We Need to Work on this Idea of Cultural Fit

In Technology on September 13, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Below is a re-post of something I wrote for Hack the Hood last summer. Yes, I need to get better at posting what I’m writing. And, I have been writing, by the way! Culture and technology is an idea that I am growing increasingly passionate about. Read and enjoy.

Apparently, I’m a “troublemaker.” I earned that nickname in the middle of my first quarter as a graduate student in a technology program when I brought up the ethical application of technology in marginalized communities. Yep, I was the only Black man in a technology program, and in the first few weeks I received my scarlet letter, a big fat “T” tattooed onto my forehead.Then, last summer, I heard that Hack the Hood, a youth program that teaches inner city youth how to build websites for local businesses free of charge, was seeking volunteers. I threw my name in immediately. At the time, I didn’t even know what they did. The name was enough for me. It helped me realize that this “troublemaker” had allies, and that felt good.

We use the word disruption a lot in tech. Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen defines it as a product that addresses a market that was previously ignored, or a an existing market that is being addressed in an easier or cheaper way. (This doesn’t paint the full picture. As we’re seeing in Oakland, San Francisco and East Palo Alto, market disruption creates both cultural and community disruption). It takes guts to name a youth program that serves mostly young Black and Latino youth, Hack the Hood. That name and the focus of the program are inherently disruptive. Local businesses without a digital presence and inner city youth who can’t create one can be deemed nonexistent in this new age. What happens when you put the two together? When you fuse technology and the ‘hood” you quickly realize that you have to do things differently. You have to imagine a new approach and create new rules. Suddenly this process, in the context of technology, sounds familiar; this is the way innovation begins. It worked for Steven Paul Jobs. It helped Dan and Sam Houser make the world forget that Grand Theft Auto is an actual crime. Mark Zuckerberg created a social media empire out of it. So, here I am one year ago walking up to United Roots. The building is marked in the cultural colors of graffiti art (#awesome). I walk inside a computer lab, and there are fifteen youth sitting in front of iMacs. There’s an unfamiliar sound in the air, a symphony of keyboard taps and mouse clicks playing underneath that Oakland drawl. The young people are communicating about their projects. Some of them are collaborating and others are challenging each other, boasting about a raw design they just made. One of the youth, playing the unofficial role of lab DJ, is searching for oldies on YouTube, but every once in a while he hits play on a gritty Bay Area rapper that I’ve clearly aged out of. I thought to myself, “this is no tech environment that I’ve ever been a part of.”

There are staff members with locked hair, African accessories and mobile devices walking the room offering assistance. An Ethiopian American woman is coming in later to discuss an Oakland community event centered on supporting local businesses. One of the other volunteers is in the corner preparing for a presentation. He’s talking to a student about the cover design on Madden, a football video game. The environment was incredible.

I have never seen youth look so empowered and I myself have never before been so comfortable in a technology space. I have over ten years of experience working in youth development. Five years ago, I decided to pursue technology, which I’ve been doing almost exclusively over the last four years in the areas of mobile applications, journalism and academia. Every experience has left me unsatisfied. It always felt like something was missing.

The issue of cultural fit has become a popular topic in the technology field. The idea refers to a reason why some people are not hired, but to some people it implies a sort-of discriminatory practice. I like to look at the idea of cultural fit in a different way. Technological innovation is the act of re-conceptualizing cultural activities, things we already do. The phrase, a little bird just told me, for example, is the idea behind Twitter. Within this idea of cultural fit we have to start having conversations about multiculturalism because we don’t all share the same culture and we don’t all use technology the same way.

How can folks from inner city communities re-conceptualize their own culture? It’s a fascinating question; one too few people are interested in pursuing. Fortunately, last summer at Hack the Hood taught me that this is not a taboo question, that I’m not the only one asking it, and the answers can be ideas worth investing in.


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