State senator Doris Turner, D-Springfield, and Gina Lathan, president of the Route History museum and souvenir shop, 737 Cook St., have a keen interest in helping young people of color learn about the history of Springfield, as well as explore possible careers. Their interests have led to a new program administered through the Route History Institute, a nonprofit arm of the museum, called STEM UP.
STEM UP allows young adults the opportunity to learn about careers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. Many of the program participants are minorities, ranging in age from 17-24, who get to learn from business owners they might relate to because many of them are also minorities. Armed with real-life work experience and training in financial literacy, fiscal responsibility and the all-important soft skills such as proper workplace behaviors, the participants — called youth workers — advance personally and professionally in the program.
Through an application process with the Route History Institute, the participants are selected and matched with an employer in Springfield or Decatur where they work, earn money and learn about a career.
Currently, 25 people are enrolled in the program. They meet every Friday morning for professional development sessions where speakers and trainers focus on STEM careers and team-building. The STEM UP program was made possible through Turner’s role as a state senator. She was instrumental in pushing for an appropriation in the state budget that designated $500,000 for a grant program through the Illinois Department of Human Services. The grant was targeted predominantly for Black youth between the ages of 17-24, who are considered to be low income due to being unemployed or underemployed.
Turner proudly states, “I am honored to provide a path for young people of color to learn and earn a career in these fields. The next generation of STEM leaders will have a home in Springfield where they can grow and prosper.”
Lathan wrote the grant and is now the program director of STEM UP. With her work as the director of Route History, which focuses on Springfield history of African Americans, she has melded the work of the museum with the work of the program.
An event at the museum called Ignite 40, held in October 2021, focused on 40 Black-owned businesses that were burned in the Springfield Race Riot of 1908. Ignite 40 and STEM UP joined together and devised a plan to develop 30-second commercials for current Black-owned businesses in Springfield and Decatur. Six youth workers in the program are now learning about technology and videography, which are both considered STEM careers.
Lathan says, “We want to ignite 40 new businesses. The youth workers are learning about history and careers at the same time.” STEM UP is a new and unique program that advances the interest in STEM careers while working with young people to develop the necessary skills to be successful in a career. Lathan says, “The hope is that the youth workers will someday own their own businesses and stay in our city.”
Cinda Ackerman Klickna applauds efforts to help people find careers and know Springfield’s unique history.