By Kathy Chouteau and Mike Aldax
The movie Hidden Figures, which Martin Leung first watched in his seventh-grade history class, played a significant role in how the Middle College High senior envisions his future. The film recounting the true story of three Black female mathematicians at NASA shined a light both on the achievements of the pioneering women who helped win the Space Race, and also on the discrimination through which they persevered in the STEM fields amid segregation.
Leung said the Oscar-winning movie inspired him to pursue a career in STEM, and more importantly, to “have the confidence to step outside of my comfort zone.” The inspiration carried over into high school, where Leung participated in a design competition to create an autonomous robot that could carry groceries to vulnerable people during the pandemic.
He tested the robot at the food pantry of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church, a predominantly Black church in Richmond where he had been volunteering since before the pandemic. After ample testing at the food pantry site, the robot qualified for regionals of the MESA competition. Moreover, Leung designed a new drive-thru system for food distributions that enabled recipients to remain in their cars, minimizing physical contact with volunteers.
“Every month the number of recipients grew, collectively increasing from 100 to 400 people that needed food from the pantry,” Leung said.
That Leung credits his achievements to a movie he watched in seventh grade about three inspirational Black mathematicians begs the question: When introduced to the many “Hidden Figures” in our history, how many other young, underrepresented youth have been inspired to pursue STEM careers?
On Tuesday, Feb. 28, Leung was among four students honored for earning college scholarships as part of the Chevron Black Employee Network’s (BEN) annual Dr. William F. King Scholarship Program. The students were celebrated at the Chevron Richmond BEN Black History Awareness Celebration, held annually to celebrate the achievements of African Americans, both historically and today, and to embolden the futures of college-bound local students. This year’s event was held at the Richmond Technology Center, where students were introduced to current “hidden figures” within the STEM fields.
Leung was honored as the first-place winner of the William F. King Scholarship Program, followed by Thuy-Lyz Dinh in second place; Renzel Tansiatco in third place; and Fatoumata Cisse in fourth place. For the first time in the scholarship program’s 15-year history, all winners this year are seniors at Middle College High, which operates out of Contra Costa College.
Since 2004, the Chevron BEN has awarded over 40 scholarships to high school students from the WCCUSD. The scholarships are provided in honor of Dr. William F. King, an African American chemical engineer and community activist who retired from Chevron in 2003 following an accomplished career in which he was responsible for over 40 patents. King also left behind a legacy of mentoring and recruiting Black employees and youth in the community.
King, who congratulated students at the celebration via video-conferencing, is among countless unsung African Americans who excelled in STEM fields amid great obstacles for people of color. Speakers at this year’s event included African Americans who are adding to that legacy, such as Nate Greer, a senior architectural structural designer and BEN Cultural Awareness Chairperson; Jim Hollis, social entrepreneur and founder of The Calculus Roundtable, who served as the keynote speaker; and Lucia Watson, longtime Chevron employee who serves as Manager, Operational Excellence Assurance at the Richmond Refinery and as the BEN Scholarship Chair.
Watson, who earned a Biology degree from Cal State Hayward, said she was unable to go away to college like many of her friends. But she said she capitalized on experiences close to home. Today, Watson is celebrating 35 years with Chevron and, much like Dr. King, has gained a reputation for being active in the community, inspiring young people to dream big.
“This is your beginning, this is your start,” Watson told scholarship recipients at the BEN celebration. “This is where you go from here.”
Hollis, the founder and executive director of the Calculus Roundtable, a rapidly growing nonprofit that provides alternative pathways to higher level math skills for children of color, can count his parents and grandparents as hidden figures who inspired him. Growing up, he said he “had a college going culture” around him.
“My grandparents had gone to graduate school. My parents had gone to graduate school. I knew that that was something I was supposed to do,” Hollis said. “So that stayed with me.”
In that vein, the annual Chevron Richmond BEN Black History Awareness celebration aims to show young people in the local community that they belong, and are needed, in universities, science labs, executive offices and political office, not just because they have what it takes, but also because they offer diversity which emboldens progress.
The celebration additionally serves to promote and increase diversity within Chevron. At the celebration, Watson encouraged her colleagues to share what they learned with their colleagues. She also encouraged them to join the BEN’s efforts at Chevron and in the local community, not just during Black History Month, but year-round.
“If you feel a calling to want to hear what’s going on and what we’re all about, please join the meeting,” Watson said, adding, “You can bring something to the table.”