Democratizing Tech Education at the Brooklyn Public Library

Sometimes I get asked the following question: “How are libraries going to be able to keep up with technology and the internet?” The implication, on some level, is that libraries are obsolete, or a relic of some other, analog time. Since I started working with BPL, however, I’ve had to grapple with a very different, and in some ways, opposing question: “How can technology education operate with more of the principles and practices of a public library?”

In 2017-2018, I was able to work with the Brooklyn Public Library as a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellow in order to help shape the role the organization can and should play as a significant hub of community technology education in New York City. I learned how to work within a major public institution, grew as a teacher and facilitator, and had the rare opportunity to put in practice principles of critical community technology pedagogy in an impactful way.

Public libraries are free, and at their best are self-directed, intergenerational, place-based, privacy-conscious, culturally- and politically-relevant spaces of learning. Why aren’t most of our spaces of technology education?

Many private tech bootcamps are too expensive to be accessible to the majority of New Yorkers, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are, by definition, not centered in the place or culture of most of the people being taught, and traditional schooling is struggling in its own field to increase representation of girls and students of color.

What if there were democratic, POC-led, intergenerational, culturally-relevant spaces for building power and knowledge around technology? I saw some great examples in Liberating Ourselves Locally: POC-Led Makerspace in Oakland, and so much of what was coming out of Allied Media Projects. I was inspired by the feminist marine biology lab Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) in Newfoundland, and the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s youth-led Urban Investigations. The libraries in New York City already serve as leading providers of free public WiFi, hardware, and classes, and I felt that I could help expand this role.

At the same time, so much is at stake for those marginalized by technology: biased criminal risk scoring algorithms, a long history of surveillance of black bodies, simultaneously widespread and inaccurate facial recognition usage, and social lives mediated almost completely through mobile social technologies all serve as a reminder that even as an advocate for more ubiquitous tech education, all technology is not created equal, and uncritical technology cheerleading is not the answer. I knew that any foray into digital literacy education with hopes of empowering marginalized people would need to engage with and have meaningful impact on the power structures that have allowed these risks to be levied against them in the first place.

Brownsville DiscoTech: Intergenerational Technology Skillshare

In January of 2018, I helped organize an event called the Brownsville DiscoTech, inspired by the DiscoTech model originally developed by the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition in 2012. The goal was to demystify technology and to showcase the diversity of experience and expertise held by people in Brownsville. We focused on attracting the very young and very old (who are often excluded from technology-focused spaces), and on everyone being able to teach something in ten minutes or less.

Around 60 people attended, and more DiscoTechs across Brooklyn are currently being planned by other librarians and library staff.

Some stories we heard from the event:

  • One attendee struggled to figure out how to respond to her children and grandchildren, who constantly send her messages on WhatsApp. Another attendee sat with her to show her how to text back, and to send voice messages.
  • Several children and adults had their first experience with robotics, as Malik Gist and Mike Danza from Kingsborough Community College showed people how to use and modify a lego robot.
  • One station manager brought a solar powered backpack, while another had a portable wireless network kit for use in disasters, in need of an off-the-grid power source.
  • The elders in charge of the 37-year-old Brownsville Heritage House expressed that they wanted more similar events to promote technology in the neighborhood, and that they wanted to work more with the library.

The event showed the potential for a way to vastly expand BPL’s capacity to provide relevant, current tech education, without hiring more staff, and without needing any one person to be the end-all be-all expert on everything digital. These kinds of non-hierarchical, democratic, intergenerational event formats are possible in all of the 59 library branches around Brooklyn, and can help inform library staff about what their patrons are interested in learning and teaching.

BklynConnect: Youth Digital Literacy and Consent Education

The Brownsville Discotech, in turn, helped inform the way BPL chose to build a community wireless network in Brownsville, just a few blocks away from the site of the Brownsville Heritage House.

Over 16 weeks in the spring of 2018, I worked with a group of young people in the Brownsville Community Justice Center’s Tech Lab internship program to educate ourselves on networks and how data travels, both from a technical perspective, and from a civic and political perspective. The session gave young people the opportunity to develop marketable skills in web development and wireless networks, to create media to teach an intergenerational audience about data and privacy issues, and to build their own internet/mesh wireless network along Belmont Avenue. Additionally, interns left with the skills to be lifelong learners by using library resources, online resources, and cooperative learning networks.

