Spotlight On : Elisabeth Mason

Elisabeth Mason is the Secretary of the Board of Directors at All Star Code.

Can you tell me your name and what you do?

My name is Elisabeth Mason and I am a founding director of the Poverty and Technology Lab at Stanford. The Lab focuses on the technological and data revolutions, and how to leverage those revolutions to address our complex social issues.

How did you hear about All Star Code?

I was at an event on innovation for the Obama White House and I met Christina through a mutual friend to just talk about our work.

What are the connections that you see between your organization and ours?

Very broadly, the issue of technology is affecting every area of our lives and changing much more rapidly than at any time in history. One of the issues in terms of what that change is and how we’re looking at it in the Lab is how much we are actually using these tools to address issues of poverty and equality, nationally and internationally. We think that there’s a real lack of investment, to be honest, in applying these things to issues that concern the population at large, versus just the middle class and consumers.

I think some of that comes from the fact that people in the tech industry themselves aren’t really representative of the broader US population. Certainly, there are very, very few men of color — or women — in the industry. The issues that we’re trying to get the technological world to address are not being addressed, and some of that is reflected in the lack of diversity in the field. Obviously, All Star Code is at the forefront of trying to change the reality around access for men of color entering into the tech world.

Could you give me an example that is emblematic of this lack of representation?

There are dozens of well-known examples of large tech algorithms being coded in a way that is biased and doesn’t represent the community at large. At the end of the day, coding still can include the biases of whoever is doing that coding. The coders are the people who have a certain sort of perspective on that.

You’ve written and spoken about how AI and big data can help with our nation’s issues with poverty. When did you first start to think of technology as a tool that can help us with that?

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t at Stanford. Before I was at Stanford, I was the co-founder and CEO of a company called Single Stop USA, which was about how to coordinate and navigate the trillion-dollar safety net, instead of having to access multiple agencies and multiple services.

We have this huge infrastructure of governmental and non-governmental organizations to ameliorate and/or solve poverty for the millions of people who are poor, and yet accessing it and searching for what you need is very, very complex. So we were setting up these one-stop centers where we were offering access to everything from Medicaid to food stamps to child care to counseling to legal services. And in the growth of that initiative across the country, there were new tech tools being built, which were able to much more quickly search and match different services and benefits for low-income people.

It helped us grow to serve two million households and create $4 billion worth of impact. That growth never would’ve been possible without simplifying the sort of search-and-access process for clients and social workers and facilitating information in a way that wasn’t really possible before technology tools became available.

I think what your work is highlighting is that poverty comes to us in many different forms, one of which is lack of access and a lack of clear resources.

I think that’s absolutely right. The lack of information ends up feeding into the lack of access because time and money are real barriers.

Possibly the biggest revolution around issues in equality that’s coming up has to do with individualized education. We’re still in the 19th-century agrarian educational system which is rapidly being dismantled, and we’re not sure exactly what’s going to be the replacement, but we’re still putting people in a classroom from 8 am– 3 pm and then their parents work until 7 or 8 at night…

The system that we have is a one-dimensional system in terms of the way children learn, so we’re not able to very effectively target special needs or children who are advanced in certain ways. Even for children on a “normal” path or trajectory, we’re not able to reinforce concepts easily or track back to things that are more difficult, because teachers — if they have the time to do that — have to analyze those needs one at a time. Teachers on average have 35 children in the class for a few hours a week and they may have some special-needs children who have needs that require 50% of their time, so it just doesn’t work out that way. But if you can add in the ability individualized education and AI to target and supplement the work of teachers in the classroom all of a sudden you open up all of these worlds of possibilities on a whole spectrum of learners. I think that’s going to be the huge change in the way we teach education and, quite frankly, how effective education is.

Given your work and research, are there specific skills or subjects or techniques that aren’t being taught? Are there other soft skills or hard skills they should be learning?

I think the revolution in individualized learning of applying artificial intelligence to education isn’t about one subject or one contact area; it’s that it allows you to rethink everything. Right now, if you’re privileged and you have access to specialized tutoring and extra support and can take specialized classes outside of school, or you go to a private school that offers a much greater variety of classes and you have tutors and summer programs you can go to, you’re able to really target your education towards your further interests. You’re able to explore more quickly what you like, and you’re also able to get support for your difficulties there.

