Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Black America Needs More Oaklands

Revised: Thursday 2/11/16
From time to time during the last few decades governors, mayors, and corporate nabobs all over the country have launched initiatives that were supposed to develop local versions of Silicon Valley. So far the results have been disappointing. A few months ago (in late 2014) a group of black community leaders in New York City launched a promising initiative called "Silicon Harlem." Although I'm greatly impressed by the array of talent that has lined up to support this program, I'm discouraged by the explicit reference to Silicon Valley as a model. To my way of thinking, Oakland California provides a far more promising template for America's Black Communities.

A. Exemplars
The "Hackers" tab on this blog links to a note that lists a concise Who's Who of organizations that are currently, in my opinion, Black America's most notable proponents of civic hacking, training programs in coding and computational thinking skills, and enhanced career opportunities for black IT staff and black IT entrepreneurs.

As I was compiling this directory, I was struck by the fact that 3 of the 14 exemplars on my list are based in Oakland -- Black Girls Code (@BlackGirlsCode ), Qeyno Labs (@qeyno), and #YesWeCode (@yeswecode ). Until six months ago I only knew a couple of things about Oakland: First, it's a small city (400,000) with a small Black population (100,000). The second was Gertrude Stein's infamous quip that "there's no there there" ... which implied that one should not expect anything notable to come from there ... except for the fact that the very notable Ms. Stein grew up there ... and now comes the surprising fact that  a substantial portion of the leadership of Black America's surging grass roots Coding Movement is based there.

Question:  How did such a small Black Community in such a small city produce so many effective leaders of a national Movement?
Answer: I don't know ... and I don't care.

I don't care because it's clear to me that the local factors that favored their launch in Oakland are nowhere near as important as the reasons for their national success ==> They operate within the same kinds of time-tested community organization frameworks as the big city exemplars on my list, e.g., Blue1647 (Chicago), GoodieHack/Amplify for Good (Atlanta), and DiversiTech (Washington, DC)

The Oakland trio reached out to the residents of their home town and then to the residents of Black Communities all over the country via workshops, Twitter chats, hackathons, town hall meetings, etc, etc, etc. Their programs say "come one, come all" because they aren't just launching a series of local one-offs. They are very consciously helping to build a national Movement. They are lighting grass roots fires from one end of this country to the other because they know that the Digital Divide will never be closed by top-down mandates from governors' mansions, city halls, and corporate headquarters. It will only be closed by bottom-up demands from large segments of the nation's Black Communities for bigger opportunities to participate in America's digital economy and by preparing to make the most of those opportunities when they are provided.

I support the efforts of the Oakland trio as well as the efforts of all of the other exemplars in my directory to grow the Black Coding Movement to become strong enough to close the Divide. And I encourage the nation's 106 HBCUs to reaffirm their historical missions by becoming active participants.

B. Scope and Scale
At this time, however, I have two concerns about the Movement ==> Its scope is too narrow and its training procedures don't scale.
  • Focus on Youth
    The de facto focus of the Movement today is on youth, from middle school to young adults.  Unfortunately the old cliche that "our children are our future" is an increasingly dangerous half-truth. People are not only living longer, but are having to work well into their sixties and beyond in order to pay their bills. So most of the people who are working in 2015 will still be working in 2035. And most of today's employees who are in their late twenties to early forties will still be working in 2045.

    Of course these predictions of future employment will only hold true for those who somehow acquire the computational thinking skills that will enable them to survive the inevitable workplace disruptions that will be caused by the relentless computerization of more and more aspects of every kind of employment ... which leads us to the Good News and Bad News.
     
  • The Bad News is an acute manifestation of the Digital Divide ==> A much lower percentage of Black Americans than white Americans and Asian Americans of all ages have acquired the required computational thinking skills. The Good News is that it's not too late. Given affordable, accessible opportunities, Black Americans of all ages can still learn.
I'm concerned about the Movement's current scope, but I'm not worried. Why? Because the Movement is led by knowledgeable community organizers, and community organizers always have evolving agendas. So this year's agenda may focus on youth, but next year's agenda may embrace lifelong learning. My second concern, however, is much closer to a worry.
  • Current Training Procedures Don't Scale
    It seems to me that the subject matter of the Movement's training programs for kids, young professionals, and young entrepreneurs is technical, but the subjects are usually taught via traditional face-to-face classes, workshops, hackathons, meet-ups, etc. Why hasn't the Movement embraced educational technology? To be specific, why isn't the Movement making extensive use of flipped courses and 100 percent online courses?
     
  • Programs based on traditional classrooms don't scale because they are labor intensive and because they are only accessible to students within a limited commuter range.  In other words, educational technologies can extend the reach of experienced teachers from hundreds of students to thousands per year. And these same technologies can also make courses accessible to students who live in "remote" locations, e.g., in cities and suburbs wherein the Movement's exemplars haven't opened physical facilities yet.
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Related notes on this blog: