A girl designs a maze at the 6th Annual TAF Expo. • Courtesy Photo
A girl designs a maze at the 6th Annual TAF Expo. • Courtesy Photo

As an African-American woman, Trish Dziko very quickly realized she was something of a rarity upon entering the United States technology industry in 1979. And despite her best efforts to engender diversity from the inside, things were no different once she left the industry in 1996.

“I had spent 15 years as a programmer, and what I noticed was that, still, we didn’t see many people of color in the arena,” she says.

Dziko worked in a “number of companies” over the course of her career in the field—her last stint being at Microsoft. She held four different jobs over the course of her time at the company. Her final year at Microsoft took her to its “diversity department,” where it became increasingly clear that the root of the problem was not something that an internal department could necessarily tackle.

“The thing I kept hearing was that the pipeline is not full of enough people of color, so I wanted to take that excuse away by filling the pipeline,” Dziko explains. “So that’s when I decided to leave.”

That very same year, along with her spouse, Jill Dziko, Trish founded the Technology Access Foundation (TAF): a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the problems that prevent people of color from pursuing and entering careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Jill recognized the very same problems facing people of color, but encountered them from the other end of the pipeline.

“We weren’t married at the time, but she is a social worker, and one of the parts of her job was to work with kids in the classrooms in Seattle public schools,” Dziko says. “And those classrooms were filled with African-American boys. And they would sit there all day while the teachers would basically do nothing; they weren’t educating them. So she saw a problem there. I saw a problem on the other end. And here you had these perfectly bright kids that may have some challenges at home and are acting out, nobody really paying attention to them and taking care of them.”

According to Dziko, the problem facing children of color is a complex, systemic one that begins with the country’s history of entrenched racism that persists to some degree today. This manifests itself in many ways—some subtle, some overt—that work to discourage children of color from even believing that a STEM career is a real possibility for them.

“It’s not one thing,” Dziko says. “It’s not a malicious thing. It’s just a bunch of little micro-aggressions from the time they start school.”

Dziko also points to an educational system that is not culturally competent and educational materials that do not represent people of color.

“When they’re kids and they’re in the K-12 system, the system doesn’t have a belief in their abilities,” Dziko says. “The context that they learn or the materials that are used are not culturally represented, and so … for African-American kids, there’s almost immediately [thinking], ‘I don’t see myself in any of the educational material, and chances are I have a teacher who can’t relate to me, who has no cultural background related to me, and may or may not have assumptions about what I can do.’”

TAF first began to address these issues by hosting after-school programs, which ultimately did not provide the scope of change that Dziko aspired for. The after-school program later transitioned to working directly with existing schools to change the way they approached STEM subjects. In 2008, TAF launched its very own, full-time STEM school for 6th graders through 12th graders called the TAF Academy.

And last summer, TAF launched the STEMbyTAF Teacher Institute. The institute is a mechanism for public school educators to learn techniques used at TAF. Dziko describes STEMbyTAF as “a place where public-school teachers and principals can come and learn about how we teach, how we do professional development, how we implement interdisciplinary, project-based learning and, most importantly, how we understand what it takes to educate every kid in the school.”

Currently, TAF Academy services some 300 students.

“It’s the only school of its type in our state where it’s co-managed by a nonprofit and a school district,” Dziko says. “And what we set out to do is to prove that you can have a neighborhood school that has high expectations and a lot of rigor in the work, and you can take kids from that neighborhood and you can get them to meet the rigor, and you can get them to meet the expectation. So, we’ve done that for six years now, and we’re starting to take the best practices from that work, and we’re working with existing public schools who want to transform themselves into a school like ours.”

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