Crystal Morton became a math educator because she had great math teachers as a student. But after entering the classroom as a high school teacher in North Carolina, she realized her experience made her the exception, not the norm. “A lot of Black girls were in my slower-paced class who should have been in the honors class. When I would inquire why they hadn’t been accelerated, it was so often about ‘her attitude’ or White teachers saying ‘I can’t teach her.’”
Morton detected that this wasn’t due to a deficiency in the students, but a failure on the part of educators to see those students as full human beings and allow them to be their full selves. She witnessed students being pressured to conform to the norms that didn’t align with their identity, desires, or spirits.
As Morton describes it, she “ran from teaching” into computer science for a brief period, then stepped back into the fray and got her Ph.D. in Education. “No one ever talks about teaching as a STEM career. I can’t even call it a gap because it’s too big for that. But education is a science. And if we want to eliminate diversity disparities in all STEM fields, it starts with more diverse teachers who are actually happy and excited to be teachers and who believe in the brilliance of all learners.”
Dr. Morton explains that diverse educators are essential because they help more diverse students feel welcomed and represented in class. “I lived through that reality as a teacher, and then in graduate school. I got to put data and numbers behind the working systemic racism in K-12 educational spaces.” In her current role as Associate Professor of Math Education and Coordinator of Urban Education Studies Ph.D. Program at IUPUI, Morton has been ecstatic to be surrounded by a diverse community of educators. “IUPUI School of Education is the place to be,” she says plainly. “Here, I have been able to grow as a scholar who researches the teaching and learning of Black girls without having to justify my research focus. That support, in turn, helps me stay strong against outside critics.”
Overall, she says the experience of Black students in the K-12 space, or even college, hasn’t changed much. “I still have the same conversations with parents and students now that I did in 2001-2004. There are times at all levels of education that students of color, or female students, are downright dehumanized for failing to conform to the expectations rooted in systemic bias and racism. It’s heartbreaking. Sure, there are more add-on supports available,” she allows. “But what isn’t happening is the necessary change in the atmosphere and environment itself.”
Like many strong women, Crystal resolved to create her own space when the traditional environment was not welcoming to her or the students she wanted to serve. Founding the Girls STEM Institute, she designed a program for young women of color “to have an opportunity to engage in STEM that also fully focused on and encouraged their specific wellness and well-being, whatever that means for them.” In seeking to promote this program and engage young women, she applied to be a presenter at Ignite Your Superpower, and so found her way to Women & Hi Tech. She has since exhibited at the event three times. “It’s an incredible experience to connect with young women who are excited to be in that space, and to have an opportunity to connect with other women who have a passion for serving girls and young women.” She also connected with the Women & Hi Tech Board, and was invited to judge the organizations 20th Anniversary scholarships in 2019 and the 2020 Leading Light Awards scholarships and grants.
“The first time I judged, I was taken back by the lack of diversity in the applicant pool,” Morton said. She shared that feedback with leadership of the organization around the same time that Women & Hi Tech made a stronger commitment to diversity in its mission and actions. “What impressed me judging again only a year later was the immense shift in the diversity of nominees. That doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes intention, and action, and showed me that Women & Hi Tech was living its commitment to diversity and equity, rather than just virtue signaling with words.”
When considering joining the Board of Directors in the role of K-12 Outreach, Crystal weighed her jam-packed schedule against the opportunity. “After speaking on the Special Edition EWF’s Diversity panel in February, I knew the organization was in line not just with my values, but with my feeling that we have done enough talking about inequities. It’s time for action.” Being unanimously voted onto the Board of an organization traditionally focused on hard STEM fields also signaled to her that Women & Hi Tech was headed in a direction she wanted to join. “Though I’m a math teacher, I have often been devalued by other STEM professionals due to the education element. So being invited was encouraging because I know the STEM lens I bring to the table is important, and it showed they know that, too.”
Crystal says this is especially true when it comes to the accelerating conversation around the STEM talent pipeline. “Pipeline to what?” she asks. “Is it really helping anything to encourage young women, or students of color, to love STEM, only to leave them to be eaten alive in a classroom setting? Or in their first job?”
Morton asserts that the professionals at the front of the classroom are either disrupting systems of bias and racism or allowing them to be perpetuated. “Until we deal with those deep issues, inequity is going to be the reality. We have to deal with issues of inequities in our K-12 schools. “For example, if by 5th grade, you have labeled a young Black girl as not being capable of excelling in STEM subjects, what impact will that have on her STEM trajectory? How do her K-12 learning experiences support or hinder her progress to becoming a major decision-maker around the corporate table? Additionally, what message is sent to White students when their humanity is valued and protected, and they witness Black learners and other learners of Color being treated in dehumanizing ways?”
These are some of the realities that must be shifted to create lasting change. Additionally, it is important for White allies (males and females) to do the work with other White people and not burden diverse people, including women of Color, with this additional responsibility.
Crystal says the most encouraging part of her involvement in Women & Hi Tech is how the organization motivates each member toward the action they are capable of, today, to create a more inclusive STEM landscape. Crystal looks forward to helping Women & Hi Tech advance its mission of changing the landscape of women represented in STEM to be equally inclusive to all by engaging girls and young women, including those historically marginalized in STEM fields, to step into power and their rightful seats at the decision-making table.