Diversity in Tech
May 26, 2021

Native American, Chicano, and Hispanic Leaders in Tech You Should Know


Nadja Sayej

One organization is doing the work to make sure Native, Indigenous and Chicno People in STEM Are Visible

Something is missing from the conversation about diversity in tech - Native American, Hispanic and Chicano figures. Their contributions, innovation and voices are too often unheard, unknown and unaccounted for. That’s why organizations that create space for visibility and representation within these communities are especially vital to the future of technology. 

The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science or SACNAS, was first founded in 1973. SACNAS is an organization that helps marginalized people enter STEM careers

How it Began

SACNAS was founded in 1973 by a group of Chicano and Native American scientists invited to Albuquerque by Dr. Alonzo Atencio, a biochemistry professor at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Atencio was known to students as the “Godfather of Minority Medical Education,” constantly working to help the marginalized.

Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a molecular biologist who attended the first 1973 meeting of SACNAS, recalls a kinship with the others. “I felt I had found a group that understood where I came from and understood my dreams,” she said. “It was truly life-changing.”

Today, SACNAS is the largest multicultural STEM diversity organization in the country. Their goal is to build a critical mass of STEM leaders from underrepresented communities while increasing the number of Chicano, Hispanic, and Native American STEM leaders. It’s what SACNAS calls: “A new STEM environment where minority scientists don’t feel they have to leave their cultures at the lab door.”

Initiatives like the biography project are needed now, more than ever. According to statistics in SACNAS’ annual report, Hispanics will make up 29% of the population by 2060 (Native American statistics are harder to pin down, as the communities struggle with access to education, funding, and healthcare).

The STEM workforce isn’t keeping up. It has only 6% Hispanic and 0.2% Native Americans. But SACNAS is hoping to change that with networking, annual conferences, and training programs. They have over 8,2000 members and a community of 28,000 supporters and provide STEM professionals opportunities and resources to advance their careers.

“Many neighborhoods in America don’t have scientists, never mind minority scientists, anywhere around them as role models,” said Velez. “The situation is certainly better than before, but elite universities are not educating or producing minority Ph.D. students. Very few minorities get the opportunity.”

Making Role Models Visible

The organization launched the SACNAS Biography Project, a brilliant online archive featuring the stories of Native American, Hispanic, and Chicano leaders in STEM. It’s what the project’s founder, William Yslas Velez, calls “making role models visible.”

‍“By creating the SACNAS Biography Project, I thought that minority students could at least read about someone, like themselves, who had succeeded and lived a scientific life,” said Velez, a math professor at the University of Arizona. “This project has continued in a different direction and has grown. I am pleased about that.”

Velez created the SACNAS Biography Project in the 1990s when he was the organization’s president. It started with 20 biographies in the first few years, then grew to over 100. “I wanted to show a variety of people who had difficulty earning a Ph.D.,” he said. “Then, as now, there were so few minority scientists,” said Velez.

Nicaraguan scientist Sonia Ortega, a marine biologist, started out wanting to be a pilot in one biography. “Unfortunately, that career was only available to people in developed countries,” she writes in her online biography. Despite this fact, she found that “everything is possible when you set your mind to it. Trust yourself and follow your dreams. After all these years, my dream to become a pilot came true. It’s never too late to learn.”

In another, Scottie Henderson, who grew up in New Mexico, shares his story of growing up in a Navajo Mexican family. “Even though Española is a diverse town, Native Americans were always treated a little differently,” he writes in his biography. “Many Indians in the area didn’t finish school.” Henderson studied marine biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, then pursued a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Washington, graduating in 2001. “When people try to put you down, remember that they don’t know anything about you. You know who you are, and you are strong.”

According to Velez, many of these leaders started at less exclusive community colleges. “But that’s not the main issue,” he said. “The main issue is a lack of vision. The SACNAS biography project tries to address that. Earning a degree in science opens wonderful opportunities [for] you. The Biography Project shows how these people had wonderful opportunities open to them.”

These personal stories of overcoming difficulty are a far cry from a bland Wikipedia biography. They are first-person stories, diaristic, inspiring reads. There is also a video component on the SACNAS YouTube channel for those who want to see the interviews.

“We wanted to have a series of biographies that included Native Americans and Chicanos, a difficult word nowadays,” said Velez. “Being Hispanic in this country is a complicated issue. It used to be Mexican Americans, now it’s Puerto Ricans, Cubans and with many people coming from Latin America, being Hispanic now is many different cultures. SACNAS addresses the under-representation of all of these populations, plus Native Americans.”

What SACNAS has Planned for the future

While everything is virtual for the foreseeable future, one of the highlights from SACNAS, says Velez, is attending their annual conference.

“It’s a motivating and beautiful experience, it’s a celebration,” said Velez. “Most scientific conferences are dull, but if you attend a SACNAS one, it’s amazing. They’ve helped generations of students.”

On every level, any act of help to usher others along help provide progress. “There is an increase in the number of minority scientists,” said Velez. “We’ve lacked a presence in the past. There is no question SACNAS has had an impact. The task to get us into mainstream scientific society.”

Velez says that SACNAS has helped impact, other groups, like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, founded in 1977 to help strengthen the STEM workforce, with 18 chapters in the US and Canada.

“The Native American communities have struggled much more than the Hispanic communities,” said Velez. “Living on a reservation makes it difficult to get a good education.”

Currently, Velez is part of The Math Alliance, a nonprofit with a network of over 1,000 mentors from 350 colleges and universities. The goal is to build community and help find mentors for minority students to get into schools.

“We’re working hard to get students into graduate school in mathematical sciences,” said Velez. “We are getting 70 or 80 minority students into graduate schools every year.”

Most recently, he helped a young scientist get into Harvard University. She wrote him a thank you email recently, which read: “I want to thank you for everything that you have done for me. Writing the acknowledgments section of my dissertation, I found that you were the most fundamental source of support in my academic career. You helped me take the first step to join a graduate program.”

A diverse scientific workforce is essential if we seek to address the technological challenges we face in the world.

To Velez, making STEM dreams come true is something the group is fighting for. “Our aim at alliance is to help promising juniors apply to grad school,” he said. “We work with graduate mentors from across the country, so they have opportunities to network with folks at grad programs.”

At SACNAS, one of its members, mentor Dr. Mary Jo Ondrechen, a chemistry and biology professor at Northeastern University, a member of the Mohawk Nation, was awarded the National Science Foundation grant to study the Novel Coronavirus.

SACNAS’ Past President Dr. Sonia I. Zárate, is thrilled about this kind of progress. “We thank the National Science Foundation for recognizing that a diverse scientific workforce is essential if we are to address the scientific challenges we face as a nation,” said Zárate. “We believe that funding should be reflective of the diverse needs of our country.”


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