How To Bridge The Racial Tech Gap

Jan 15, 2014
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later, we want to hear about why a federal judge has rejected a nearly multibillion dollar settlement - sorry, a multimillion dollar settlement that the NFL reached with former players. We'll hear what that could mean going forward. But first, we want to talk about a new report from the Pew Research Center that finds that only 80 percent of African-Americans are Internet users compared with 87 percent of whites.

And while that might not seem like a big difference, there is growing concern that this gap, which is even bigger when it comes to access to high-speed broadband at home, still puts African-Americans at a disadvantage. We've been particularly interested in growing the African-American and Latino presence in the so-called STEM fields. In other words, science, technology, engineering and math. We hope that you've heard or will go back and check out some of the conversations around our #NPRBlacksinTech and #NPRLatism series. We thought that this report gives us a good reason to invite some of our contributes back to weigh in on these issues. So joining us now Roxann Stafford. She is a design strategist at SecondMuse. That's a firm that works with businesses, nonprofits, communities and governments to create social change through innovation. Welcome back.


MARTIN: Ana Roca-Castro is CEO of Plaza Familia and founder of Latinos in Tech, Innovation and Social Media or LATISM. Welcome back to you as well.


MARTIN: And Mario Armstrong is a digital lifestyle expert. He collaborated with us in our NPR Blacks in Tech Series. Mario, welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Thanks for having me. Thanks for having me here.

MARTIN: So first of all, let's talk about this report. The Pew Research Center is doing snapshots of technology use among different groups of adults, and this is the first one. And as we said that there is a gap between blacks and whites when it comes to overall Internet use, but there's an even bigger gap when you look at Internet connection in the home. Seventy-four percent of white adults have some sort of broadband connection in the home compared with just 62 percent of African-Americans according to that Pew study.

Now important to note, young college-educated higher-income African-Americans are just as likely to use the Internet and have broadband at home, but there's a big gap among older black Americans and blacks who've not attended college. They're much less likely to have broadband or Internet use than white seniors or whites with comparable educations. So, Roxann, I'm going to start with you - ask why do you think this gap exists and does it matter?

STAFFORD: This gap definitely matters. You know, as we're talking about the need to grow an inclusive innovation economy - inclusive from the standpoint of different backgrounds, but also ages - so we must make sure that access is addressed. So when I start thinking about access in the communities that I'm working in, its, again, yes part of it is the broadband access, but the other part is really understanding how and why you're using these things.

MARTIN: Well, why does it matter 'cause some people might say, well, that's just a lifestyle choice. I mean, you know, if people don't want to be on Twitter, so what?

STAFFORD: Well, more and more we're seeing the ways in which we interact with our government, the ways in which we interact with each other, the ways in which we can even get day-to-day means are done on an Internet-based platform. And if we don't have access to that, and again, this can come through phones or other things, but not having access means your left out of the conversation and left out of the picture. We know if we want to move forward as a community, a collective community, everyone needs to be a part of that conversation.

MARTIN: Ana, this isn't just an issue that affects African-Americans. Pew did a similar report on Latinos last year that found that around 78 percent are Internet users. And we've heard the other figures for sort of other communities. Your thoughts on why you think that is and if you think that matters?

ROCA-CASTRO: It matters a lot and the gap definitely exists. And for us, it matters in many ways. We have family in our countries of origin still. So it matters in the interpersonal connection, in the inter-generational connections. But it also matters in the schools. So right now, no child can really do research or complete a full homework without going to Google or without having a good research tool, which is usually online. If they rely on the typical encyclopedia, that's it. You're outdated. And even for the jobs, I mean, you can't even get a McDonald's job without going online and applying online. So it's a huge digital divide, and of course, it affects kids in education, but it also affects adults when it comes to job and employment.

MARTIN: You know, Mario, when it comes Internet access on mobile devices it does show that the gap is a lot lower there. That the numbers are of access and use...


MARTIN: ...Are a lot higher for mobile...


MARTIN: ...Devices. So, you know, are cell phones and tablets, for that matter - are those the great equalizer? Is that enough?

ARMSTRONG: No that's nowhere near enough. And I think this is so critical for people to understand this. Just because there's data that's being put out there that suggests - that says oh, more African- Americans and minorities of color are using mobile devices, that means they're experiencing the full Internet. That is so far from the truth. Number one, you cannot create anything of really significant proportion on a mobile device. So you can consume a lot of everything. So the difference of what I want people to really think about when it comes to digital divide and the access is are we training people to become consumers or are we training people to become creators? And so I think when you look at that, yes we can all hop on Twitter on our mobile devices. We can search the Internet. We can shop. We can get entertainment information. But I can't build a webpage. I cannot build an app. I cannot program certain things and create certain things to a large degree from these mobile devices.

