Building Social Justice Tech Pathways for Black Students

“We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.”

These words are by the indomitable race woman, Mary McLeod Bethune. A lion among men and women, she dedicated her life to building learning environments for Black children to dream wildly their greatest ambitions. As a social worker, I have always thought of my research and community activism as working in the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, who could figuratively lift her finger in the changing American winds and divine the proverbial coming storms, droughts, and seasons of plenty for Black youth and black communities. And, with this knowledge, she would set herself to the task of welding and cultivating worlds of opportunity, to mark the coming season –the changing season — for those whose skin denied them every inalienable right. With this sense of discernment, she, first, founded a school for little Black girls, and then she founded a historically Black college and university (HBCU), Bethune-Cookman College. You see, Mary McLeod Bethune saw the writings on the wall and responded with urgency and intentional haste to build a legacy of learning for Black students.

And, with this same sense of divining the times, I, too, move with a sense of urgency and intentional haste to help solve the question of why there are so few Black students majoring in STEM and the computational sciences. My solution, like Mary McLeod Bethune’s founding of school systems, is about honoring the dreams and ambitions of Black students by centering their vocational interests and choices around the discussion of tech employment. For instance, we know Black students choose low-earning, but community empowering majors and careers such as counseling, social work, and community organizing.

Of course, these choices are not wholly motivated by altruism, but also by the fact that these students often come from chronically underfunded public schools that often track Black students into rudimentary math courses instead of STEM-related Advanced Placement courses. This forces students into majors that aren’t focused on math or STEM. Though Black youth must survive many “leaky tech pipeline” barriers such as stereotypes, environmental cues, and chronic underfunding of public schools, it’s up to us to help patch the pipeline. I believe one way to assist in their fight is to share how social justice and technology can be a career. That they can make change beyond simply doing the good work of capturing racial violence against Black and brown bodies with their phones or sending it out via their personal or organizational social media accounts.

Like Mary McLeod Bethune it is our duty to create new learning environments that will teach Black students about the emerging disciplines of public interest technology, which requires that students have an understanding of tech policy such as Net Neutrality and not just technical skills such as coding to advocate for people who look like them. We can design learning environments that will teach Black students how to fight against the prison industrial complex as both on-the-ground as activists and as tech social entrepreneurs like the founders of National Bail Out Collective, who organize online to pay bail bonds and other court fees for arrested Black mothers.

In dreaming widely, we — and especially those in academia and the people who can mentor up-and-coming PIT practitioners — can build a curriculum and a process that teaches Black students how to deconstruct algorithms like the co-founder of Data 4 Black Lives, and the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, and how to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to support global sustainability initiatives with the co-founder of Black in AI. We can and are creating college courses that teach them how to fight lead poisoning in water by using coding and crowdfunding to pay people’s unjust water bills as demonstrated in the work of the Human Utility Project. We can develop new social work schools that will teach about the terms civictech and govtech, and how governments — both locally and nationally — are using technology to better deliver safety net and health services to constituents. We can develop national partnerships with the NetGain Partnership, Code for America, FUSE Corps, Tech Congress, and Civic Hacker to showcase for students what new careers are emerging in this new space of technology, social justice, and government.

Yes, I dream of new learning environments for all students, but particularly for Black students, that will marry the worlds of STEM and computational sciences with social justice.

On a Dream Not Being “Deferred”

This is why with this same sense of divining the times, like Mary McLeod Bethune, I, too, move with a sense of urgency and intentional haste to help solve one of this century’s greatest challenges: Why there are so few Black students majoring in STEM and computational sciences. My solution, like Mary McLeod Bethune’s founding of school systems, is about honoring the dreams and ambitions of Black students by centering their vocational interests and choices on this discussion of tech employment.

I know quite intimately as a Black female how joblessness, alcoholism, and intersecting systems of oppression and inequality, including racism and sexism, can shape the life outcomes of people who look like me. I know jobs matter and not in the stereotypical ways we tend to discuss employment and Black people — the ‘Black people are lazy and Black women are welfare queens’ ways — but in the liberating sense of charting our collective destinies as echoed in the Kwanzaa principle of Kujichagulia or self determination.

Therefore, not only do I dream, but I have conducted qualitative research, funded by the Kapor Center for GRIT Fellowship, on the variables needed to build what I now term, “social service-based tech careers.” In my research, I interviewed experts and scholars in the fields of social work, govtech, civic tech, and historically black colleges and universities to outline opportunities and challenges with building such a domain in the discipline of social work. My study found that, overall, experts saw technology as a tool to increase or decrease the effects of systemic oppression (for example, bias AI or tech hardware being able to capture violence against Black people) or to widen and reduce the gap of economic mobility for poor people and people of color. (Who hasn’t heard the trope, ‘Expose Black students to tech skills that will increase their economic mobility and give them a way out of poverty’?)

All social worker respondents believed the field of social work is not preparing students for how technology is shaping social inequalities. They outlined that schools of social work must build accrediting standards, policies, tenure practices, grant opportunities that fund Black people working at the intersections of tech and social work, courses, practicums, and placements that will prepare Black students, and all students, for this new world of technology and social work.

In this new and ever emerging world of driverless cars and rockets to Mars, my sincere hope is that we can use a slither of that genius to ensure that Black students have access to new tech careers that support them economically and support their interest in helping to make their communities better and places of technological wonderment. I, too, like Mary McLeod Bethune, dream of schools for Black students to DREAM, wildly.

Fallon Wilson is the newly named Vice President of Policy at the Multicultural Media and Telecom Internet Council (MMTC). She is also the co-founder of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, which is building a national network of city-based researchers and Black tech ecosystem builders conducting research and developing policy on sustainable local Black tech ecosystems. Dr. Wilson has a B.A. from Spelman College and M.A./Ph.D from the University of Chicago. As a public interest technologist, she discusses race, gender, #blackchurch futures, and civic tech issues. She is on twitter @SistahWilson