This episode is the final part of the Culture Fit project that Carol recorded with her son-in-law Peter Cruz. In this episode, Carol, her cohost Peter Cruz, and their guest Dr. Gia Grier McGinnis discuss:
Dr. Gia Grier McGinnis is a senior leader with over 17 years of broad-ranging experience in program management, advocacy, and community outreach. She has a passion for public engagement in STEM, and currently serves as the Executive Director of the UMB CURE Scholars Program, a groundbreaking healthcare and STEM pipeline program for West Baltimore youth. Dr. Grier McGinnis is a Baltimore, Maryland native where she still resides with her family. She enjoys exploring urban green spaces and volunteering to promote mental health awareness.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Dr. Gia Grier McGinnis. This is the last of the series of interviews I did in collaboration with my son-in-law Peter Cruz as part of our culture fit podcast project.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Gia, Peter and I talk about the challenges young people of color face in seeing themselves in STEM fields given how historically – and currently – white male dominated the fields tend to be, how she found role models and mentors and has played that role for other, and how she sees the impacts of health disparities play out front and center in the work she does and how the news of police brutality impacts her students.
It has taken me a little while to get all these interviews for the culture fit project out so our conversation is from last year so some of the events we reference in terms of where we were in the pandemic reflect that.
Before we jump into the conversation I want to let you know about a new thing that I am doing. I am hosting the Nonprofit Leadership Roundtable every couple months. During the Roundtable, you get to talk with your peers, share an opportunity or challenge you are having at work and get some peer coaching on the topic. The Roundtable is free and I host it on Zoom. The next one will be Thursday April 28, 2022. You can register on the Eventbrite site. We will post a link from the mission impact website. It would be great to see you there.
Peter Cruz: Welcome to Culture Fit, the podcast where we do our best to answer your diversity, equity, and inclusion questions that will help you navigate the professional landscape, especially when you are not a culture fit. I am Peter Cruz.
Carol: And I’m Carol Hamilton.
Peter: How are you doing?
Carol: I am doing well, managed to run and grab a little bite for lunch. So that was good.
Peter: Yeah. It's needed. I think the only thing that I've been snacking on are these foods that are good for health. White cheddar puffs. They're like healthy healthy Cheetos Cheeto puffs. Those are the only things like since the heart attack and stroke that I can snack on.
Carol: My favorite has been dried mango. We are now buying in bulk from Costco.
Peter: So now that we've got the snack plugs out of the way, this week we have Gia Grier McGinnis. How are you doing here?
Gia Grier McGinnis: Great.
Peter: Great. For our listeners, can you provide us some context on your professional background, who you are, where you from?
Gia: So from Baltimore city originally, I've had two overarching themes to my career. One is that like public and community engagement, the other is always with health science or the environment. And sometimes those two things have play together and sometimes I've done them separately on the. Right now, I'm the executive director of a program called CURE Scholars at the university of Maryland Baltimore system and healthcare pipeline program for west Baltimore, middle and high school youth. I'm also really into mental health advocacy right now. I'm on the board of NAMI, Maryland. And I know Carol, from my days on the Baltimore GreenMap board, which is about giving access to young people in the community to green spaces around Baltimore.
Peter: Could you speak a little bit about this? The fellowship program that you work with. Could you elaborate a little more on that?
Gia: So CURE scholars started back in 2015 and really the idea is we're trying to generate the next generation of STEM and healthcare leaders for the society to work on health disputes. We actually recruit youth at sixth grade level and we stay with those youth all the way through high school. It's a multi-year program. They're all recruited from the same three west Baltimore middle schools. Very close to the University Maryland at Baltimore's campus which is intended to be good neighbors to the west Baltimore community. And we both provide them with STEM activities year round, but we also have a social work team that helps them with social emotional support and with any barriers that the families might have anything from food insecurity to unemployment. We consider ourselves a wraparound program.
Peter: Great. And, and this is more for, I guess, exposure or would this lead into like, I guess, internships in the future?
Gia: Certainly. At the early grades, a lot of it's about exposure. They do like STEM labs and three science areas. But as they get older we partner with Youth Works, which is Baltimore city summer jobs program. We actually serve as an employment site. For their summer, they do get paid to do their STEM work with us. Once they hit high school level we also have a team that works on college career readiness. The goal is to actually walk them into competitive STEM majors on college campuses, or for those that maybe don't feel like college is for them to explore careers that may require maybe two year degrees with something more technical.
Peter: And, and for that being that STEM is, and I think we've all experienced this like as, as women or people of color. But STEM is a very white male dominated space. What are, what do you feel like are some key areas that you yourself or the program and the fellowship Tried to address and I'm like holding on for, I guess, the code switching, the amount of code switching that might, may need to be done or, or simulation at a fairly young age.
