About six years ago, when Dejah Powell was sitting in on environmental science courses at the University of Chicago, she realized that not a lot of people in her field of study look like her.
The statistics backed up her observation—according to 2017 U.S. Census data, African-Americans represent 5 percent of those employed as environmental scientists and geologists.
When she had been signing up for classes, she thought nothing of how diversity and representation may influence her aspirations, except that she knew she had a love for the planet. That seemed like firm logic for choosing a field of study unto which she can apply her skills, abilities and knowledge to narrow in on a profession.
On the evening of Oct. 11, the Farther Foundation invited the community to take part in its annual StorySlam. This year, the Farther Foundation recognized Powell for earning the Go Farther Alumni Award.
The event, moderated by Matt Baron, provided an opportunity to celebrate and to generate proceeds to support the Oak-Park based Farther Foundation. The organization seeks to help immerse students in new experiences and cultures, as well as travel the world, interact with people of different backgrounds, learn, develop skills and engage in community service.
Featured guests at this year’s benefit included Dag Juhlin, Jamael Clark, Britt Julious, Jackie Kotarba, Nancy Baker and Powell.
Many of the storytellers shared stories of passion, pain and perseverance. Farther Foundation president David Weindling said that when scholarship recipients leave the country, they tend to have a very important and enriching experience.
Weindling said Powell was honored for her work in bringing a community garden to her elementary school, Vanderpoel in Chicago.
Powell was a 2014 recipient of a Farther Foundation scholarship. She used the funds provided to help pay for travel to Spain. Powell since has graduated from Cornell University and is currently working for the Civic Consulting Alliance, an organization that aims to develop and execute projects to leverage public-private sector collaboration in the Chicago region.
After she came to her realization that diversity was needed, Powell said she created an organization called Get Them to the Green, to help foster a love for the environment among the youth in Chicago. In its first year, Get Them to Green launched a summer camp at the University of Chicago.
Powell said she decided she wanted to make a difference in a more sustainable way and started the community garden at her school.
Weindling said one of the most rewarding aspects is seeing how many Farther Foundation students begin to giveback to their communities, whether it’s through their work or volunteer activities. He said the impact of the Farther Foundation is life-changing, but he has found that it is also a much-needed resource in the area.
“It is a niche,” he said. “There are very few places students can find scholarships for these programs.”
Last summer, the Farther Foundation awarded 41 scholarships to help support students. Weindling said this is made possible because of working relationships between the foundation and its partners.
“They are eager to partner with our organization because we have that money available to students,” he said.