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Afrotectopia: A Celebration of Black Identity in Technology

Bukola Akinfaderin argues for diversity in the tech world: 'When you're building a product – especially if it's a consumer-facing product, one that's international – you are going to need perspective from everyone.' (VOA)
Bukola Akinfaderin argues for diversity in the tech world: 'When you're building a product – especially if it's a consumer-facing product, one that's international – you are going to need perspective from everyone.' (VOA)
Afrotectopia: A Celebration of Black Identity Technology
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Being black and working in the technology industry can be a lonely experience.

The New York-based not-for-profit group Ascend Leadership examined the employment information of hundreds of San Francisco tech companies in 2007 and in 2015.

Ascend used information from the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ascend found that black tech professional employment decreased from 2.5 percent in 2007 to 1.9 percent in 2015.

It also found that, although there was a 43 percent growth in the number of black executives from 2007, blacks still made up just 1.1 percent of tech executives in 2015.

Ari Melenciano is a student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. She is African American.

“You’re in a sea full of people that just don’t look like you,” Melenciano said of being black in the tech world.

So, Melenciano decided to do something about it. She started Afrotectopia, an event that brings together and celebrates black technologists, artists, designers and activists.

The first-ever Afrotectopia took place at New York University. Attendees discussed their work, as well as the difficulties of working in the mostly white world of tech 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 do amazing things,” Melenciano said.

Glenn Cantave is founder and chief of the performance art coalition Movers and Shakers NYC. He attended Afrotectopia. He demonstrated his group’s use of augmented reality and virtual reality with apps that help people deal with racism and discrimination.

Cantave said, “My parents told me from a very young age that you will not be treated like your white friends.”

Cantave and his team are working on an augmented reality book for children called White Supremacy 101: Columbus the Hero?

The book will include pictures that become animated when viewed with an augmented reality app. The book also will have history lessons told from different perspectives. The lessons avoid the traditional white American perspective.

Idris Brewster created the app for the book. He is also chief technology officer of Movers and Shakers NYC. He said technology such as augmented reality and virtual reality, “really provides us with a way to tell a story in a very different…way.”

Brewster also works as a computer science teacher at Google. Two years ago, only 1 percent of Google’s tech workers were black. Brewster says he hopes more and more African Americans become creators of technology and algorithms – processes that a computer follows.

"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.”

Jazzy Harvey is a virtual reality filmmaker. She also attended Afrotectopia. She came to present her production “Built Not Bought.” The virtual reality film looks at car collectors living in south central Los Angeles.

Harvey says she feels greater creative freedom when working with virtual reality. “There’s no rules, and that fact that I have no rules…I get to choose which story is worth telling.”

Afrotectopia attendees discussed many topics, from digital entrepreneurship to education. But the main goal of the event was to have African-American technologists come together in one place.

Melenciano said, “To come into a space where …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.”

Black Identity, Technology Celebrated at Afrotectopia Fest
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I'm Susan Shand.

Susan Shand adapted this story for Learning English based on a story by VOA’s Tina Trinh. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

executive – n. a person who manages or directs other people in a company or organization

augmented reality – n. a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.

virtual reality – n. the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors

animate – v. to make (something, such as a drawing) appear to move by creating a series of drawings, pictures, etc., and showing them quickly one after another

perspective – n. a way of thinking about and understanding something

entrepreneurship – n. a person who has the skills to start a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money

detrimental - adj. causing damage or injury​

amazing - adj. causing great surprise or wonder​