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Meet Cherise Charleswell of Boundless Brilliance in Eagle Rock

Today we’d like to introduce you to Cherise Charleswell.

Boundless Brilliance was founded in 2017 by three female students majoring in STEM at Occidental College. The idea for Boundless Brilliance emerged when the founders read a study in Science Magazine (Bian et al., Science 355, 389–391 (2017) reporting that by age six, girls identify intelligence as a predominantly male trait. As women studying biochemistry, mathematics, and environmental biology, they observed the manifestation of these early thought patterns on a daily basis. The founders decided to address the strong need for a program that empowers young girls to embrace their brilliance and persevere in STEM fields—with the ultimate goal of realizing a future of STEM leadership as diverse as the world in which we live.

While there were other similar organizations addressing this gender gap in STEM, Boundless Brilliance has been committed to using an innovative early intervention approach.

WHAT MAKES US UNIQUE: Boundless Brilliance was founded on a simple, powerful idea: STEM is for everyone. Our mission “is to educate, empower, and engage students in order to close the gender gap in STEM fields”; and we envision a future of STEM leadership that is as diverse as the world in which we live.

We address the negative gender norms that indicate girls are not able to excel through the rigors of a STEM career. Focusing on teaching girls and boys to reject the prevailing myth of female inferiority, we strive to normalize the understanding that all sexes can be brilliant. We empower young girls, particularly those from underserved and marginalized communities, to recognize their Brilliance “choose their own paths” and to understand that they have boundless opportunities to pursue; particularly a STEM career.

The following makes Boundless Brilliance’s approach unique: (1) we increase accessibility to rigorous STEM education through our no cost school-based hands-on immersion workshops, (2) we embed empowerment messaging to inspire all students & dispel myths of female intellectual inferiority, (3) informed by research we focus on younger children for our intervention during their critical formative years, (4) we empower, support, and build community (including the launch of an alumni network) for our college interns who gain invaluable leadership experience.

While other organizations may also set out to address the gender gap in STEM fields, they do not provide the direct in-classroom link to racially & ethnically diverse female mentors in STEM that Boundless Brilliance knows is critical to challenging gender stereotypes. Representation certainly matters!

We put proof that a diverse STEM workforce is possible, directly in the classroom, in the form of our college volunteers. They ask students to describe “what a scientist looks like” and share that they are studying chemistry, biology, engineering, and so on; showing that regardless of a person’s gender, ethnicity or background, they are brilliant and capable of succeeding in STEM fields.

HOW WE GOT TO WHERE WE ARE: We got to where we are today, because we have a mission that many believe in, but are also passionate about. So, we’ve been able to leverage the time, expertise, and Brilliance of many volunteers. In fact, for our first two years of operations, Boundless Brilliance was a 100% volunteer organization.

Since the founding of our first chapter at Occidental College, Boundless Brilliance has expanded to include Azusa Pacific University, a private Christian university in the San Gabriel Valley. We are currently planning to launch on other campuses. In 3 years, we’ve grown from 15 volunteers to 75 college chapter interns and 28 unpaid staff. Interns have facilitated over 260+ workshops at 28 elementary schools, 40+ online workshops, reaching over 7,000 students. In 2019 alone, we reached 1,760 students.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Like most nonprofits, Boundless Brilliance has dealt with, and continue to face various challenges. With our desire to remain inclusive and expand into other communities, we established a Chapter and formed a partnership with a local community college; only to realize that the community college model doesn’t fit well without our programming structure. We are now conducting a Needs Assessment and Community Survey in order to better plan where we launch new chapters.

The COVID-19 pandemic has of course, presented the greatest hardship to our organization. We actually had a fundraiser planned the week that the Los Angeles County Shelter At Home directives went into effect, so we had to cancel that fundraiser.

We quickly and successfully transitioned our programming to the virtual environment and continue to provide no -cost services to schools and families; but finding funding to sustain our work has been challenging. This is certainly our struggle at the time, especially when most government and foundation giving has shifted to human services, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While securing resources for those facing great economic hardships is certainly important, I think that it is short-sighted to not consider organizations, particularly educational organizations like Boundless Brilliance. What the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed is that more than ever before, it is critical that we prioritize STEM education for students from an early age. There are children in Southern California and all over the world who are having to cope with the abrupt adjustments in their lives, the feelings of isolation, and the threat of boredom. We want to ensure that they have something to do, help to spark their imagination, and continue to plant seeds about pursuing a career in STEM. This pandemic has revealed how important a thriving STEM workforce – with specialist in medicine, health care, public health, engineering, and technology truly is. They are on the front lines working to save lives, in laboratories processing tests and trying to develop urgently needed vaccines, helping to design and oversee the production of life-saving ventilators, and have built platforms that are allowing us to remain connected, whether those platforms pertain to social media, web conferencing, entertainment or remote learning”.