Gia: Yeah. I mean, so really what we're trying to do is, get them to see themselves as scientists. Like you are a person of color. You can be a scientist and it's amazing how many scholars will expose them to say a dentist or expose them to say a psychiatrist. I didn't know, black people could be like, like it's tough. It's like, of course, but to them, it's like, oh, okay. Right. That's a career I could have too. And it, it really actually works as a spark, like. A role model that looks like them, which is what we try to do in the program, is exposed to career professionals and they go, okay, like maybe I'll be a genius or maybe I'll be a nurse. Because I see that the other thing we started doing this year is we did a whole week last week on mental health. Trying to get them to learn about self care, trying to get them to learn about, breaking the stigmas on. Like, you can take care of yourself. You can understand that as a person of color, you're carrying a lot of stress. we had yoga sessions. We had a speaker come and talk about black male wellness. We then had a separate session for ladies. really trying to get them to understand. Yeah, stem fields will be stressful. And how do you prepare yourself? You can't change others a lot of the time, but how do you help yourself cope and how do you navigate life in general against stresses that come at you?
Peter: Yeah. Cause those are things that we're all kind of, and it'd be like don't escape those things, right. Like what have you learned from working in this, in this field and doing, like, even facilitating or coordinating these types of things, whatever you learned insofar as your own professional experience. And I mean, I could only assume having to assimilate or coats, which are under like, cause. discovering new things and new perspectives as we become more of a progressive society. Yeah. what are some like new things that are tricks of the trade, but you have even. Oh, like, I have a hot moment, like, oh, wow. I've been doing this my whole life where I probably shouldn't have.
Gia: Yeah. it was interesting. like I said, I grew up in Baltimore city and I always just had a natural interest in the environment and nature before I had a label for those things. And eventually I go off to college and it's Predominantly White Institution and in the environmental studies major, I am the only black woman in all of my classes. And I don't say it was like a bro culture. It wasn't, I mean, it wasn't, it was just, it was a small liberal arts college. it was very, everyone's very chill and Hey, white, white, white very small. And it was a huge culture shock right. Coming from Baltimore city, going to what was on the Eastern shore, Maryland. A small way. But it was like, the black community on that campus did the whole, well, white kids sitting together at the cafeteria, we sat together and stayed together socially and so very early, you learn like, all right, you need support systems. like, every once in a while you see a person of color. Be by themselves. And it's like, eventually they drift to the car. It's like, yes. Right, right. You need, you need us, we need each other. we, that was something very early. It's like, find, find your people both intellectually, but also culturally if you need to. And then as I move through life, I think the environmental fields become a little bit more diverse than they used to be. Well, all that tiny bit, like ma'am, there are more campuses that have the major and things like that. And people talk more about climate change and things like that. But yeah, I mean, when I graduated from that university, I was the only black graduate in that major. But what I noticed was right behind me was another black female. Like she declared like right, right in the class behind me and. That was great to see. Right. So if one person does it right. Okay. It's cool. If one person does it, like, okay, maybe I can do it now. And so in subsequent years, they're a little bit more people going through that program.
Peter: Do you feel like, as you reflect on that time being that you were the first and only. Is it a burden to be that type of a role model? Like, did you feel like you were a role model, even though you were in your mid, late, early?
Gia: Actually I didn’t. And I think that's, you don't really, you're not thinking about it. You're thinking about your own experience. You're not thinking about like younger classmates or and I just moved in spaces that I wanted to, like, I was very active on that campus. I was in student government. Again, like one of the few ran people and that, I just, I did whatever I wanted to. I studied abroad. I did all these things and other students were like, oh, don't, you just want to be black student union. It's like, I want to do everything like I do all the things. But no, I never really saw myself as like chili then or anything like that.
Peter: And when you shifted from guess university to then the professional landscape, like did your college experience in like defaulting and trying to find and establish support systems being that you go into the professional landscape and that it may not necessarily be the case, especially if you look a certain way.
Gia: it's interesting. , I graduated from undergrad and then I went to Washington DC for an AmeriCorps year. it did, they now call it, they call it a gap year now I don't know what to do. I'm going to do it. AmeriCorps is what I called it. And I did, I was working for an environmental health children's mental health network and there was a black female. She's now the ED, but a black female in that office. Again, a role model for me. I call her every once in a while when I'm stuck. But what happened was that the program was really keyed into environmental justice. I actually found by the environmental justice community in DC there is a great community organizer named Diamond Smith. He was really active in South African divestment,but had started this black peace and justice group in DC. So I was doing it. And by miracle work with the children's grandmother, not that work doing environmental justice work, but al doing this peace and justice work with this really incredible leader. I found it. My community of organizers and people that were really committed to inclusion and really loved it. That was a year where I was just like soaking in all sorts of social justice, overwhelmed with it. And it was that time. And I remember it was like the occupation they're all these, like, this is kinda like early two thousands and like DCU is exploding with all the anti occupation stuff. I was like, knee-deep in that. And then over here, I was knee-deep in environmental justice and health stuff. We're kids. And it was like an overload of social justice. And it was a wonderful, wonderful year. But then I was like, I want to go back to school. then I went back and That's a university culture for a couple more years.
