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Diversifying Nearly All-White Aviation Field Is Goal Of Chicago Group

By Andrea V. Watson | February 7, 2017 6:08am | Updated on February 10, 2017 11:31am
 Zarria Baily (left), 17, and Candice Smith, Director Global Engineering & External Technical Affiliations at Boeing,
Zarria Baily (left), 17, and Candice Smith, Director Global Engineering & External Technical Affiliations at Boeing,
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Tony Smith

CHATHAM — Between 90-95 percent of people working in aviation in the United States are white men, which doesn’t leave room for much diversity, an aviation diversity advocate said.

“We’re not even talking about other breakdowns,” said Tammera Holmes, the founder of AeroStar.

The afterschool academic program was created in 2008 to create awareness of aviation and aeronautical career opportunities. While the group works with all students, it mainly focuses on women, minorities and at-risk students.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, African-Americans made up just 2.6 percent of aircraft pilots and flight engineers in 2015. Some 12 percent of flight attendants were black. There were no air traffic controllers or airfield operations specialists.

AeroStar founder and CEO Tammera Holmes [Provided/Tony Smith]

The Boeing Company recently awarded Bronzeville-based AeroStar with a $50,000 grant so it can expand beyond working with high school students. The organization is accepting applications for its five-week afterschool program, which serves students from kindergarten through high school.

Classes begin Saturday at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. King Drive. Students will visit local airports and learn to fly flight simulators, mini drones and remote-controlled helicopters. Scholarships are available. Call 312-883-6383 or email aai@avioninstitute.org to register.

White men hold the majority of jobs in the aviation industry. Jobs in that field consist of government positions, pilots, flight attendants, traffic control and aircraft maintenance, Holmes said.

“If your father and grandfather are pilots or air traffic control, you go right into the career, but we have been systematically left out and hidden from these careers for generations,” she said.

Holmes holds a bachelor's degree in aviation management from Southern Illinois University. She began her professional career with Landrum & Brown, a national aviation consulting firm. Some of the roles she has worked include facilities and operations analyst and an environmental consultant, providing planning services for large and small airports.  

One of the missions of her organization is to expose students to the career early.

“We are getting kids prepared for careers,” Holmes said.

The students learn about the history of aviation and notable contributions from local aviation legends and how to fly kites, drones and remote-control helicopters. They also receive career counseling, meet with aerospace professionals and ride in planes.

Holmes said she’s doing her part to raise those numbers with AeroStar, and it begins with piquing their interest while they’re young.

To kick off Black History Month, she hosted a private screening of “Hidden Figures” — which tells the story of a group of pioneering black women who worked for NASA — for 140 students and invited several accomplished aerospace professionals to participate in a panel last week at Studio Movie Grill, 210 W. 87th St.

Panelists included Ginger S. Evans, Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner; Candice Smith, Director Global Engineering & External Technical Affiliations at Boeing; Marc Nunn, project manager for Boeing’s program management integration strategy; and Cyrus Bracey and Aerielle Karr, engineers with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Candice Smith, Director Global Engineering & External Technical Affiliations at Boeing, speaks to students about her career. [Photo by Tony Smith]

Everyone except for Evans identified as African-American. After the screening, they shared what sparked their interest in the science, technology, engineering and math field, as well as the struggles they have experienced.

Smith, an Englewood native, said when she was in high school she didn’t enjoy math and science. She had plans to join the Air Force after graduation to leave Chicago, but a teacher encouraged her to go into engineering, Smith said.

While in college she met people who didn’t believe in her, she said.

“My only female professor told me that I would never be an electrical engineer,” Smith said. “So take that as a lesson. You don't need anyone's permission to be great."

Students received advice and encouragement from other panelists.

“When you decide to go to college you need to develop relationships with professionals, especially in the fields you want to go in,” Karr said. In "Hidden Figures" "the women were advocates to each other. Your friends and peers are your biggest advocate so surround yourself by positive people.”

Nunn pointed out a scene in the movie where Taraji P. Henson’s character, Katherine Johnson, had to run more than a half a mile to use the “colored restroom” every day.

“Imagine the strength she had to have do that,” Nunn said, who was the first in his family to graduate with degrees in both math and engineering. “There is greatness is all of us. You are still writing your story and I can't wait to read it.”

“Discrimination is all around us so you can’t allow that experience to de-motivate you, that's the wrong thing. You have to let those experiences motivate you,” Nunn said.

Bracey attended Chicago Vocational High School and told the students to not let their backgrounds destroy their belief in themselves.

“I’m a product of [Chicago Public Schools] so it's possible, you can definitely do it,” he said. “Always gravitate toward the positive because there will be a lot of negative around you.”

Zarria Bailey, 17, of Englewood said she's interested in mechanical engineering and later creating a business that will help people of color get jobs in STEM. Bailey said she enjoyed the film and said it made her cry.

"I loved it," she said. "I know it’s still hard being a female in that field and I know a lot of males don’t accept females."

One question she had for the panel was how should she handle navigating the field as a minority woman.

"They told me to keep going and that nobody else's opinion matters," she said.

Holmes said she wanted the students to hear from the panelists in hopes that it would make them interested in pursuing an aviation or aeronautical career. There are more jobs than just being a pilot or flight attendant, and there are always jobs in this industry, she said.

“I hope we helped them understand that they have tools and resources in the community that look like them and come from where they come from,” Holmes said.