Right now, that’s really only available to privileged students, but there’s no reason in the next few years that it won’t become available to every student. If you’re gonna be able to go online and actually work on an advanced math curriculum you might not have right now at your school in inner-city Detroit, let’s say, all of that’s opening up to people. Similarly, if you have challenges in an area that an algorithm can help you with by targeting specific questions or areas of difficulty in your learning, you don’t necessarily need a teacher or tutor to do that for you, whereas before you had to pay for that class. I think it’s going to enable a very, very different way of allowing low-income kids to access the type of information and individualized attention that heretofore only the very privileged had access to.

I think that’s part of why it’s really important for us for our program to remain free, and for us to try to remove as many barriers to access as possible, like covering transportation costs. It’s already hard to give up an entire summer.

It’s very hard. I also think that things like transportation and stuff really get in the way. One thing that I would say is that teaching coding is critical and everybody should learn it, and it’s not being taught broadly in the school system. What All Star Code’s doing is really important, and hopefully, over time, we can make coding available to all youth.

Your work also seems very interdisciplinary when it comes to fighting poverty, and your background is as a lawyer. How does that inform your approach towards poverty and education?

Before I did a law degree, I actually did a degree in policy and education between the Kennedy and the Education Schools at Harvard, and I think that it’s more my cumulative life experience and all the things that I’ve worked in that informed my approach. I think one of the most challenging issues with solving poverty in America is the silos that we’ve built up that are in our government system or in our not-for-profit services, so that if somebody comes in and they have a housing crisis, people look at it just in terms of a housing issue, or in terms of eviction. In reality, people are getting evicted because there’s the issue of stable access to work or they’ve been paying an extra $300 per month in groceries. But if they were getting their food stamps they wouldn’t have to be paying, and therefore they have more money to pay their rent. It’s the same with childcare — people aren’t getting their childcare credit and so they’re paying high wages for childcare when in reality childcare could be free for them.

I think the fact is that we look at these as single issues, like we look at it as a childcare issue or we look at it as a housing issue or as a legal services issue, or we look at it as a job readiness issue, when the reality is that most conditions of poverty are very dynamic and helping solve one helps alleviate another. So one of the biggest challenges is that we have all these resources but we’re not really coordinating and looking at them across areas.

At the end of the day, that means looking at it from the eyes of the client. Clients are thinking “I have an issue of eviction — I don’t have enough money to pay the rent”, and that comes in lots of different forms. If their medicine’s paid for them, ultimately they have more money to pay the rent, or if they don’t have childcare issues they may have more money to pay the rent, or they can work longer hours. So I think that our systems aren’t set up to experience the complications of poverty as clients experience them, and therefore they’re not really set up to resolve them.

And so you would view your clients as people who are trapped in poverty in this case?

There are 30 million people in poverty in the US, and the mobility engine that America was 30 years ago is really reversing. One of our challenges is to figure out how to change that track.

Is there a specific — this is sort of a big question, but I feel like it’s an important one to ask — one resource or idea that you would like to mention or impart onto our students in terms of succeeding in a system which seems large and complex and difficult?

I think the most important thing that All Star Code can teach students is that they are not alone. They look around the classroom and they see other teachers, as well as other students, who are young men of color and who are learning the same things and achieving the same success, and that there are resources out there to help them pursue their education. The fact that they’re put in a classroom with other young men like themselves and they can see themselves, and know that a college and technology career trajectory is completely available for them is really important because they don’t always see that around them.

Are there any other parting thoughts you’d like to add?

I’ve been really inspired by Christina and her vision, as well as the board and the work of the organization. We’ve met a number of students now and they’re really extraordinary. They’re really special and I think there’s nothing like All Star Code out there. We need to figure out how to replicate it across the country so that many more young men have access. I think the big issue right now is that there are literally probably millions of young men we could be serving and we’re not there yet. I think there’s a big challenge ahead of us but I also think we’re right at the vanguard, and it’s exciting work.

All Star Code creates economic opportunity by developing a new generation of boys and young men of color with an entrepreneurial mindset who have the tools they need to succeed in a technological world. All Star Code envisions a country where all young men of color have access to the tools of success, where the ability to thrive is available to all who are willing to dare greatly.

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