Peter: And in that time, did you feel like the university culture had changed at all?
Gia: this time I went off to a totally different campus. University of Michigan. Big huge school. But within that, I was in the natural, natural resources school, which again, had a very small community of people of color in the environmental justice program they had there. And again, like, Here's community again, right this time, our environmental justice group that we're doing like work in Detroit and Dearborn and our mentors kind of, teaching their classes. And so again like predominantly white culture, but finding this group of people that really cared about environmental justice and, and really, thinking in and, and finding a home.
Peter: from your having a lot of experience of being one of few, what are some things that you tried to instill in the CURE fellowship or scholarship fellowship?
Gia: The scholars. And out of school time program, it's also considered a, what they call pipeline program. it's walking the youth progressively into a career field. But yeah, I mean, it's all about raising confidence, giving them platforms to lead, giving them platforms to present to others. one of the activities they do at the end of the year, say. Then called the SIM expo, where they get to present to their family and their community about a science topic they've picked and worked on in spring semester. this is like their time to like, stand up and introduce themselves like when you go to poster sessions at conferences and you could just see like the ones that maybe start out in the beginning of the year, super shy by the time they hit the expert or like, saying their names, shaking hands, eye contact. They stand up a little taller, which, again, like you need to develop that confidence to be able to navigate what's going to come next. a lot of it's about wrapping around them and saying, okay, you can do this. And you're just as smart as any other kid out here.
Carol: Yeah. And I was talking to someone this morning who described those public speaking skills and all the things you're talking about, this. It's really leadership skills.
Peter: And also for, because so far we've been talking about like from the leadership, if you have control over a certain environment, which more often than not, we do not, but if you do. Establishing an environment where these young people, cause yes, they are building up these like hard skills throughout this process, but the soft skills that they're also and needs that they're being that are being addressed are acknowledgement and recognition, which are like the most vital things to not feel excluded.
Carol: Yeah. I heard you just continue to come back to the notion of finding, finding community. As a, as a safe space and a place to, I dunno, hang out, be yourself, not worried that not, be on as a place to rejuvenate that whole importance of wellness. And how do you build those skills and practices that you can keep, keep on keeping on.
Peter: For those young people as that warm handoff like they transition and progressed through the full, through the program is what is alumni engagement? Cause I think like, being a part, when you're a college student being a part of a fraternity sorority, or a club, like you like to go back to those people when you need to do that type of thing exist or, or is in the process of being.
Gia: what's interesting with this is because the program's only five years old, our oldest scholars are juniors and we were literally building the program as we go. And we'll have our first graduates next year, which is super exciting. And we're already thinking ahead, like, okay, they're going to be first year students on college campuses. What can we be doing? How can we get some of them, the thread back and maybe do near peer mentoring with the ones coming behind them because they would be the best mentors the program has eventually as they get older. And so we're definitely starting to think about that. As we look to our first graduates,
Peter: That's exciting to make it. Like, I can't wait. Like I'm sure they are as equally as excited about the prospect of the world opening back up so that they could stop mething very large-scale
Gia: like that it's been hard, you, like the, the scholars you don't want line learning has been tough. I definitely think, yeah, next year. Looking forward to seeing them in person.
Peter: we've been talking for a minute. I only have another one question. Carol, do you happen to have any additional questions or can I ask the classic Peter question?
Carol: I guess I was just thinking that, that this year, even though I obviously, for the program for everyone, it's been a bit of a tough year. And at the same time, it puts all of those issues that you've been working on front and center in terms of disparities, in terms of health equity, or lack of equity. Even right now, as we're looking at the vaccine, roll out how that's not happening in, in an equitable way in Maryland. I was wondering how you're using what's going on right now to work with students and have conversations about it?
Gia: Absolutely. We both provide them a little bit of clear information about COVID as it's a science program. Of course let's learn about neurology. But also, some of them have had COVID. Some of the families have had COVID. I had COVID so just also sometimes, we'll get family calls that say, We have COVID and okay, well here's here resources that the university has. Like, here's how I'm, here are things you can do. And so we've definitely had it hit home for people, but also trying to use it as a teachable moment for science and stem. it is a great time for public health right now. But yeah we've also had, Things with the pandemic just affect families, economically, just unemployment. our social work team helped develop an emergency fund. we have this fun that parents can tap if they need emergency electrical assistance or help someone buy an oven the other a couple months ago. whatever we can do, and of course it was all a very quick pivot, right? we're, everything was a pivot, The pandemic hit and just all of a sudden we had all these new issues and al exacerbated issues amongst our network. And we really had to think about, okay, how do we continue to Pratt support virtually safely? getting people resources. yeah, it's been a really challenging year and then I'm looking forward to the herd immunity or the vaccine distribution pushing out.
