Celebrating Black Futures: Highlights from our latest Career Conversations Event

On Thursday, February 1st, we kicked off Black History Month with our biggest Career Conversations events to date, Career Conversations: Black Futures. Career Conversations is a career talk series that intentionally uplifts the voices of the communities we represent. It was created by Tong Zhang, Oregon MESA’s previous Executive Director, back in October 2022 in partnership with Valentina London, Outreach & Engagement Coordinator at Oregon MESA. Since then, Oregon MESA has held Career Conversations for Latina/o/e & Hispanic Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, AAPI Heritage Month, and now, Black History Month. We intentionally titled this event “Black Futures” because, even though looking back on history is important, the focus of February is often only on the past. We intentionally wanted to highlight the bright future we very much envision for our Black youth.

This event took place in person, at Genentech’s Portland office, which is located on the 13th floor of The Lloyd Tower with a stunning view of the city and the surrounding mountains Wy’East (Mt. Hood) and Loowit (Mt.St. Helens). Attendees arrived just as the sun was beginning to set at around 5:15pm. A total of 38 attendees participated, amongst them esteemed guests Ms. Renee Anderson, Oregon MESA’s founding director, and Ms. Donna Hammond, the current Interim Executive Director of Oregon Tradeswomen.

We started the event by sharing refreshments and pizza from Atlas Pizza, a local Black-owned business here in Portland, networking and mingling, and even dancing the electric slide, led by Jonas Hudnall, our own Education Coordinator and MC for the night. Dinner and mingling was followed by our Black Futures Panel, which was made up of Sasheen Turner (Account Executive at AKQA and founder of Sasheen’s Vault), Chris Williams (Adult Programs Manager at Bird Alliance of Oregon), and Mike Wilson (Senior Instructor and Creator of @Mike.Likes.Science), facilitated by Jonas. Each guest speaker shared a bit about their background and career path, specifically touching on the impact that mentorship and representation has had on each of their lives. 

The Black Futures Panel

Sasheen shared that through the work she does in advertising and marketing at AKQA, she has been able to advocate for herself and create her own business, setting standards high and excelling because she believed in herself and her talent. She currently has a collaboration with Kate’s Ice Cream, where you can go into the brick and mortar location and see her art displayed on the walls, as well as enter her Sweetstakes to win a painting!

Chris delved into what it is like for a Black man in environmental education and conservation (working as a Park Ranger for NPS and for various Bird Alliance organizations throughout the US), and constantly being tokenized, even though the outdoors have long been unwelcoming for Black folks. The backbone of Chris’s support came from his mother, who never let Chris give up or quit once he started a hobby or an activity, as Chris described it: “once I committed to something, I was in it.” Now, Chris works for Bird Alliance of Oregon, leading adult programs, sharing his love for birds and the natural world with the community here in Portland.

Finally, Mike shared his inspiring story of following one path, leaving it, and against all odds blazing his own path for himself. He felt a lack of inspiration and determination when he first started college, he decided to change paths completely, working at different science museums, and eventually, enrolling in courses to earn his degree in Computer Science–eventually being asked to become a Senior Instructor to teach these courses himself. Mike heard Jay-Z say “you should rap about what you know,” which inspired him to start his own YouTube channel, Mike.Likes.Science, where he uploads original educational raps about STEM, ranging from coding, space, and different math formulas. His channel now has amassed 36.1K subscribers, and he continues to follow this passion as well as teach at PSU.

The Q&A Session

Jonas asked each of the panelists questions about their feelings towards buzzwords like “DEI”, “JEDI”, “DEIB” being thrown around in the workplace without any actual actions taking place, which opened up a great discussion about how important it is to not just say the words, but actually embody them. This led to a Q&A discussion where the panel answered questions from the audience, ranging from “how do you respond/bring attention to micro-aggressions in the workplace?” to “if you could go back 10 years, what would you do differently?” and “do you ever feel like you have to code-switch the way you talk [Ebonics/AAVE as opposed to talking “professionally”] in different contexts?” 

Grateful for You

This event would not have been possible without the generous sponsorship of Genentech, in particular Jenn Klotz and Quentin Wilson, who ensured the use of the Genentech space for our event, and intentionally planned it with us, for the Black community here in Portland. Special thanks to Zoe Erickson, who leads the SPARK Program at the Maseeh College of Science & Engineering, for helping us recruit speakers and attendees for this event. Special thanks to Nick Poindexter as well, who is the Senior Director at The Script, for helping us recruit speakers and a fantastic photographer Shawnte Sims of SimsShot Photography to capture this event.Check out the full gallery here!