Celebrating Florida’s Blacks in Energy

Few realize the array of professionals behind the scenes who help provide energy to run the lights in a room, power the devices we all use for business, school, and entertainment and keep everything moving smoothly. The absence of this all-important power connection means things come to a halt. It’s why the American Association for Blacks in Energy (AABE) Florida Chapter is highlighting Black Energy Awareness Month, known as AABE BEAM.

BEAM month gives the group the perfect platform to promote the many career options in energy to minority students who may occasionally see a line technician in their community. The energy sector needs line techs, engineers, both mechanical and electrical, along with GIS technicians or analyst, relay technicians, and telecommunications technicians and IT, to name a few. There are also careers in business accounting and human resources.

The expanding list of careers and emerging technology is what inspired three Duke Energy professionals to create what became the Youth Energy Academy in 2010. Malcolm Barnes, Mikle Gordon and Melvin Philpot wanted to use the academy format to introduce career options to students from low-income neighborhoods throughout Florida.

The trio, each of whom grew up in low-income communities, referred to the concept as “the best-kept secret in the neighborhood,” since students from many of these areas don’t grow up with the idea of working for a utility company or the high-salary career opportunities. They sought assistance from their employer to execute the plan and expanded. To date, the Youth Energy Academy has served 1,500 students around the state.

The concept grew over time and had several different names along the way before it was later adopted by the AABE Florida Chapter. The program, focusing on middle school and high school students, is held during the summer in two-day sessions around the state, including Ocala, St. Petersburg, Orlando, and Jacksonville. The Florida group is working to develop other sites in the state. The Duke Energy Foundation is the primary sponsor of the program.

In recent years, the Youth Energy Academy has received the prestigious James B. Duke Award, the Cornerstone Award from the Central Florida Urban League, and applauded by Siemens Energy with a $20,000 grant and an annual donation of $2,000 from Mitsubishi Energy.

The AABE Florida Chapter has also created partnerships with utility providers around the state to host the academy to include SECO Energy, City of Ocala, JEA and Orlando Utilities Commission. A few other community organizations assist, such as Siemens, College of Central Florida, CareerSource CLM and Lockheed Martin.

The Florida youth academy has now been modeled in North Carolina. And in 2019, Polk State College, based in Winter Haven, implemented the Energy Academy to prepare college students to fill entry-level and mid-level positions in the energy sector.

The AABE Florida Chapter did not exist when Berdell Knowles went looking for a connection in 2000. At the time, Knowles worked for Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) and was tasked to enhance diversity and inclusiveness for the utility.

“The mission and objectives of the American Association of Blacks in Energy seemed to comport well with the initiative of GRU at the time,” Knowles said. “However, at the time, there were no chapters…so consequently we worked to form the Florida Chapter.

Knowles is the founding president of AABE Florida Chapter and remained at the helm of the group for five years. Today, Knowles works for JEA and remains an active member of the Florida Chapter, currently serving on AABE’s National Legislative Issues and Public Policy Committee.

Derick Farfan, Program Manager for Clean Energy Connection at Duke Energy Florida, serves as the AABE Scholarship Chair. He reflects on playing an integral role from the Youth Energy Academy’s start and expanding his AABE involvement to the scholarship committee.

“The scholarship committee has allowed the Florida Chapter the opportunity to support tremendous and deserving minority students in Florida,” Farfan said. “We are extremely proud of all of our AABE Florida Scholars. These promising students in STEM have limitless futures, especially when given opportunities to show their natural talents and true selves.”

Students like Sebastian Lohier, Nasya Lucien, and Chelsea Nichols are all recipients of an AABE scholarship and are working toward careers in energy.

Lohier, a 2020 AABE Scholar, FL, is a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology majoring in chemistry. He said interacting with AABE members through the Youth Energy Academy helped enhance his public speaking skills, “which is integral to a successful professional career.”

“I think organizations that focus on the advancement of marginalized groups are important,” Lohier said. “It is generally the case that they do not get the support and representation they deserve. I hope to play a big role in this in the near future.”

Lucien, a biomedical engineering student at Duke University, is a 2019 AABE Scholar. She said AABE definitely allowed her to see firsthand where engineering can take her.

“They’ve shown me the various avenues I have available to me and have provided me with resources and support to navigate them,” she said.

Lucien adds, “It strongly believe that organizations with the mission to represent marginalized communities play a crucial role in the betterment of these communities. It’s through pouring back into these communities that we are able to see greater things come out of them.”

Nichols, a 2019 AABE Scholar now at USF, is majoring in mechanical engineering. She said not only did AABE help with the financial burden of college but also provides networking opportunities through events and experienced members.

“Without organizations like AABE, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. They’ve mentored me, supplied financial support, and helped me decide on a major,” Nichols said. “Being an aspiring black, female engineer will unquestionably have its challenges, but with my great support network, I am more confident that I can do this.

The AABE scholarship gives students a chance to compete for the Southeast Regional AABE scholarship and possibly go on to the national level. We have not had one of our scholars go on to the national level from Florida, so we really want to encourage students to apply.

The  AABE scholarship application process opens on Nov. 1. The scholarship application deadline is March 7, 2021. The scholarship targets underrepresented minority (African American, Hispanic or Native American) students who are graduating high school and want to pursue a degree in business, one of the physical sciences, technology, engineering or mathematics.

In addition to the Youth Energy Academy, BEAM month presentations on careers, energy conservation tips and community projects, the AABE Florida Chapter hosts an annual golf tournament in December of each year to raise funds for scholarships. In 2020, the AABE Florida Chapter awarded over $9,000 to students around the state either as graduating high school seniors or continuing college students.

We at the AABE Florida Chapter urge Florida’s minority students to take a more-in-depth look at careers in the energy sector and find their place to shine. For more information, visit the Florida Chapter at aabe.org

Kathy Judkins is senior consultant for Civic, Charitable & Government Relations with SECO Energy. And president of AABE Florida Chapter.

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