing, interior decorating, and using education as an instrument to erase the cycle of poverty.
STEM Kids NYC is an organization that “bridges the gap between current school curriculum and the immediate need for schools to prepare students for STEM opportunities.” They provide free STEM education programs, mainly to students in predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods, to reduce students’ risk of becoming impoverished and make the tech industry more equitable. Get involved by signing up to volunteer or donating today.