The following excerpt has been modified from the working manuscript of “This Is the Work,” a forthcoming book and podcast series. “This is The Work” shares insights and lessons-learned from TAF, a Seattle-based organization that grew from an after-school program to a nationally recognized action-leader in STEM education. In this excerpt, we retell insights from a former TAF employee reflecting on being an innovator in STEM. Learn more about TAF and “This is the Work” on Kickstarter. — #TAFSTORY

David D. Harris does not pop his own collar. He is a rare instance of someone who is soft-spoken yet powerful; humble while highly-visible; contemplative, yet a decisive risk-taker, and a serial entrepreneur. In the greater Seattle community, David is a quiet giant. He is also a self-described ‘hacker.’ A person who can take something designed for one thing and artfully repurpose it for another, and in doing so, derive an increased value or benefit from the new use. Hacking is both a science and art to David. It is deeply personal.

“We don’t do copy and paste. We do original artwork!”

His softly stated metaphor is a comparative critique of mainstream educational reform efforts in contrast to the work he engaged in at TAF. In his eyes, public educators face unnecessarily restrictive conditions that often stifle students and teachers from being collaborative, creative, and compassionate problem-solvers. The current education system was not designed with our communities in mind. The current system needs to be hacked! Before his current role as the Startup Advocate for the City of Seattle, David had a five-year tenure as the STEM Program Manager at TAF Academy — TAF’s flagship sixth through twelfth grade, college-preparatory, STEM school. Before that, David spent time at Microsoft and Apple.

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David D. Harris, Cultural Entrepreneur (former TAF STEM Program Manager)

“You can’t expect students to explore and find new things if [teachers and school administration] are only convergent thinkers,” David argues.

In his view, convergence is a way of looking at problems that prioritizes sameness, consolidation, and terminality. Convergence wants to get to the end of things — it is reductionist, it wants things done. David considers convergence a necessary but insufficient perspective.

“We design multiple solutions that are relevant and context-based.”

To explore problems deeply, David believes adults must also push for and model innovative “divergent” behaviors, ones that prioritize and create dynamic learning spaces driven by a “culture of experimentation.” The continuous pressure on teachers and students for efficiency, standardization, and conformity are too industrial, he explains. They subvert nonlinear creative processes and community building that are necessary to meet our societies’ most wicked problems. David references Paulo Freire, William Grose, Octavia Butler, Nina Simone, and John Dewey as he shares his values. He emphasizes that students and teachers need flexible space, mobility, and online supports to try new things. They must be afforded the opportunity to create meaning for themselves based on their identity, values, networks, and prior learning. He is acutely aware of the interconnectedness of community, environment, relationships, technology, and place. Each comprises a key area he suggests is necessary to help students and teachers push beyond themselves and into new worlds of science, art, and sociality.

“My only job was to innovate. Almost from day one, [my program] was new. Something that we got to create — it wasn’t handed to us. We were given a canvas,” David chuckles, “It wasn’t always a blank canvas…sometimes it was mixed media.”

David extends his metaphor of using ‘art’ and ‘design’ as ways to discuss both TAF and his current work. He never seems to tire from expounding on layer-after-layer of rich experiences that have garnered him notable recognition, including winner of the Crosscut 2017 Courage Award in Technology and a finalist competing against former Microsoft executive, Paul Allen, for the Geekwire, “Geek of the Year” in 2015.

“I’ve seen similar roles in other schools but never seen a formula like that. It was radical. As a hacker on campus, my job was to disrupt. It took a lot of finesse to flow within the administration, to flow within industry, and flow within students, parents, and TAF.”

David uses flow as a verbal descriptor for multimodal movements and differentiated approaches to facilitation among various stakeholders. In sitting with him, David conjures a Slick Rick-esque narrative ability with a calm and patient cadence. It should be codified into a podcast called “The Art of Hacking.” He makes an analogy between early 70’s disc-jockeys who repurposed turntables and microphones to give birth to a music genre called hip-hop; and the way this generation of student-hackers must learn to repurpose the Internet, social media, and emerging technologies to create better socioeconomic realities. Realities that sound, look, and feel different from the status quo hierarchies of race, class, gender, and ability we experience today.

For this to happen, he contends, our communities must learn to code virtual and augmented realities — and not at the expense of being able to “code” substance and meaning into our physical world. He is an enthusiast of Arduino, making, physical engineering, and design, in as much as he is a student of asset-based community development (ABCD) and self-determination theory. David could easily be described as an Afro-futurist. He is meaningfully disruptive and intentional in every detail.

As an example, our meeting took place at one of Seattle’s few rooftop co-working spaces — a space that is home to several prominent techno-social artists and innovators. The location, his choice, was an apt environment for contextualizing our conversation which spanned the topics of STEM, gentrification, education, and community development. We could hear, see, and feel the energy from the heart of Seattle’s bustling, historically LGBTQ neighborhood turned gentrified business district, Capitol Hill. The building was chic and modern; framed in glass, replete with a reasonable library and full-bar of select spirits, bitters, and artisanal mixers. A baby grand piano oversaw sweeping views of Seattle’s crane laced skyline. It was a breathtaking snapshot that inspired creativity and innovation, coupled with nearly every office amenity one could want in a workspace. It was nonetheless not lost on us that we were the only Black folk present, and there seemed to be just one woman in the space. We were literally sitting in the material stuff of our conversation. Our location was an instantiation of the complex systems of privilege that deny many nonwhite communities across all genders, and some white women, access to premium resources, space, and social networks, which are necessary for equitable performance in Seattle’s exclusive technology ecosystem. David, however, is the opposite of a gatekeeper. He leans forward in his chair and begins to break down his philosophy and approach to the discipline of building “on-ramps” for others to access “new worlds.”

When asked what he values most about his experience and community, David breaks his normally contemplative demeanor and begins to smile and bounce his shoulders, singing a classic Saul Williams refrain:

“Hacker. I’m a hacker. I’m a hacker in your hard-drive.”

Listen to Saul William’s Burundi track on Spotify, but first, please contribute to our Kickstarter.

This is the work!

About the Author

Zithri Ahmed Saleem is the former Director of Strategy for Technology Access Foundation and a current Ph.D. student at the University of Washington Information School. He researches how entrepreneurs and social innovators learn and collaborate as they design new ideas, products, and services.

IG, Twitter: @ZithriSaleem

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Information science researcher specialized in the design and evaluation of technology programs, policies, and products.

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