On Changing Winds: Social Work & Building Tech Futures for Black Students

“We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.”
Mary McLeod Bethune leads a line of girls from the school she founded. ca, 1905. State Archives of Florida

Part 1: On Dreaming of Social Justice and Technology

These words are by the indomitable race woman, Mary McLeod Bethune. A lion among men and women, she dedicated her life to building learning environments for black children to dream wildly their greatest ambitions. As a social worker, I have always thought of my research and community activism as working in the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune. Mary McLeod Bethune could figuratively lift her finger in the changing American winds and divine the proverbial coming storms, droughts, and seasons of plenty for black youth and black communities. And, with this knowledge, she would set herself to the task of welding and cultivating worlds of opportunity, to mark the coming season . . . the changing season, for those whose skin denied them every inalienable right. With this sense of discernment, she, first, founded a school for little black girls, and then she founded a historically black college and university, Bethune-Cookman College. You see, Mary McLeod Bethune saw the writings on the wall and responded with urgency and intentional haste to build a legacy of learning for black students.

And, with this same sense of divining the times, I, too, move with a sense of urgency and intentional haste to help solve the 21st Century challenge of why there are so few black students majoring in STEM and computational sciences. My solution, like Mary McLeod Bethune’s founding of school systems, is about honoring the dreams and ambitions of black students by centering their vocational interests and choices at the center of this discussion of tech employment. For instance, we know black students choose low-earning, but community empowering majors and careers like counseling, social work, and community organizing (Carnevale, Fasules, Porter, and Landis-Santos, 2016). Of course, these choices are not wholly motivated by altruism, but also motivated by chronically underfunded public schools that tend to track black students into lower math courses and not into STEM AP courses which lead to majoring in such courses in college (Kapor Center for Social Impact). Though black youth must survive many “leaky tech pipeline” barriers such stereotype threat, environmental cues, and chronic under funding of public schools (Kapor Center), in addition to working to patch the pipeline, I believe one way to assist in their fight against such barriers is to share how social justice and technology can be their daily careers beyond the capturing of racial violence against black and brown bodies on their phones or managing their personal or organizational social media accounts.

Like Mary McLeod Bethune it is our duty to create new learning environments that will teach Black students about the emerging disciplines of “public interest technology,” which requires that students have an understanding of tech policy such as Net Neutrality and not just technical skills (e.g. Coding) to advocate for people who look like them. We can design learning environments that will teach black students how to fight against the prison industrial complex on-the-ground as activist, but also as tech social entrepreneurs like Kourtney Ziegler who created the app, Appolition, which crowd-sources funds to pay bail bond and other court fees for arrested individuals.

In dreaming widely, we can build curriculum that teaches black students how to deconstruct algorithms like the co-founder of Data 4 Black Lives, Yeshi and the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Joy Buolamwini, and how to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to support global sustainability initiatives with the co-founder of Black in AI, Timnit Gebru. We could create college courses that teach them how to fight lead poisoning in water by using coding and crowdfunding to pay people’s unjust water bills as demonstrated in the work of the Human Utility Project. We could develop new social work schools that will teach about the terms “civic tech” and “gov tech” and how governments, both locally and nationally, are using more technology to better deliver safety net and health services to constituents. We can develop national partnerships with the Net-gain Partnership, Code for America (Jennifer Pahlka), FUSE Corps FUSE Corps, Tech Congress TechCongress, and Civic Hacker to showcase for students what new careers are emerging in this new space of technology, social justice, and government.

Yes, I dream of new learning environments for all students, but particularly for black students, that will marry the worlds of STEM and computational sciences with social justice. With this being said, the immediate discipline that comes to mind for this type of radical dreaming and teaching is the field of social work.

Part 2: On Building a Dream in the Discipline of Social Work

2018 National Association of Social Workers’ Slogan

As tech companies struggle to recruit and retain black workers, the field of social work is one of the most chosen majors and professions for black students and an ideal place to build tech career pipelines and pathways (Carnevale, Fasules, Porter, and Landis-Santos, 2016). There are three technological trends that make social work ideal ground to seed such a dream of technological and social justice training. First, technology is shifting the social worker domain by influencing the transformation of social problems and social inequities such as an increase in community violence due to social media, now named “Internet banging” (Desmond U.Patton,PHD). It is also changing how clients receive services and assistance, such as Code for America’s Cal Freshand Clear My Record. These new challenges require social workers to understand how various tech platforms are shaping the behavioral and mental health of their clients.

