Earlier this month the New York Times hosted an intriguing conversation about race, technology, and the future. The event was organized by Tom Holcomb and moderated by New York Times reporter, Ron Nixon. The Times’ has an internal division that is committed to issues of diversity, equity, and community engagement. Those involved in this initiative are working with various companies and non-profits to impact communities and help widen the pipeline to careers in technology, journalism, media, and other professions.
The conversation was designed to explore the various barriers–social, financial, educational, racial–to technology related industries. Ron began by sharing some of the statistics on the strikingly low number of African Americans in tech related fields, the growing absence of black males in higher education, and the paltry number of black women in fields like engineering and computer science. Denmark West was one of the invited speakers. With his background in digital strategy for companies like Microsoft, BET, and MTV Denmark’s comments focused on bridging industry with important community initiatives. Denmark made references to the dearth of media representations of black success in technology industries. Black youth, he explained, grow up seeing successful athletes and rappers but not high-tech professionals. He also referenced some of the work that I have been involved in related to digital media literacy and noted that education or, more important, learning is a crucial element in any effort to grow a more diverse body of professionals in the high tech sector.
I was glad to see Baratunde Thurston, another invited speaker. Baratunde spoke about how his mother’s resiliency as a single-parent exposed him to hard work, technology, and, eventually, higher education. Baratunde is a comedian and the author of How To Be Black, an uproarious play on the peculiar ways in which ideas about race shape our everyday lives, norms, and experiences. He made another comment that I thought was revealing. A few years ago he hosted a TV show on the Discovery Channel about technology in the future. According to Baratunde, network executives insisted that his audience was white men in their middle ages. But when young black males would stop and greet him on the streets in Brooklyn with, “hey, you are that brother from the future,” it suggested to him that something very different was happening with his show. His point resonates with one of my observations during the conversation: the digital media landscape has shifted in some noteworthy ways and conventional notions about who is invested in technology and who uses technology do not recognize how the digital world, and especially the participation of black and Latino youth in that world, is evolving. I explained that it is not that black and Latino youth do not want to succeed in school or the high tech industry. Rather, they often do not have the social and cultural capital that creates the pathways to success in these and other sectors.
Ingrid Sturgis talked about her efforts to build a digital media learning community in the department of journalism at Howard University. Ingrid has worked with various online ventures at the New York Times, BET, AOL, and heartandsoul.com. Part of Ingrid’s work involves building a community of practice around technology with an emphasis on content creation. When you look at the racial gap in college attendance in the U.S. institutions like Howard will play a pivotal role in building the social networks, human capital, and experience that will help young blacks successfully navigate a steadily evolving future.
I spoke about the work that we are doing with the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative. The gap between in-school and out-of-school learning is especially pronounced in low-performing schools. In the work that I am doing which is supported by the MacArthur Foundation and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and the College of Communication at the University of Texas the goal is, first, to develop a better understanding of the learning divides through rigorous research and analysis. The ultimate goal, of course, is to design learning futures–classrooms, after school programs, libraries, museums, summer camps–that close the learning gaps. London-based scholar David Buckingham argues that the dynamic learning experiences that students encounter in their engagement with digital media out of school and the demoralizing learning experiences–memorization and relentless standardized testing–that takes place in school help to structure today’s generational and digital divides.
In our field work it has become clear that students in low performing schools have high aspirations but are often fighting against low expectations. They want to work in game design companies and tech related industries but they are typically tracked into schools and classes that do not prepare them to enter these professions. There are many points along their social, personal, and educatioal journey that block access to meaningful participation in the industries of the future. Perhaps none is more important than the failure of public education to produce the kinds of learners, citizens, competencies, and social networks that are the gateway to the rich, diverse, and meaningful opportunities that are emerging in the 21st century.