Keli Christopher, Ph.D.: “I Cover All the Ground I Stand On.”

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Keli Christopher, Ph.D.—a trailblazing leader dedicated to advancing STEM education for students of color—is the 2024 Brilliance Awards Woman of the Year.

Dr. Christopher's passion is inherent, as she's a sixth-generation educator whose ancestors started Manassas High School in Memphis, the first high school for Black students following slavery. As the Founder and CEO of STEM Greenhouse, she champions the belief that nurturing curiosity in STEM leads to flourishing children. The third Black woman globally to earn a Ph.D. in Agricultural Engineering, her experiences fuel her drive to close the opportunity gap and diversify career paths for under-resourced youth.

"Equity is huge for me. In STEM careers, women are generally underrepresented, as are people of color. By doing the work that I do, I'm opening opportunities for girls, as well as people of color," said Dr. Christopher, who deeply understands the importance of representation.

Since STEM Greenhouse's humble beginnings in 2014, Dr. Christopher has spent countless hours investing in the success of the girls and young women she teaches, whether it's going to their basketball games, taking them on field trips or otherwise. What started as math clubs for girls at local libraries led by Dr. Christopher as the singular full-time employee has grown into an organization that serves almost 1,000 students a year with six full-time staff members.

Even upon arriving at a crossroads at one point in her life that easily could have derailed her vision for a diverse, globally competitive STEM community through equity in K-12 STEM education, Dr. Christopher persevered.

"I knew that if I stopped doing this work, nobody was going to come behind me and do it," she said.

Dr. Christopher reflected back on the creation of the Sankofa STEM Academy during summer 2021 for students to make up for the learning loss that occurred as a result of the pandemic.

"We had 50 students and five Black male teachers; the average student improved two whole grade levels in math computations over those five weeks! It was huge."

Now going into its fourth year this summer, Sankofa STEM Academy has grown and is one of STEM Greenhouse's most successful programs.

When she sees inequities, Dr. Christopher takes action, boldly and tactfully holding community leaders and decision makers accountable. Her greatest accomplishments include successfully advocating for change in philanthropic, educational and government systems, which in turn have resulted in more equitable funding for not only STEM Greenhouse, but several other nonprofit organizations in West Michigan.

"Everybody wants a better community to live in, we all want the same thing," Dr. Christopher explained. "But sometimes people have to be shocked into seeing something they just never really thought of before."

Her honors are many, including North Carolina A&T SU, Distinguished Alumni Award, the Nolan Groce Business Leadership Award, and the Dr. MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award. Dr. Christopher's work is a testament to the power of one person's influence, transforming generations through education.

"All of my experiences—from being a little girl that struggled with her multiplication tables, to becoming valedictorian of Ottawa Hills High School, to the racism I experienced in graduate school, to losing my husband to cancer, and the challenges I faced leading a nonprofit—have all culminated to this point in time, where others can be blessed from the journey that I've been through," Dr. Christopher said. "For someone to look at my journey and say it is deserving of honor is beyond anything I ever imagined."

Dr. Christopher embraces disrupting systems and being a rebel while disregarding fear and centering herself on a family mantra:

"I cover all the ground I stand on."

"It means that when I go into any space, or any room, I'm not less than anybody," Dr. Christopher said. "I'm equal with anybody—in any space that I'm in."

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.

This article originally appeared in the Jun/Jul '24 issue of West Michigan Woman.

 Photo Courtesy of Doug Sims. 


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