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Black Identity, Technology in US Celebrated at Afrotectopia Fest

Being black and working in the tech industry can be an isolating experience.

New York nonprofit Ascend Leadership analyzed the hiring data of hundreds of San Francisco Bay-area tech companies from 2007 and 2015 and issued a report last year, detailing the lack of diversity in tech.

Based on data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Ascend found that the black tech professional workforce declined from 2.5 percent in 2007 to 1.9 percent in 2015. The outlook was even bleaker at the top. Despite 43 percent growth in the number of black executives from 2007 to 2015, blacks accounted for 1.1 percent of the total number of tech executives in 2015.

“You’re one in a sea full of people that just don’t look like you,” said Ari Melenciano, a graduate student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. Melenciano decided to do something about it and created Afrotectopia.

Recently held at NYU, the inaugural 2-day festival brought together black technologists, designers and artists to discuss their work and the challenges of navigating the mostly white world of technology and new media.

“It’s really important for us to be able to see ourselves and build this community of people that actually look like us and are doing amazing things,” Melenciano said.

Glenn Cantave, founder and CEO of performance art coalition Movers and Shakers NYC, was on hand to demonstrate the group’s use of augmented reality and virtual reality, with apps that address racism and discrimination.

“My parents told me from a very young age that ‘You will not be treated like your white friends. There are certain privileges that you do not have,'” said Cantave. “It’s affected my conduct, it affects how I navigate spaces. I stay hyper-aware of my surroundings at all times, in terms of safety.”

Cantave and his team are working on an augmented reality book for children entitled, White Supremacy 101: Columbus the Hero? The book will contain various images that become animated when viewed with an augmented reality app. Each excerpt is intended to be a counterpoint to traditional history lessons which tell American history from a white perspective.

“If these false narratives are perpetuated for generations in the future, you’re going to have a collective consciousness that doesn’t see black people as human beings,” Cantave said. “You see it with mass incarceration, you see it with police brutality, you see it with unsympathetic immigration policy.”

But technology offers an opportunity to change that, according to Idris Brewster, creator of the app and CTO of Movers and Shakers NYC.  

“Augmented reality and virtual reality … really provides us with a unique opportunity to use very immersive technology and tell a story in a very different and engaging way,” Brewster said.

Public response has been positive. “It’s blown the kids’ minds just to see animations. A lot of kids will be like, ‘Wow, this is like Harry Potter,'” he said.

Brewster also works as a computer science instructor at Google, where in 2016, blacks made up 1 percent of the company’s U.S. tech workers. He wants to see more minorities become tech creators, not just end users.

“There’s algorithms being created in our world right now that are detrimental to people of color because they’re not made for people of color,” Brewster said. “We need to start being able to figure out how we can get our minds and our perspectives in those conversations, creating those algorithms.”

Virtual reality filmmaker Jazzy Harvey attended Afrotectopia to present her virtual-reality film, Built Not Bought, which profiles the custom-car enthusiasts of south central Los Angeles.

Harvey said she felt greater creative freedom working with the new medium. “There’s no rules, and the fact that I have no rules and no restrictions … I get to choose which story is worth telling,” Harvey said.

Afrotectopia panelists and attendees tackled a variety of topics including digital activism, entrepreneurship and education, but ultimately, it was about getting everyone in the same room together.

“To come into a space where you don’t have to assimilate culturally, you can just be yourself and talk the way that you actually talk and really have people that can connect with you culturally is so important,” Melenciano said. “Especially when you’re talking about things that you’re passionate about like tech, it’s a space where we’re so often dismissed from.”

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