Intersectional Approaches to Diversifying the Tech Sector

If programs to get youth into tech are adding an extra layer of difficulty for young people, rather than improving their lives, why would they enter and stay?

by Natasha Vianna on February 22nd, 2016

Words like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ have made their way into tech websites, blogs, presentations and social timelines with little deep reflection or accountability. Used as a PR tactic, a trend-jacking opportunity, and even as click-bait, much of the focus has been on fixing the “pipeline issue.” But the mechanisms used to entice young people of color into tech are still being created by and for the people already in tech… and for many youth of color, such programs are simply creating more obstacles.

What we should be doing is looking at a larger picture of young people’s needs and challenge the very assumptions we have about young people, their barriers, and why they are not excited about the tech sector. Young people are not lazy, they are not demotivated, and they are not waiting for you to save them. They are industrious and valuable members of our society who are often functioning in negative environments that cheer for their failure and fail to recognize their meaningful roles in our future. And even as they face adversity in their schools and communities, they find creative ways to turn those experiences into a strength – one that adults often fail to recognize.

I know this as a fact, because I was one of those young people. I was the child of South American immigrants, finding myself pregnant as a junior in high school. The adults and educators around me insisted that I should leave school, that I was not capable of making the best choices for myself. They constantly reminded me that my future would be nothing but a dead end life of poverty, failure and invisibility. I had two options: let those adults around me dictate my future, or carve a new path for myself — knowing all-too-well that it would anger the very people who needed me to fail so they could use my story of teenage pregnancy as a cautionary tale. I chose the latter.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” – Audre Lorde

Young people of color in the United States are excluded from opportunities because their issues are complex. Young people drop out of high school and don’t go to college because their issues are compounded, layered and difficult to address in a system that doesn’t believe they are worth the extra work. According to the Gates Foundation, ⅓ left school to get a job and make money to help their families and ¼ left because they needed to become caregivers to someone in their family. This doesn’t even include the students of color who represent 70% of arrests made in school, the teenage parents who are illegally pressured to leave, and the young girls of color who cope with mental health issues and are most likely to commit suicide. So if programs to get youth into tech are adding an extra layer of difficulty for young people, rather than improving their lives, why would they enter and stay?

Intergenerational Challenges

Group of young kids of color at the Computer History Museum.

Photo CC-BY Marcin Wichary.

I am raising a young girl of color who is interested in environmental science and engineering. Her perspective on science goes beyond what tech companies think young people like her are thinking about: they aren’t focused on the benefits and fun colorful offices, but they are thinking about how they can create a better world for the people around us today. “I want to find a cure for Alzheimer’s so no one has to watch someone they love disappear in front of them again,” my ten-year-old said to me. Yet, I knew I couldn’t trust her environment to protect and foster her dream – so I began to search for programs to help her.

What I learned during the search process was that the people who structure STEM programs for kids are definitely not parents, and definitely not parents from my community. These programs are hard to discover, expensive, and poorly located. Still committed to getting my daughter into STEM, I spent hours looking for options, filling out applications, and writing essays proving our family was worthy of support.

Here’s what I learned about the assumptions tech makes about us: that parents have disposable time, parents can write and articulate stories in English, parents have vehicles for transportation, parents are able to pay full or partial tuition, and that parents are physically, emotionally and/or mentally able to go through this entire process. If tech does not factor in all of these obstacles, we will continue to exclude the most oppressed and deserving people from these opportunities.

Barriers to STEM education persist beyond access to extracurricular programs, within the traditional education system itself. To understand how lack of inclusion stems from schools, we first need to understand Silicon Valley’s history in marketing hardware and software only to boys with privilege; founder of Front & Center, Melanie Araujo, explains:

“As with science and mathematics, boys were encouraged to experiment with gadgets – and even games. But apart from a head start with a big gender gap, we often forget that technology wasn’t as ubiquitously available nor affordable as it is today. The ability to bring a personal computer into a home was reserved to privileged families. Now take into account that most public schools have abysmal budgets to invest into an IT lab. There is a tremendous tech-debt in communities of color. Educating companies about comprehensive, implementable strategies for finding and retaining talent starts with education.”

Even where some of these resources are available, we can’t assume that providing a computer lab or even class to an individual child makes any impact on the environment that prevented their trajectory for success to begin with. When ⅓ of young people who drop out of high school cite the need to work to help support family, we must address this by fairly compensating them for their time. They should not be forced to pick between a possible opportunity ten years down the line, or supporting their family’s urgent and basic needs today.

Youth-Driven Solutions

Teens of color working in groups on a few laptop computers.

Photo CC-BY ftmeade.

Creating opportunities for youth of color means reframing inclusion mechanisms to center what they want their future to look like, rather than perpetuating the idea that they want to be like the homogeneous group already in the tech sector. At this very moment, the focus for diversity has been centered around the concept of bringing more people of color into the roles white men have created and led. For many, their visions are much better than those that align with the tech elite.

As one example, tech shouldn’t try to encourage all young people of color to find pleasure and interest in joining this sector only as engineers. Understand their innate creativity, and the reality that tech needs people from all types of backgrounds, not just engineers. Yet currently, the available programs, classes, and camps are only centered on coding and do not address the pre-existing barriers young people face, allowing only the demographic that is already on a trajectory for success to benefit from the opportunity – the young people who have support, resources and little-to-no graduation barriers.

What we need most urgently is to provide youth with meaningful roles at the table as the creators, designers, and organizers of their futures. Value them as the conscientious leaders, innovators and influencers they are. Invest in them and their ideas directly, not just the programs who promise to help them. Understand that the work needs to expand beyond encouraging them to join the tech sector, and permeate through the rest of their lives: enabling them to be happy, healthy, and prepared to define and face the future they deserve.

I get it. Diversity is complex, but people of color are not a homogeneous group, this is not a one-size-fits-all opportunity, and you cannot expect mechanisms that work for you to work for all of us. We cannot make the assumption that young people want to work in this space or that a class or program will improve their lives until we center, hear from and learn from them. Young people of color deserve better from us – and their needs should not be met with exploitation.

If we want a future of diverse thinking, we need to invest in this generation’s right to self-determination.