Thursday, February 11, 2016

Black America needs more Oaklands

Revised: Thursday 2/11/16

In recent 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. 

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 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 CA provides a far more promising template for America's Black Communities.

A. Exemplars

Two years ago I posted a small directory of hacker organizations on this blog, i.e.,  a short list of community organizations that were dedicated to providing Black communities with opportunities to develop computational thinking and coding skills. The directory was never intended to be comprehensive; I selected its members because they seemed to be exemplars whose successful methods should be considered by other communities.

As I was compiling the directory, I was struck by the fact that 3 of the 14 exemplars on my list were based in Oakland -- Black Girls Code (@BlackGirlsCode ), Qeyno Labs (@qeyno), and #YesWeCode (@yeswecode ). Before compiling my directory 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 even more 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

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.

B. Scope, Scale, and Networks

At this time, however, I have three concerns about the Movement ==> Its scope is too narrow; its procedures don't scale; and its networks don't provide sufficient follow-up support.
  • Focus on Youth
    The de facto focus of the Movement today is 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 2016 will still be working in 2036. And most of today's employees who are in their late twenties to early forties will still be working in 2046.

    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.
I'm concerned about the Movement's current scope, but I'm not worried. Why? Because the Movement is led by knowledgeable organizers who have evolving agendas. So their current agendas may focus on youth, but next year's agendas 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, blended, and online courses, workshops, and hackathons?

    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. 

    Scalable methods are important given that there are approximately 8 million Black students in America's K-12 classes. Therefore by the year 2040, 24 years from now, 2 cohorts of 8 million Black students will have passed through the K-12 pipeline, and a third cohort of 8 million Black students will be in place. Face-to-face programs that can only reach thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even a few million Black students won't scale high enough
My third concern is really a fear. I fear that the Movement will not have lasting impact because thus far it lacks the key ingredients that have enabled Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) to be more productive than most non-HBCUs in educating Black students for careers in STEM.
  • Support Networks
    As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, HBCUs enmesh their Black students in persistent, pervasive, overlapping support networks of Black teachers, tutors, mentors, and role models from the day they enroll until the day they graduate ... and for many years thereafter. Key nodes in these overlapping support networks include other Black students, Black faculty, Black staff, Black alumni, and the members of Black fraternities and sororities. 

    While I think it's great that Black students become inspired when they attend workshops or participate in hackathons sponsored by community groups, I have to wonder what happens in the days and weeks and months thereafter. Who helps these students sustain their inspiration in the context of uninspiring classes in their K-12 schools? I will become more optimistic about the ultimate impact of the Coding Movement if and when when the Movement develops persistent and pervasive support networks, especially if the leaders of the Movement from Oakland and from elsewhere are savvy enough to engage the highly experienced HBCUs in the development of these networks.
Related notes on this blog: