“If you put other kids who were like me, who also faced struggles as a young black teen, in a situation with more people who are loving, who can relate, who are motivational mentors, that will change lives,” Cedric Harper explained. “With my teammates on ContraVerse, we all related to each other and cared about each other. We’re a family.”
Harper, a rising junior at the Cesar Chavez Charter School for Public Policy, was describing ContraVerse, the spoken word poetry team at his high school. The group’s performance kicked off the My Brother’s Keeper Data Jam, hosted on August 2 by the U.S. Department of Education and Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation. (Watch Harper perform his spoken word piece "Education Pyramid" here.)
The event gathered 150 educators, technology developers, analysts, policy-makers and students to brainstorm ways to use government data sets to provide support for young men of color, as part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, launched this February.
Jim Shelton, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, sees an event like the Data Jam as a unique way to tackle the concerns of My Brother’s Keeper. “As a country, we need to figure out how we can lean in to the opportunities and challenges for boys of color, so we can shape the narrative and help them understand that their country is willing to invest in them,” Shelton explained. “What’s so exciting about a Data Jam is that it’s a form of community collective action--people from all walks of life mobilizing as a community to try to come up with solutions.”
Empowering Opportunities, Not Stereotypes
Silicon Valley and technophiles often idolize data as the silver bullet for creating unlimited opportunities. But in communities of color, data can often reinforce negative stereotypes.
“When you hear about data in terms of young men of color, it’s in a negative way,” explained Dexter Hooks, a sophomore at Tennessee State University and alumni of Cesar Chavez School who participated in the Data Jam. “And when you hear for your whole life that there aren’t good odds that you’ll make it very far, it stops you from pushing.”
Mike Bolds, coach of the ContraVerse team at Cesar Chavez, was also initially wary of the Data Jam’s approach. “Data is always a double-edged sword, particularly in terms of improving outcomes for men of color,” he explained. “With the data focus, are we just looking for more justifications for systemic things that contribute to poverty or lack of education, because we have data to show that such-and-such amount of young men of color do certain things?”
But after the Data Jam, Bolds is more optimistic. “Data can break down a program, and help us find out from [a student’s] perspective whether being involved with the spoken word team helped with their work ethic, or their understanding of why post-secondary opportunities are important,” he said. By evaluating the effectiveness of different programs, he hopes that data can show how to bring about more opportunities in the future.
Hooks also came away from the Data Jam with a sense of how data, when framed differently, can open doors. “Data changes behavior,” said Hooks. “In those pivotal points in young men’s lives when they either take a positive turn or a turn for the worse,” Hooks believes that we can use data to “give them the opportunities to make the best decisions.”
The uses of information imagined at the Data Jam aimed to create those opportunities. Participants joined one of several groups focusing on different aspects of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, from K-3 literacy to workforce development. Nasir Qadree, an Education Pioneer Fellow at the Connecticut State Department of Education, led the college and career readiness group. The team of educators, data developers, entrepreneurs and a student advisor came up with a resource for students to identify nearby organizations that provide support within their communities--“a kind of Foursquare, Yelp and Edmodo wrapped in one,” according to Qadree. “If a kid is struggling in math, he would be able to filter his needs on this app, and the app would be able to search organizations within a five mile, 10 mile radius,” said Qadree, who plans to continue developing the app after the Data Jam.
Qadree explained that the student advisors played a pivotal role in the proposal development. “He was a primary source,” said Qadree. “[The student representative in his group] explained that there’s not anywhere to go after school, no kind of outlet to organizations that offer help with schoolwork. That was a very vocal need.”
Hooks believes that if we can get specific information into the hands of the right individuals, they can use it as a tool to create individual change. “As a parent, say you want to move out of a community that you see has bad impacts on your child,” he explains. “You want to know where you can move that will be affordable, but also what recreational things are there that will keep your kids engaged and on the right path.” To Hooks, and to many participants at the Data Jam, data can open up the conversation about opportunity by providing that information--in a resource map like Qadree’s group imagined, for example--to the parents, educators and students who most need it.
As Shelton sees it, input from students like Harper and Hooks will go a long way towards making the data useful. He explains that at the Data Jam, young men of color and educators “commented about how seldom, if ever, they get invited to conversations about solutions that are supposed to come into their communities and impact their daily lives.” Qadree sees this as “a primary/secondary source gap,” where “data analysts and developers have the skill sets, but lack experience in the classroom or working directly in the urban community.”
Qadree hopes to bring more student voices into the ongoing conversation. “I hope to develop a structure for grooming a group of leader students,” he explains. “Imagine if we could gather a cohort of 9th graders, 10th graders, and provide a structured student-focused advisory board to My Brother’s Keeper.”
Shelton and Qadree both hope that events like the Data Jam will provide a way for students and educators to have a voice when it comes to creating opportunities for young men of color. And they both hope that as data creates more effective opportunities for young men of color, it will do so for other young people as well. “Yes, we’re taking a very specific lens, addressing the needs of boys of color, but what we’re trying to achieve with My Brother’s Keeper are universal goals,” Shelton explained. “We’re also taking a lens of how to do this in a way that has broad benefit in creating opportunities for all.”