So there's still a huge gap and a huge divide. And to your earlier point about that generational gap, I think that is a critical issue. We're talking about more Americans becoming older, needing the Internet, more and more healthcare options are going to be served online through mobile devices and technology. I just got back from the CES - Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It's the World Cup of technology conferences. And the digital help section of that conference has expanded threefold. So this is really, really critical not only for literacy and education because I do believe if you can't use technology, you are illiterate - not just digitally illiterate, but just illiterate. Some people may argue with me on that point, but that's how passionate I am about people understanding the relevancy of using technology to better their life.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I think you make an important point about how much of the health care - how much access to health care takes place online or even access to kind of those entry-level things. I mean, we've talked so much about, you know, Obamacare and the difficulties with that, but...


MARTIN: I think many people don't understand how much is already online. And I also think, perhaps, the caregiver issue that many grandparents...


MARTIN: ...Are raising children of school age. And if they have no connection to technology, how are they...

ARMSTRONG: Great point.

MARTIN: ...In a position to mentor or offer access to the students that they are raising? If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new Pew report that looks at race and Internet use. We're talking about this with a few of our #NPRBlacksinTech and #NPRLatism contributors Ana Roca-Castro, Mario Armstrong and Roxann Stafford. The Pew study also pointed out that African-Americans and Latinos have a huge presence on social media sites, though like Twitter and Facebook.

Now we've talked about this a lot, you know, before. So, Ana Roca-Castro, I wanted to ask you again, I mean, positive or negative because a lot of people think that this is just, you know, garbage time, basically. That there's really no - there's, you know, it's fun, it's entertaining, but that this doesn't kind of yield any bigger, you know, there's no bigger picture here. And I just wanted to get your thoughts on that as a person who's a consumer and a creator.

ROCA-CASTRO: Well, you know, it's very positive simply because of the fact of that unified voice that speaks louder than just one person screaming I have rights or you forgot me and so on. So I think the collective voice is really when the power comes in. However, we over index in social media, but we don't over index when it comes to creating that content. So many times, we're just like parrots - repeating what others say. And I think that's the point of LATISM. Let's really start creating our own voices and our own messages and our own movement.

MARTIN: I'm curious, though, if you worry at all about the silo effect - was it that people are, you know - they'll only talk to people who already agree with them anyway. That you really don't get the - kind of the benefit of a broader, you know - a broader society, you know, as it were. I mean, I'm not one of those, like, let's go back to the old days where everybody had to get the evening paper and a little kid with a hat was, you know, throwing it on your doorstep. So that's - for all kinds of reasons, we're not feeling that. But there was some sense of kind of a common shared base of information. Do you ever worry about that?


MARTIN: It's another form of segregation.

ROCA-CASTRO: Go to the #LATISM and you'll find everything but that same voice. I mean, you have Republicans and Democrats killing each other over that little hash tag. And I love it because it's the diverse level of voices and messages and so on. So no, I don't think there is a unified - but when it comes to rights and specific bills, there is a unification.

MARTIN: Roxann, what do you think - social media use and as Ana Roca-Castro pointed out, you know, minorities - blacks and Latinos over indexed in presence on these sites. Is that a net positive or a net negative in your view?

STAFFORD: I think it's a positive as long as we're connecting it to action. So I think both Ana and Mario talked about the piece of helping us move from consumers to creators. And I'd like to add another movement into entrepreneurs around that, right. So if you are having lots of your interaction and knowledge base coming from Twitter, coming from Facebook, my call to action is really asking you to step back and reflect on what is that conversation saying that could lead to action? Right. And so as long as this on-life presence leads to moving forward in the community, I'm all for it. And we know that it's a powerful way to get things started.

If we look at the Arab Spring, if we look at lots of movements that have been started recently, these voices start with a tweet here, a tweet there, but the power comes when people move and collaborate together. Get in the streets, learn about the actual needs and start building and moving forward. So I want our youth today to really think about, again, that shift. We're consuming. We're starting to create. Now let's be entrepreneurs around what we're creating to see change.

ARMSTRONG: And, Michel, to your point...

MARTIN: Mario, your thoughts.

ARMSTRONG: And to your point, yeah. To your point, I think we should help people understand the power of getting out of the echo chamber, being able to follow diverse voices so that you do have a more comprehensive understanding of what society is talking about and what issues mean what to certain demographics. I do believe the power of Twitter gives you the opportunity to brand yourself as an expert or as a source in some way.

But I think a lot of people think of Twitter as something where it's frivolous. That you spend time talking about meaningless things. You don't have to talk about anything. The real power of Twitter is doing a lot of listening. So I think, you know, even in the way the software is set up, it's like hey, if you like Michel, you may also like this person because Michel follows that person. It almost pushes you into the echo chamber. So you really need to be aware of that point that you made - that astute point that you made so that you can really maximize using social for some meaningful impact.

MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking about that. This kind of is a nice segue to the last thing I wanted to talk about, which is this whole question of mentorship and visibility. And one of the things that came out of both of our #NPRLatism and #NPRBlacksinTech discussions is the need - really the hunger for young people to pursue STEM careers - once again, science, technology, engineering and math - but also the need to see somebody or to connect with people who kind of show you a path to doing that. And, Roxann, you know, I still have to wonder, you know, how does that happen when, you know, we're used to this idea that mentors and mentees should share similar backgrounds. But, you know, as we've pointed out that African-Americans make up 5 percent of America's scientists and engineers. So how does that happen? How does that mentorship invisibility happen building from such a small base?

STAFFORD: Well, one thing we can start with is the mechanism we were just talking about, like, social media can really play that role. So even if you don't have someone who is a coder in your direct community, you can start turning and figuring out who are those people and start following them. I think another important aspect of this and thinking about who is a mentor and how to, you know, really take advantage of mentorship is to understand that in addition to having a similar maybe racial ethnic background, we want, also, to have people who understand needs in your community. If they have a similar understanding that you do and want to grow, they can walk along that path with you and become a mentor. So as we are waiting - 'cause it's a process of building and growing that 5 percent to more - we can continue also to look to others that want to work in this space.

MARTIN: Ana, what do you think about that?

ROCA-CASTRO: I think it's a real commitment that we all, in STEM, have to make to the community and to the kids out there. You know, 5 percent of your time has to be spent going to the schools, going and talking to kids and volunteering in those programs that are already helping, you know. I have a great example. LPFI, Level Playing Field Institute, they do these match programs. And, you know, 58 percent of their graduates end up choosing STEM careers because they're finally exposed to STEM careers, which is not what happens in the regular high school in our minority communities.

MARTIN: Well, what about that whole question, though? I mean, one of the things that came out of some of those conversations that we had on those two hasghtags is that minority professionals feel that they are already under a very great deal of pressure to succeed just on the professional side. And then to then ask them to take on this additional responsibility, I mean, a lot of them said that they'd love to, but they say, you know what? Their first responsibility is to excellence in their fields to show that they can do it and I - I mean, how do you balance that?

ROCA-CASTRO: You know, I'm in that situation. I'm always pulled from a hundred places while at the same time, I'm trying just to make it happen. But we organize career fairs in the different schools, and it really takes one day every six months - one morning of your day. Just go. And the feeling of fulfillment and of giving back, paying it forward that you get is way better - trust me. It is just such a satisfaction that you feel when you see those kids that look like you and look like you were as a child. They look to you as a superhero when you tell them, oh, I develop games - wow, that's so cool. I think it's really - it pays back. That's all I can tell any professional out there.

MARTIN: Mario, final thought from you on this.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I just - I think that is absolutely ridiculous for people to actually think that they should not - that they don't have a responsibility to actually give back to the community. That's just...

MARTIN: Well, my question really is more that is it all on the 5 percent or how about the 95 percent that isn't black?


ARMSTRONG: But that's the...

MARTIN: That's my question.

ARMSTRONG: That's the whole point. See, I think we're - I think part of what we're focusing on is just that 5 percent. We don't need to focus on that 5 percent. There are many entrepreneurs, innovators, technologists that don't fall under computer science-related...


ARMSTRONG: ...Degree that are amazing role models.

STAFFORD: Absolutely.

ARMSTRONG: And many of them are doing that type of work. But I got to tell you this - look, from your work on this series for both Hispanic as well as African-American on this series, I decided, you know what? I'm one of those 95 percenters. We're going to do something. So we're launching a free e-book called "Dream, Create, Go." It's going to come out fall 2014 of this school year. It's an e-book that is free. It can be accessed on mobile devices, on the web.

And all it's going to do is show original video of people of different diversity - women, adults, different ethnicities - and what their work is like. We're taking video into their jobs and showing young kids and young girls and young boys people that look like them that are working in these positions, that are happy, that are living a fulfilling life, how they got there, what their obstacles were, what their challenges that they face. So kids love video. And they want to be able to pinch and zoom and touch and highlight. And so I'm really excited about this educational product that we're going to put out to really help with helping kids find mentorship. My other really quick point is mentors out there, stop coming up with excuses. You don't need to be there physically.


ARMSTRONG: You can do so much online.

STAFFORD: That's right.

ARMSTRONG: You can do Skype.


ARMSTRONG: Webinars. There are so many things that we're trying to do within our book that's going to extend beyond people...


ARMSTRONG: ...People just looking at an app or looking at book.

MARTIN: Well, to your point...

ARMSTRONG: But also creating stronger mentorship.

MARTIN: To your point, I can't see you, which is why you can't see me saying wrap it up, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I'm sorry.

MARTIN: All right, Mario Armstrong is a digital lifestyle expert. He joined us from member station WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland. Ana Roca-Castro is CEO of Plaza Familia and founder of Latinos in Tech, Innovation and Social media or at LATISM. And she was here in Washington, D.C. along with Roxann Stafford, design strategist at SecondMuse. Thank you all so much for joining us.

ROCA-CASTRO: Thank you.

STAFFORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.