Urban America Forward | “Digital Technology and Urban Empowerment”

“Young activists are using digital media to expand their effectiveness“– Cathy Cohen, Black Youth Project

“African-American women only receive 3% of the undergraduate degrees in computer science and our Latino sisters receive fewer than 1% percent.” – Kimberly Bryant, Black Girls Code

“The innovation gap between private sector and public sector change-makers is the dilemma of the digital age.” – Van Jones, Dream Corps

“I want to make the argument for three things: storytelling, technology, and design as we work with young people.” – Melissa Gilliam, Ci3

“The biggest boon for minorities to achieve economic power is the sharing economy.“ – Navarrow Wright, Close The Divide

“My proposal for policy is to take an approach in which we listen to young people and empower them with tools to effectively partner with us.” – Melissa Gilliam, Ci3

“One million. That is the number of workers the tech industry will be short in eight years – which means they will be forced to look to other areas for workers." – Van Jones, Dream Corps

“We need to think about power strategies vis-à-vis Silicon Valley, not just access.” – Phil Thompson, MIT 

“There is more opportunity for people of color in the technology landscape than in any other field, because there are no barriers to entry.” – Navarrow Wright, Close The Divide

“I want to go out to the Black colleges and the Hispanic-serving colleges, and the Native American institutions, to tell them that these opportunities exist. I believe that if we could pitch this to them in their space, we can change the opportunity gap.” – Kim Keenan, MMTC

“Upgrading our politics to the digital age will take more than just an app.” – Van Jones, Dream Corps 

Through digital platforms, activists are able to share their stories, advocate for justice, and mobilize. The technology economy is also ripe for employment and entrepreneurialism. Equity necessitates digital era capitalism include traditionally marginalized communities as owners and not just consumers. 

Below are the overarching themes and the corresponding policy recommendations that emerged during the Roundtable Series. 


Overarching Themes

Social justice requires both advocacy and entrepreneurship. We must change the perception that urban youth of color are only end users of technology.

Digital technology can be a tool both for the practice of democracy and an avenue for economic empowerment. Digital technology expands the opportunity for young people to participate equitably in civic conversation. New media provides an avenue for political engagement and social movement building. There is a low barrier to participation.

More research is needed on how “big data” may advance discrimination as a way to ensure that technology is furthering equity.

Broadband access, not just access to smart phones, is still an essential for teaching tech skills. Broadband remains a key ingredient for job creation and inclusion in the technology economy.

The sharing economy must include low-income people and individuals with disabilities as it grows. The civil rights community should prepare to engage in debates regarding regulation of the “gig economy” and enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil rights, and labor laws as they relate to growing array of app-based tech platforms that connect buyers and sellers of various goods and services.

Policy Recommendations

Advocate for federal funding to expand tech-based curriculum in school. Cities such as New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, and states such as Arkansas and Washington, have plans in place to offer computer science courses to all students in public schools, with strong support from business leaders, philanthropists, and nonprofits. The federal government can also create incentives through programs such as the President’s Computer Science for All plan, which provided $4 billion to support teacher training, and build regional collaborations with industry, nonprofits, and out-of-school providers to expand computer science in K-12 education.

Replicate and scale programs that are changing the face of tech ownership. A host of forward-looking nonprofits is changing the face of technology by introducing under-represented communities to coding, technology, and computer science.

Models and Tactics

Black Girls Code will teach one million girls from under-represented communities to code by 2040. Black Girls Code is creating the next generation of creators rather than simply consumers of technology by teaching coding, technology, and computer science. They work with girls aged 7–17 in nine cities and provide a curriculum in game development, robotics, web design, and mobile app development. Black Girls Code aims to become the de facto Girl Scouts of technology.[4]

The Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network is fostering an understanding of digital participation. The YPP investigates how the internet and digital media are affecting democratic and political engagement of youth. Formed from a recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are affecting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors, YPP ask how, under what conditions, and for whom do new digital tools become resources for political critique and action by the young.[5]

Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age provides a standard curriculum that enables students to develop digital media literacies through online research and digital production related to civic issues.[6] EDDA believes all students should have access to civic action and digital literacy learning opportunities and that the most efficient and equitable way to reach all students is to provide these opportunities in the classroom. A partnership between Mills College, the National Writing Project, and Oakland Unified School District, funded by the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, EDDA has engaged more than 100 teachers in the 12 high schools in the Oakland Unified School District.

#YesWeCode is recruiting hundreds of grassroots training programs and teaming up with major technology partners, celebrities, and political leaders to promote the goal of training 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level computer programmers.  The initiative is developing a pipeline to the tech sector through partnerships with coding boot camps and community colleges in an attempt to demystify Silicon Valley. Through #YesWeCode, 13 tech companies recently created apprenticeship for 300 young adults in the tech industry.[7]

The Game Changer Chicago (GCC) Design Lab develops games, interactive learning experiences, and digital media art with youth and for youth. Through storytelling, young people can reposition and contextualize their experience. The lab draws from social and clinical sciences to address issues relating to sexuality, health, social justice, and youth development. GCC uses participatory education to affect attitudes, behaviors, and cultural norms that influence the well-being of marginalized youth.  The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded $1 million over two years to Ci3's Game Changer Chicago Design Lab to advance its work developing game-based learning experiences that promote sexual and reproductive health, academic success, civic engagement, and overall well-being among urban youth.[8]

Massive on-line courses (MOOCs) may help reduce the technology gap. However, more engagement is required to appeal to more segregated communities.


[1] Elizabeth Weise and Jessica Guynn, “Tech jobs: Minorities Have Degrees, But Don't Get Hired,” USA Today, October 13, 2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/10/12/silicon-valley-diversity-tech-hiring-computer-science-graduates-african-american-hispanic/14684211/#.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Kathryn Zickuhr and Aaron Smith, “Digital Differences” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, April 13, 2012),  http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/04/13/digital-differences/.

[4] For more information, see http://www.blackgirlscode.com/.

[5] For more on the network, see http://ypp.dmlcentral.net/publications/219.

[6] For more on the program, see http://eddaoakland.org/.

[7] For more on the program, see http://www.yeswecode.org/.

[8] For more on the Game Changer program at the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health, see https://ci3.uchicago.edu/gamechangerlab/.