In order to be prepared for the next pandemic and other global challenges, we must invest in early STEM education.

Boundless Brilliance – what should we know? What do you do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Boundless Brilliance, a 501c3 nonprofit, was founded on a simple, powerful idea: STEM is for everyone. Our mission “is to educate, empower, and engage students in order to close the gender gap in STEM fields”; and we envision a future of STEM leadership that is as diverse as the world in which we live. By focusing our efforts on the empowerment of young children, we hope to insight a paradigm shift – one in which all girls will understand that there are absolutely no limits to their brilliance.

Why Our Work Is So Critical: We view our early intervention approach of teaching girls to recognize their Brilliance and potential as a means of help to create empowered women and mitigate the Feminization of Poverty. While human services & public health agencies, and global nonprofits focus on late stage interventions, such as victim services, housing services, job readiness programs, and even micro loan programs, to combat the Feminization of Poverty (tied to lack of education and living wages), which leaves women in precarious situations: more likely to be human trafficked/commercially sexually exploited, living in poverty, or unable to leave abusive intimate partner relationships; our work focuses on the critical formative years. The period when role assignments occur. Where five years old boys are told to not cry, man-up, and to “stop acting like a girl”; and when seven years old girls are told to be “ladylike” and not try to be as competitive as the boys. Thus, we set out to empower young girls, particularly those from underserved and marginalized communities, to recognize their Brilliance; because it is critical to their quality of life across the lifespan.

Programs and Services: While many organizations focus on later-stage interventions to assist women in need, including a host of support services and training workshops, Boundless Brilliance’s approach is on early-stage interventions which challenge harmful gender norms early on, and this is necessary, as gender role assignments occur during our formative years. Scientists often refer to these as “critical” or “sensitive” periods, in which a child’s brain is the most plastic and susceptible to change. According to The Science of Early Childhood Development, as the maturing brain becomes more specialized in its wiring and circuitry, it becomes increasingly difficult to alter. We focus on planting seeds during the formative years of youth, rather than late-stage interventions that target high school students, who have likely already been “turned off” from or struggled with STEM and have thus decided not to pursue a career in the field. By teaching girls and boys to reject the prevailing myth of female inferiority early on, we strive to normalize the understanding that all sexes can be brilliant.

Our core program involves the delivery of no-cost, K-6 STEM workshops to classrooms during regular school hours, that are carried out by young women of diverse racial & ethnic backgrounds, who serve as role models to the impressionable students. We want all students to gain familiarity and grow comfortable with the idea of women in STEM, and we also want to ensure that those from marginalized communities are able to envision themselves in these roles as well. Our other programmatic activities involve community outreach and education, where we partner with other nonprofits, school districts, museums, and other organizations providing our unique hands-on STEM workshops and activities; as well as virtual programs, including our Summer Academy.

We also provide various other STEM educational resources, including our workbook: “We Are Brilliant! A STEM Workbook for Future Leaders”. This 64-page workbook is full of empowering activities and hands on science experiments you can do in your living room! This amazing workbook was written by co-founder Audrey Shawley and illustrated by a dynamic team of six Boundless Brilliance alumna. Our workbook is intended to help 3rd-5th grade students embrace their brilliance.

Our Geographic Reach: While we are based in Los Angeles County, CA, our virtual programming is accessible to those from other cities, states, & countries! We are also currently in the planning stage of expanding our physical chapters in San Diego, Seattle, WA, New York, and Boston, MA.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
In the simplest form, I view a smile on a child’s face, their enthusiasm, their raised hand or their inability to contain themselves that leads them to blurt out an answer, because this demonstrates that they are not only learning while participating in our workshops but that they are having FUN. That is ultimately our goal with an early intervention model to make STEM fun, exciting, and accessible. We want to plant the seeds of inquiry and spark an interest in STEM.

This feeling of awe and excitement from discovery and deeper understanding should be life-long.

And that is why we set out to change the view of STEM as something that is hard, boring, and leaves no room for creative thinking.

This is why our measurement of success is far more than the number of schools that we partner with or the number of workshops held annually, instead we look at the number of students reached, and whether we have been able change their views on STEM.

We look forward to saying “one at a time” to a room (in person or virtually) of fully engaged students who are excited to share their answer.

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