Secondly, economists project that 47% of American workers are at high risk of their jobs being automated (Frey and Osborne, 2013). Though scholars and researchers vary on when general artificial intelligence or full computerization will happen (Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, 2016), the effects of unemployment will be felt in many industries especially with the launching of autonomous vehicles. The Center for Global Policy Solutions’ 2017 report, Stick Shift: Autonomous Vehicles, Driving Jobs, and the Future of Work, projects that “White men, who represent the largest segment of our nation’s drivers, will be heavily hit. African American, Latino, and Native American drivers would also be disproportionately harmed, since they are over represented in these roles compared with their percentage of the US workforce; what’s more, these groups earn a “driving premium” from these occupations, meaning they earn more from driving than they could from non-driving jobs” (Maya Rockeymoore, 2017). Given these outcomes, unemployed US workers will need many safety net programs and social services from workforce development needs to basic income needs (Austin, Bucknor, Cashman, and Rockeymoore, 2017). Given the projected volume of unemployed people who will need social services due to automation, it is important to have a social service workforce who can meet the projected need and who can utilize technology to address the need.

Thirdly, this trend of unemployment due to automation is augmented by the fact that many cities are investing in Smart City projects to improve efficiency, manage complexity, enhance citizen quality of life and solve social issues. At least 54 cities in the US are launching some type of Smart City project to address the “Rapid growth in urban population . . . strained infrastructure and resources . . . For example, more densely populated cities cause traffic congestion, which in turn causes air pollution and health difficulties. Other issues facing cities include public safety and the challenges of an aging society” (Cornett et al. 1996, 2).

In Gaining Ground: A Guide to Facilitating Technology Innovation in Human Services (2015), Gill conducts an extensive qualitative study, both content analysis of innovative tech programs in government and interviews with human service professionals, about how governments are using technology to improve services and benefits for clients. Gill (2015) finds that cities and states are moving rapidly to use technology to solve social service problems and outline a type of disruptive human service framework that is emerging from such innovations. Overall, government is in need of a more tech literate workforce because government organizations employ more social workers than any other industry, nearly 67% of employed social workers are employed at the local, state, or federal level (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016).

The aforementioned technological trends make social work ideal ground to seed a dream for black youth of a different type of social work training program and curriculum that addresses technology and issues of social inequality and social justice.

Part 3: On a Dream Not Being “Deferred”

Like Mary McLeod Bethune, with this same sense of divining the times, I, too, move with a sense of urgency and intentional haste to help solve the 21st Century challenge of why there are so few black students majoring in STEM and computational sciences. My solution, like Mary McLeod Bethune’s founding of school systems, is about honoring the dreams and ambitions of black students by centering their vocational interests and choices on this discussion of tech employment.

I dream so that people who look like me have multiple and alternative pathways into tech careers and fields. I know quite intimately as a black girl child how joblessness, alcoholism, and intersecting systems of oppression and inequality (e.g. Racism, Sexism, etc.) can shape the life outcomes of people who look like me. I know jobs matter and not in the stereotypical ways we tend to discuss employment and black people (e.g. Black people are lazy and Welfare Queens), but in the liberating sense of charting our collective destinies as echoed in the Kwanzaa principle of Kujichagulia (e.g. Self Determination).

Therefore, not only do I dream, but I also conduct qualitative research, funded by the Kapor Center for Social Impact GRIT Fellowship, on the variables needed to build what I now term, “social service-based tech careers.” In my research, I interviewed experts and scholars in the fields of social work, gov tech, civic tech, and historically black colleges and universities to outline opportunities and challenges with building such a domain in the discipline of social work. My study found that, overall, experts saw technology as a tool to increase or decrease the effects of systemic oppression (e.g. Bias AI or tech hardware being able to capture violence against black people) or to widen and/or reduces the gap of economic mobility for poor people and people of color (e.g. Expose black students to tech skills that will increase their economic mobility [a way out of poverty]). All social worker respondents believed the field of social work is not preparing students for how technology is shaping social inequalities. They outlined that schools of social work must build accrediting standards, policies, tenure practices, grant opportunities (e.g. Fund people working at the intersections of tech and social work), courses, practicums, and placements that will prepare black students, and all students, for this new world of technology and social work.

In this new and ever emerging world of driver-less cars and rockets to Mars, my sincere hope is that we can use a slither of that genius to ensure that black students have access to new tech careers that support them economically and support their interest in helping to make their communities better and places of technological wonderment.

I, too, like Mary McLeod Bethune, dream of schools for black students to DREAM, wildly.