The curriculum was created in an open document, with guest facilitation by:

By the end of the 14-weeks, the group of young technologists had built a portable local wireless network, had learned basic HTML skills, and had created paper prototypes for apps that work more “consentfully” than their current alternatives. We used Una Lee and Dann Toliver’s Building Consentful Tech zine as a jumping off point, but members of the group quickly recognized their own personal examples, such as nudes being shared without consent, videos of after school fights being non-consensually taken and shared with school authorities, and text messages being secretly screenshotted and used against them. In addition to these harmful interpersonal situations, we also discussed the ways in which technology might be designed in ways that do not prioritize consentfulness. Our group learned about the ways data is collected and used by social media platforms, ridesharing apps, and law enforcement and took note of how the user, while technically giving their consent through agreeing to terms and conditions, is usually not well-informed (or informed at all) about the myriad ways their data will be used.

The group received a scholarship to attend the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, where we facilitated a session called “Young People Building Cultures of Consent In Technology.” In this session, attended by around 30 people, including several other high school students from around the country, we discussed violations of consent involving technology among teenagers, and teams created skits about political, technical, and social solutions to real life scenarios.

Project-based, youth-driven work that leads to real community improvement, and that engages politically with current events can help make digital literacy education more relevant to more students, and more relevant to the world we live in.

Be on Belmont Wifi

In conjunction with the portable network constructed by the young people of the BCJC Tech Lab, a permanent wireless hotspot was constructed on Belmont Avenue for public access on a blossoming commercial corridor in Brownsville. In collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of the CTO’s NYCx Co-Labs program, the Brownsville Community Justice Center, Made in Brownsville, 3 Black Cats, and local young people, a free community wireless hotspot was installed in Osborn Plaza. There are immediate plans to expand this into a mesh network that spans Belmont Avenue from Rockaway Avenue to Mother Gaston Boulevard, and to incorporate it into the Be on Belmont initiative.

Osborn Plaza (image created by Made in Brownsville)

In this neighborhood, home to just under 87,000 people, 43% of residents do not have access to broadband internet at home, and violence, segregation, and disinvestment have made perceptions of commercial corridors in Brownsville such as Belmont Avenue seem unsafe and unappealing to many residents. This new free community wireless network is a complement to existing initiatives by organizations and residents to activate Belmont Avenue, and acts as a focal point for sharing more positive narratives about the neighborhood, as well as to publicize library programs and resources. The construction of the Be on Belmont WiFi network allows the library to expand library services outside it’s physical walls, and creates the possibility for future collaborations in Osborn Plaza such as mobile book check-outs, library card signups, and story time.

Nudge Strategies to Increase Youth Engagement & Prevent Overdue Fees

Outside of my work on BklynConnect, I was able to use my background in design research to conduct a preliminary study of patron behavior around fines and returns in conjunction with UVA’s Nudge4 Solutions Lab. A major portion of children in the system have fines so high that their accounts are blocked, and most of those with blocked accounts never return to the library. Additionally, high fines eventually go to collections, and create unnecessary debt. BPL wants patrons to return to the library, and patrons do not want fines, so how can the service the library offers be better designed to fit into peoples lives and to enable returns? We held four focus groups with parents of 8–12 year olds, and learned that because of failures in communication, patrons often do not know when materials are due, whether or not they have fines, or even what materials they or their children have checked out at any given time. This preliminary research points to a huge opportunity to improve people’s experience with the public library, and points to the possibility of eliminating the need for fines altogether.

a nudge

Conclusion

We know that every community has people interested and skilled in media and technology. However, marginalized communities have fewer spaces and resources to leverage and grow the community’s talents, and more is at stake. There is an unparalleled need, and opportunity, to mobilize people and shared resources towards more just forms of tech education.

My time as an Open Web Fellow has exposed me to people, research, and tactics used globally, but also critically rooted me (or at least shown me the deep roots) of the local communities within Brooklyn.

See also:

  • BklynConnect Playbook
  • Sasha Costanza-Chock, Maya Wagoner, Berhan Taye, Caroline Rivas, Chris Schweidler, Georgia Bullen, & the T4SJ Project, 2018. “#MoreThanCode: Practitioners reimagine the landscape of technology for justice and equity.” Research Action Design & Open Technology Institute. Available online at http://t4sj.co.