Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Pact, Episode 1: Those Pesky Digital Divides

The dilemma:

On January 1st, 2010, I broke with personal tradition and made a New Year's resolution about the level of blogging I'd achieve. I believed I would have time and inclination to keep this here blog going (fair enough) AND to post any off-topic, yet still interesting, items over at The Joshua Fit. You're welcome to click over and see how well that resolution worked out.

Meanwhile, over at After the Flood, my real and virtual pal RRP made a similar resolution on January 5th. That resolution worked out about as well as mine did.

We chatted a couple of weeks ago about this and decided enough is enough, let's do something about it.

The solution:

We signed a bilateral pact enforceable in the World Court (just kidding) that each of us would post something "substantial" once a week. There's a somewhat arcane set of ground rules, because we know each other well enough to ensure rules are in place and we're warped enough to ensure said rules are arcane. (We do have an escape clause for true family emergencies, and we left "substantial" loosely defined for now.) Oh, an immediate side effect-- add to the lexicon:

blagging = blogging + nagging

The post:

Lately, I've been hit upside the head with the Digital Divide, writ large and small. In March, I was given a change of perspective on this phenomenon by several personal experiences, as well as some news articles and blog posts. The "money quote" from the latter is from an article by Samuel S. Kang on March 24:

What we have, in effect, is not one, but two “digital divides”: Not only do many minority communities have less broadband access than their white counterparts – a problem that the NBP should help address – blacks and Latinos are far less likely than whites to be employed in high-tech fields.

Broadband access (and the proposed National Broadband Plan) got a lot of play in March thanks to media coverage of the FCC. To be fair, broadband access is an issue not just for minority, mostly urban communities but also for rural communities of any color. National, regional, and state efforts rightly focus on both. But I'll admit that the aspect of it that rubs me the wrong way is lack of access in urban (minority) areas that are geographically close to wealthier areas with access. This divide affects homes and schools.

The consumer end, whether people get to watch CSI or Law & Order reruns on eight channels, is not important to me. Hand-in-hand with that, however, is lack of access for educational and creative purposes at home and at school. Our kids are missing opportunities.

The result of not addressing youth access is readily manifest at the other end, where adults gather. Kang's quote above is specific to employment in high-tech fields and was addressed recently by research by the San Jose Mercury News. (See here for sure, and here. Also see here for the immigrant-vs.-native factor.) But even without considering direct employent, people of color participate very little in their own fates when major high-tech issues are discussed, networking (the human kind) takes place, and decisions are made. Our communities are represented most often by kindly emissaries who are familiar with the issues and who have honorable intent. But the lack of direct empowerment for the people being discussed, whose futures are in the hands of decision-makers, is plain to me.

My evidence is anecdotal but tell me if I'm wrong. I referred above to being hit upside the head with personal experience of the Digital Divide. Since early March, I've been on the research & education conference circuit, six events. Two about broadband. Two about increasing presence and quality of math & science teachers in high-needs schools. One explicitly about affirmative action in higher ed. (See my post about Hilda Solis dropping by.) And just yesterday, one involving technology, education, and design (check the initials). At each event I've played "count the black people." This is a visual pastime, kind of like Slug Bug (punch-in-the-shoulder game with Volkswagens) only with psychic pain.

Event A: 3 black people and I think one was Afro-Latino
Event B: 1 black person (me)
Event C: 5 black people
Event D: 1 black person (me)
Event E: 4 black people, 5 if you include a security guy
Event F: Maybe 20 but I lost count. Guess which event?

I'm not blaming the event organizers for the overwhelming whiteness of the attendees, and I should note for the record that the non-black, non-Latino rainbow was somewhat represented, and plenty of women were there but not many black women. It's not really the organizers' fault. It's a natural result of system design (few minorities into the pipeline, few out) plus our own responsibility to take care of our own professional and personal development by going to these things instead of always minding the store while our colleagues go.

Bottom line: Tune into and attend the all-black "summit" events (e.g. those held by people such as Roland Martin, Tom Joyner, and yes, even Tavis Smiley). Support the minority tech, engineering, and education organizations. But don't think that's enough to change anything. Go to the mostly-white events. Go until they aren't.

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