Hacking the Opportunity Gap: from Digital Consumption to Digital Creation

There is a great deal of discussion about the opportunity gaps for young people of color and their lack of representation in the tech industry. Tech industries point to a less than robust pipeline of potential hires. The pipeline of potential candidates is more robust than what the industry claims it to be, and the data supports this. Tech workers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, according to the companies’ diversity reports, are on average 3 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black while among young computer science and engineering graduates with bachelor’s or advanced degrees, 8 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are Black (source:  Bui, Quoctrung. Cain Miller, Claire. “Why Tech Degrees Are Not Putting More Blacks and Hispanics Into Tech Jobs.” New York Times. New York, NY. Feb. 25, 2016).

Young people of color coming into the industry are not being hired.

Reasons for the lack of diversity are varied but include structural racism, implicit bias, a lack of support for young people of color both as they pursue these jobs and after they are hired.

There is much at stake. The complexity of problems we face locally and globally require a diverse set of minds working together, problem-solving, and finding sustainable solutions. Apparent is the need to tackle the hiring barriers but also to continue building a more robust STEM pipeline—one that starts early on to ensure that there are droves of people from all a walks of life entering an industry that will play a pivotal role in solving world problems. We can do better to graduate more youth of color from tech-related academic and training programs, and we can do more to hire them.

There is much work to be done to build a stronger foundation of support so youth of color who are also economically disadvantaged can envision themselves in these fields. To be able to achieve it, they must be able to dream it.

And just how do we do this?

It starts by dismantling the idea of the digital native. This is the assumption that all children are digitally inclined simply because they are born into a digital age.

It is my belief that this is a myth. While it’s true that there are outliers, by and large, access is still an issue (having a mobile phone is not the same as having a computer) and utilization is also an issue—that is to say, how tech is used.

At MLCS, in the heart of a mixed-income housing development that is 77% affordable and extraordinarily diverse with over 30 languages spoken, we have a computer lab that is overrun with children and youth. At first glance, they are seemingly digitally adept but they are often surfing YouTube channels or social media feeds. The same holds true for phone tech—much of it is consumptive and aimless—kids vacantly staring into screens.

There is a great deal of consumption and not nearly enough creation.

Computers and phones have replaced televisions.

Some of you might be thinking: this is a common problem. My kids do this too. And while this may be true, there are some differences. Kids growing up in households where parents understand and use tech may have more limits on passive usage and opportunities to explore more active and creative uses of tech. Additionally, makerspaces and other opportunities to use tech more powerfully abound in affluent whiter communities versus poorer more racially diverse ones.

At MLCS we’re hoping to create more opportunities to help a diverse community of disadvantaged youth to move away from digital overconsumption and towards digital creation.  This means moving children and youth away from being passive consumers and towards a new relationship with tech.

We need to reawaken in children and youth the true power and potential of technology—the knowledge that they hold the power to use tech to create—to bring something new into existence.

This summer MLCS rolled out the pilot for a new makerspace.  We spent 7 weeks teaching kids ages 7 to 12 from Maverick Landing and East Boston how to build and program robots.

We also rolled out EastieCoders and the East Boston Tech Meetup with the intent of building a supportive community and a potential pipeline of mentors and role models for the EastieCoders learning community and for children aging out of the Makerspace who are interested in learning how to code. We are in effect, building our own mini-tech pipeline in the heart of a mixed-income housing development.

Our summertime makers program is now coming to a close, and we stand at the precipice of a fall rollout of an MLCS makerspace that will also integrate coding with a second computer lab area just for children and a building space for robotics and STEAM activities.

We will explore different pedagogies, test what works, pivot into new strategies, and tweak what we are doing until it works. The greater good depends on it. We need to build it.

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