Peter: Well, I'm about what we're first firstly, glad that you're doing well. I think the last question that we have is having experienced what you've had in the entire tidy of 2020. Also actually let me ask this question first. We, we address the pandemic, but In regards to the social unrest resurgence of black lives matter that impacted the young people that you serve and also you as a person.
Gia: Yeah. first of all, say this community was deeply impacted by. 2015, it's the protests in Baltimore that went through west Baltimore, it's almost like Freddie Gray all over again for these communities. And our scholars, they read the news. They're very up to speed on what's happening. Some of them express concerns for their own safety of traveling out in space as a person of color because they saw what was happening on the news and they're just like, should I even be going outside now? We brought in a speaker for them, so we could talk through after George , we did a social justice town hall around that, just to get them to talk about that and unpack that. But absolutely these young people are very aware about what's happening around them and their place in the world. And what does that mean for them and trying to figure that out.
Peter: Yeah. Cause it's like, it's one of those things where of course they can see the positive and then you get like, oh, I could potentially replicate that. But that's through my own, I guess, effort and like sticktoitiveness, but things like Freddie Gray, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, like those things can just happen without my knowledge. But also I could see myself with them as well. now then that transitioned, like, because you're building, we are building these habits as a society. Also your program, your. What are some things that you are looking forward to in the near future or, 2021 and beyond in regards to the program, societally, how the mental health of these young people.
Gia: Definitely looking forward to the end of the pandemic, but also through all the struggles of the pandemic, we've actually done some things that are a little innovative, like things that we never would have normally done had it not been for the pandemic. certain types of programming that we've never done before. All the things we're doing online are pretty neat. And so there's also this sense of, Do we go right back to the way we were or do we hybridize and go, actually that was pretty cool. What we did there, there and there. I also look forward to thinking more about, okay, what does crew styles look like with our curriculum post pandemic? Like, we used to have monsters. Huge events like with hundreds of people. are we still doing that? do we, do we figure out a different way to solve it or maybe we can do that, you know? I think it's actually exciting like this whole year of like, do you ever think differently? I think it has opened the door to be like, okay, maybe moving forward, we do do some things differently. it's actually pretty exciting.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, yeah, there's, we're at this intersection of like potential and like having been through so much. it's like, it's very exciting to actually like, be in the midst of history, if that makes sense. But yeah You don't want to hold up more of your time, I think. thank you so much for joining us. We truly appreciate it. And maybe we'll have you on after the graduation and see how that
Gia: oh, absolutely.
Carol: Well, thank you so much and thank you for all the work you've done.
Peter: Again, thank you to Gia. That was a great conversation and a lot of great insight on her work and her as a person and the journey that she's been on. I think some of the things that really stood out to me is the importance, like you mentioned, of community Wherever you go. It's important to have that support system and knowing that there are people who are going through the same journey as you who have the same concerns is always comforting in a very real way. When you go into professional spaces that you are truly the minority, she's another person who is one and only that it is very intimidating and scary. Kind of, for me at a younger age, I would probably avoid those spaces. Yeah, so, the importance of community and being recognized and acknowledged as a person, as a being, as, as someone who is different, because I think most spaces want to be like, oh, we're all family here. It's like, nah, we're all different. And that's okay.
Carol: Yeah. And I think when we pulled together our tagline. Podcasts and, and name. And when I was listening to that again, I'm thinking, oh God, I hope people don't think that we're kind of, advocating that people have to, be a culture fit or have to assimilate or have to take on these attributes. It's more a recognition that that's the reality. And a lot of people are navigating and Yeah. just that, that just acknowledging that reality. And how people have to manage those to survive and thrive.
Peter: It’s really like a spotlight on the struggle that we all go through. The mental gymnastics that we all have to play as someone who. Isn't part of the majority. And I think as we go and have more conversations, different people will have a couple of episodes where it's just us and talking about our experience and juggling all that. Yeah, the importance to, for stem exposure. And we're doing the importance for, I guess, The emotional and, and mental baggage that we have. Like we're exposing everyone to that. These are all very real things. And what you're going through is also just as real.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. In that support of a, of a group of folks going through it together to make it just a little bit easier.
Peter: Sure. All right. So. For us please send those over to firstname.lastname@example.org. And we will see you at, yeah, we'll see you when we see you.
Carol: Thanks for listening. Bye bye.
Peter and Carol: Bye.
Carol: Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Gia, her full bio, the transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it on your favorite social media platform and tag us. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. Until next time!
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