“To me, Black History Month is a month for reflection”

February is over, but for many, Black History Month isn’t.

Black History Month is a month marked by focused celebration of the accomplishments and voices of African Americans throughout history until now. As February came to a close, Joe Blanks shared some personal insights about what Black History Month means to him. In his second year as a product owner at Technology Services after 15 years of prior experience, he is no stranger to the STEM field. Joe speaks on his experiences as a Black American in STEM, how he advocates for Black Americans in his campus community, discusses what Black History Month means beyond February, and more.   

Headshot of Joe Blanks
Joe Blanks

Q: Tell us about who you are, what you do at Tech Services, and your journey to your career.

I am a Product Owner at Technology Services and I have a portfolio of services and tools such as TDX at Illinois (TeamDynamix) and Status at Illinois that I work to provide to campus. I focus on strategic planning and leading service teams to deliver value to the stakeholders of my portfolio.

How I got here—I worked as a manager in accounting/business offices for about 15 years for private, non-profit, and higher education organizations. During this time, I went back to school to get my degree in Management of Information Systems and Business Analytics.  

During and after the Pandemic, I worked as a Business Officer at Florida State University and the University of Memphis. In these roles, I leveraged the Microsoft Power Platform to better organize, analyze, and present financial information in Power BI 

Through my continued education and positions, I became data-savvy, gained an understanding of a variety of systems and processes, developed my management and leadership skills, and grew in understanding of the importance of customer service and collaboration. Each of these experiences helped me get this position in Technology Services.  

Q: Growing up or now, did you have any African American role models in the STEM field?

I knew about several famous African Americans who made large impacts in STEM throughout history, however I didn’t have a specific person in mind for STEM until later in life.

African Americans I personally looked up to in STEM came when my career started, and I eventually found mentors who helped me out and who I could personally connect with. Dr. LaTasha Holden in Psychology and Candice Solomon-Strutz in Applied Health Sciences here at Illinois, Colis Chambers at the University of Memphis, Byron Menchion at Workday, and Nikkia Henderson at Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)—these African Americans have mentored me in my STEM career and are people I look up to still today.  

Q: Do you have any other African American role models in any other field?

Absolutely! Growing up, music, poetry, and sports were my biggest interests.

Being from California and playing sports through college, I grew up a big Los Angeles Lakers and Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders fan. Specifically, I always looked up to Kobe Bryant and Charles Woodson. Their ways of approaching the game, overcoming adversity, and focusing on personal improvement for the better of the team are still inspiring. 

Headshot of James Baldwin from the New Yorker
James Baldwin, courtesey of The New Yorker

Another person, James Baldwin. His perspective, contributions, work— he just had so much power in his voice, written or spoken. I’ve been really touched by his contributions to the arts, and listening to him speak gives me an incredible sense of empowerment and pride. 

As for music, I grew up during the golden age of R&B and west coast hip-hop. Also, our home was full of soulful and funky music from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s that heavily influenced the artists I grew up on and current artists I listen to today. Relating back to STEM, in my second year in college, I started creating music with FL Studio software and have been doing it ever since. My role models then became the producers I listened to (Dr. Dre, Rick Rock, DJ Quick, and so many more). It wasn’t until I got to the birthplace of hip-hop, New York, that I discovered my love for house and electronic music. Now, I’m excited and feel lucky to explore the African American contributions to house music with its birthplace, coincidentally, being hours away in Chicago, IL.   

Q: What are some challenges you’ve had to face in your STEM career?

Finding community and mentorship.

As an accountant, I was usually the only Black person on the accounting team so there were not many opportunities to find mentorship from people who looked like me where I worked. I responded by educating myself, doing a lot of research, reading, watching videos, talking to lots of people, and trying to figure out ways I could find community and mentorship. I realized that if I wasn’t able to have it, I would work hard to be in a position to be a mentor for others.

Early on, it was a lot about trying to understand where I fit into STEM. Now, into my career of almost 20 years, I have found mentors across various industries, and I look forward to opportunities to be to others what I had difficulty finding along my journey. 

Q: What steps can organizations take to promote inclusivity in the STEM field?

