Growing up with an abusive, heroine-addict father, Fabian Debora eventually fell victim to gang culture. Were it not for Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, who intervened and became his mentor, Debora would not have turned his life around. “Father Boyle recognized my strength, my gift, my art. And, he returned it to me,” Debora said. Two decades later, Debora is a celebrated artist and director of substance abuse services for Homeboy Industries.
During a plenary discussion at the sixth annual Digital Media and Learning Conference, held June 11-13 in Los Angeles, Debora explained that the kind of mentorship he received is crucial for kids growing up surrounded by hopelessness, disparity, trauma and mental illness. Mentorship not only helps these youth flourish, but as a key element of connected learning, it can help address the inequity of educational opportunities available to them.
Attended by more than 500 technologists, educators, activists and researchers from around the world, the June conference explored the theme, “Equity by Design.” The issue of inequality is on everybody’s mind at the moment, said David Theo Goldberg, executive director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute. The DML conference, explained Goldberg, was conceived in order to highlight equitable digital learning practices, and featured powerful examples of how mentorship and technology can promote equity in education.
Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino and host of MSNBC’s “Changing America” program, and civil rights advocate Van Jones, founder of four nonprofit organizations engaged in social and environmental justice and a CNN political commentator, delivered the keynote address, tackling issues that affect the Latino and African American communities on a national level and how they can be addressed through equitable education and opportunity.
She spoke of Voto Latino’s recent Innovators Challenge, which awarded $500,000 to young people who are working on solving problems affecting the Latino community. Among the seven winning projects are a mobile app for undocumented students to find scholarships, another app for youths to understand the juvenile detention system, a six-week online course for Latino business owners and a digital health program for migrant farm workers. The challenge grants “were a chance to give the community the opportunity to solve for those big problems.”
Similarly, Jones said he founded Yes We Code, an initiative to help train underrepresented youth to become computer programmers, to give young people the chance to innovate.
“I think that we don’t understand the opportunity that’s in front of us right now for communities that are struggling when it comes to technology,” Jones said. “The tech industry is going to be a million workers short in eight years. I didn’t say a million African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American workers short. I mean a million workers. Period.” With a pipeline preparing underrepresented youth for such work, he added, the shortage could propel them into becoming the next tech leaders.
Computer engineer-educator-researcher Leshell Hatley, founder and executive director of STEAM education organization Uplift, Inc., spoke of her non-profit’s programs that teach underrepresented youth to code and create apps in a safe environment.
“When I say safe,” Hatley said, “I don’t mean four walls, a security guard, and somebody making sure you don’t get hurt, although that is important. I am talking about safety in that, 'I understand who you are and I believe in you and you can, too. You have free reign to explore, be yourself.'”
Hatley said that kids, especially underprivileged youth, need to be seen and heard and educators need to “automatically assume that they will succeed.” She added, “I’m not interested in introducing technology to help them build their intelligence. I’m not interested in using technology as a tool to boost their academic performance in any way. That happens automatically. I have confidence that if they’re given the support and the safe environment that they need, they can flourish.”
Nichole Pinkard, associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University in Chicago and founder of the Digital Youth Network (DYN) and Remix Learning, shared, “I think our journey has gone from initially thinking we could just strengthen the individual [to] realizing we also have to change the ecosystem.”
How to do that — creating a connection, joining communities that give youth opportunities to develop the skills, knowledge and dispositions needed to succeed by working on their interests — is what DYN has been cultivating in Chicago since 2005. It has succeeded in developing a social network, connecting schools, after-school programs, home and an online community of peers and mentors in a way that provides youth a supportive learning environment. DYN and its myriad partners, including HIVE and Cities of Learning, continually design connected learning programs that introduce students to more opportunities, bridging formal and informal spaces.
“It’s a new type of ecosystem,” Pinkard said. “Institutions are now talking to each other, figuring out how we can all connect.” The infrastructure provides hubs, online and in person, delivering programs that kids value. But at the end of the day, “it’s all about the human relationships” and the critical role of mentors.