It all started when Deena Pierott had a brilliant idea. After walking into the room as the only Black woman far too many times, she decided to do something about it. What began as a way to familiarize students of color—particularly Black and Latino males—with professional career paths in STEM fields has since grown into a multifaceted, national award-winning program that supports young adults from all backgrounds.
Making Things Happen
iUrban Teen has roots in southwest Washington. In 2011, Pierott organized the first iUrban Teen summit only six months after attending an executive forum in Portland as the only Black woman in a sea of white, male faces. The summit, hosted at Washington State University’s Vancouver campus, attracted over 100 youth and family members. The following year, University of Portland joined as a partner and hosted over 150 young adults at their North Portland campus. While iUrban Teen has touched over 9,000 youth and family members at their events over the years and maintains strong partnerships with tech industry leaders, Pierott shares that it wasn’t easy to make her vision come alive.
“Being a Black female founder is tough because people don’t trust you,” she explains. “They don’t think you’re capable. You’re totally underestimated.” And while being underestimated, Pierott leveraged support for high-opportunity youth in the program. In 2013, after operating for only three years, Pierott was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change in the field of Tech Inclusion for her impact as iUrban Teen’s founder and executive director.
Capacity Building in Vancouver
The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington has made a difference in iUrban Teen’s growth. The organization is a regular participant in Give More 24! Over the years, they’ve raised enough money to add a curriculum developer to their team, provide transportation to students and families, and distribute free learning materials and swag bags to youth. Hiring key staff members, including a program manager and marketing professional, has aided iUrban Teen in becoming a robust and steady force in our community. With the Focus Grant recently awarded to them, Pierott hopes to find a physical space in Vancouver that will not only serve as the iUrban Teen headquarters, but also house equipment needed to offer students top-tier STEM experiences.
Anticipating the Unexpected
Due to COVID-19, iUrban Teen pivoted to offering online content in efforts to maintain first-class, first-rate learning experiences for their students. Their unique MindStream website is a free platform allowing interested youth to take part in online courses, which range from 8-week courses in American Sign Language to single-session workshops on how to bake cookies.
Unfortunately, common obstacles in online learning also arise at iUrban Teen. Barriers include limited access to reliable internet service and a need for compatible devices. Furthermore, engaging with youth who are blind, deaf or on the autism spectrum has proved difficult during this time when learning is so reliant on audio and video technology instead of traditional learning methods. These and other obstacles are why Pierott works hard to find creative solutions that encourage experiential learning and human connection for students during a pandemic.
Community is Everything
Pierott shares that a key to iUrban Teen’s success is building trust with families. It’s largely responsible for iUrban Teen’s 82 percent retention rate. “Families come to us and they stay with us,” she says. “And they stay with us because we create this sense of community that’s authentic and they know it.” At iUrban Teen events, you’ll often see extended family like baby siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and more. Pierott believes that it truly takes a village to raise a child, and for iUrban Teen, those villages are welcome supports for students. “You honor the families by inviting them in,” states Pierott. Being accessible to students and families is a priority for Pierott. As iUrban Teen expands, she wants to maintain the sense of community that’s as familiar as sitting together in the living room.
A Dynamic Future
Pierott sees unlimited possibilities for all iUrban Teen participants. She says, “I tell our kids, our Black and Brown youth, who are always underestimated, don’t believe that hype. You can make miracles happen.” It’s the youth of iUrban Teen that drive the program’s offerings and it’s through their lens and imagination that the organization can create pathways to STEM careers and beyond. “We’re in four states, and getting ready to launch in New York, Miami, Louisiana and London,” Pierott shares. It’s a fitting way to celebrate iUrban Teen’s tenth anniversary.