Something I’ve learned as a product owner and from other life experiences is that it’s always valuable to listen to the audience or the customer. If you’re not informed by that experience, if you’re not trying to understand them, then you can really miss the mark. There’s so much opportunity to offer support when you listen to the experiences and needs of the audience.

I believe that the first step to promoting inclusivity is educating yourself and listening—reaching out to  individuals and communities, and having dialogue. After that, it’s about maintaining relationships over time, and doing it from a place of humility, compassion, and transparency.

This is what I try to do as a product owner, a DJ, and in other parts of my life when striving to deliver value—start with listening to what the audience is saying.  

Q: What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month is every month for me. I like to celebrate and reflect on the accomplishments of other Black people. It could be anything—sports, STEM, business, food, leadership, books, and art. I believe that it’s necessary to reflect on and to try to learn from their experiences, impact, and contributions.  

To me, Black History Month is a month for reflection—for individuals, organizations, and for this country as a whole. During Black History Month specifically, I also try to be involved in something to give back to the community. This year, I worked with the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority to volunteer as DJ for their People’s Free Food Program event.   

Q: Tell us more about your DJing and the spaces you create through DJing!

I started spinning in New York in 2011 and since getting started, I have spun for weddings, colleges, clubs/bars, business organizations, and more.

Here in town, I DJ solo and in a group called Darker Than Blue. It’s me and a group of folks from our Illinois campus: Dr. Kamau Grantham, Stacey Robinson, MFA, Dr. Christopher Kinson, and Illinois graduate Manuella Lusambo (Manuella moved to California, and we miss her selections and energy!) When we come together, usually at the GalleryArt Bar, we spin funky, soulful, and groovy, house, dance, reggae, dancehall, African and Latin inspired music.

When I first came to the area, I was introduced to them and we came together and talked about how there is a need for a consistent musical presence for diverse kinds of music for all walks of life to dance to, enjoy, and create. We’re tapping into the community, talking to other folks and asking what kinds of events we can hold to create an inclusive musical experience. 

I’m just grateful we can provide a space for this and we need more of it. This is something I take pride in and I’m very happy with.

I believe art connects us and the art of music connects and moves us.  

Q: Do you have any other organizations or initiatives on campus you’d like to spotlight?

Yes! I serve as the Treasurer for the Black Faculty and Professionals Alliance (BFAPA). The BFAPA’s mission is to advocate for “equitable and accessible opportunities, programs, services, and governance for Black faculty, professionals, and students” here at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The BFAPA does this through building connections with administration, through social networks, and leveraging financial and human resources for change. We have a weekly newsletter that highlights the work and successes of other Black faculty and staff on campus; we share opportunities, events, updates.  

What I love about BFAPA is the community-building aspect, the partnership, and professional development. We also host monthly meetings where we get to listen to our members and get feedback on ways we can offer more support to them on campus. We have a website if you want more information.

I am still not fully in the loop since I am still new to campus, but I would just like to highlight the efforts of the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center (BNAACC), the BFAPA, IllinoisSoul, and Krannert. In the future, I would love to see a program that focuses on providing students of color opportunities for insight into the IT field.  

Q: What are some of your aspirations for the future? Any exciting projects you’re working on or goals you have?

At the University, I’m currently excited about a few projects related to TDX (iPaaS), Operational Excellence (IT-ESMO), and all things about artificial intelligence (AI).

In my personal life, I’m excited to do more events related to diverse music and art around this community. I helped a venue kick off Pygmalion last year, and I’m looking forward to other opportunities to create and work with other creatives in the community.  

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything you’d like to leave us with?

I’m really interested in AI–how we can leverage it as a tool here at Technology Services and also in my personal life. However, while I’m excited for the advancement of AI, I’m also cognizant of the disparities in terms of barriers to access technology across different demographics. During times of rapid technological innovation, expansion efforts are needed to better include minority and underserved communities (such as the elderly, second-language learners, people with disabilities, etc.)

With the continued development of AI, I hope to see growing efforts to make sure that these minority and underserved groups have opportunities to be educated, to utilize this technology, and to become the builders and innovators themselves.

As I continue my career in STEM, I’m passionate about finding my place in how I can contribute to these efforts of enabling these groups and giving back by providing mentorship.