How to encourage diverse digital social change

The digital divide that was anticipated with the rise of the Internet didn’t come true. Minorities not only have access to the Internet but are some of the highest users of social media. 

But another digital divide is emerging; one Fission Strategy co-founder and Web of Change (WoC) alumn Cheryl Contee spoke to during her 2012 Personal Democracy Forum presentation.

Women and minorities are not gaining the skills needed for high-tech jobs, despite the abundant opportunities and well-paid positions available.

It’s a challenge the WoC community is well aware of and eager to change. In fact, becoming more accessible to diverse communities is the main reason WoC is moving its much-beloved venue from a remote island in British Columbia to a conference center near Austin, Texas this year.

To kick-start a discussion about the opportunities and efforts already underway to bring new people into the digital social change sector, we convened a top-notch cast of WoC leaders.

Here’s what they had to say:

Christina M. Samala, director of 18MillionRising.org:

It’s worth noting that 18 Million Rising is a predominately female team galvanizing a strong, progressive voice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders using social media and technology.

We are also developing new and creative ways to forge a nimble and powerful network, fueled by participatory innovation and campaigns, to build power for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

A good example of an organization in the private sector fostering tech opportunities for women is Etsy. Women make up the majority of members, both as buyers and sellers on the online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods. However, Etsy noticed within their own engineering and operations that their team didn’t reflect that. (In April, last year, 11 of its 96 programmers were female). So, they were proactive, and launched a coding bootcamp (http://mashable.com/2012/04/06/etsy-hacker-grants/) that encouraged women to attend and offered grants too. I'd love to see the digital social change sector try out models and programs similar to what Etsy did.

Getting more women and minorities into the digital social change sector requires us all to be proactive in creating environments where women and people of color can wear the tech hat.

We need more training, mentorship and education. We need more examples of women and minorities in technology roles represented in the media. We also need to encourage one another to step out of our comfort zones and challenge assumptions about who does what in our organizations and why.

As more women and people of color step into leadership roles within the digital social change sector, the more closely aligned our organizations become with the social change, justice and equality we envision.

Aaron Welch, CEO of Advomatic:

I think there is huge potential in general to bring new people into this sector, as it’s one of the fastest growing markets out there.

At Advomatic, we've created an online program that provides training to become a Tier 1 support engineer. I’ve reached out to several colleges to see if they’d be interested in promoting this to students, and hope it can encourage women and minorities to explore inexpensive technical training.

Last year, we also sponsored an event in New York City with Black Girls Code . (The organization provides  young and pre-teen girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills like coding using donated laptops). It was the first event by Black Girls Code in NYC, and it sold out immediately with several hundred girls attending.

It was really cool and inspiring to see young girls getting excited about ‘Here’s how you build a website.’

I feel the more you can build awareness of this issue, we're going to reach a tipping point where more things like Black Girls Code will happen. It will increase a greater consciousness where people will know this really is an option for them.

Marce Gutierrez, AZUL Project founder:

I see the possibility, and I think we can do this in a much better way. You start scratching the surface a little bit, and you start looking in the right places and you see there’s this very rich, active and vibrant scene of ethnic communities and people of color using digital media.

I think it’s important that we’re open to letting other people speak and take the lead, which can be hard for big organizations which are used to putting subject-matter experts front and center.

It’s more open collaboration on many levels. Campaigns I’ve seen done well include the Service Employees International Union partnering with the Latino community on immigration reform .

In terms of encouraging diversity at a conference level, there are examples like Netroots Nation, which doesn’t allow all-white or all male panels.

Sabrina Hersi Issa, digital director at Be Bold Media :

What we miss when we talk about the lack of women and underrepresented communities in the tech sector is a critical look at the pipelines into this field.

What I’ve noticed is women and minorities who eventually enter the tech sector are not using the traditional pipeline, and that traditional pipeline is you go to a four-year university and get a computer science or engineering degree.

There are so many barriers to finishing traditional four-year degrees let alone degrees at the heart of science and technology. If we rely on that as the only pipeline we’re going to be setting ourselves up for failure.

We need to create more pipelines and new on-ramps into this field with fresh opportunities for technology training and development.

The type of (pipelines) we need to make are programs like Girls Who Code for the tweens to tween, as well as programs that integrate technology into humanities and social sciences (at college), which are pretty non-existent. We need to create new, low-barrier opportunities to acquire tech literacy, programs like I had, being able to live in a city that had access to affordable training that I could take after work.

Not to forget there are also new online academies like Treehouse and Code Academy where you can teach yourself to do basic programming work.

I feel like the X-factor to all of these wildly successful coding programs, like Code 2040, Code Now, Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code, is they create a collaborative community and learning environment. Being able to have that community where you can learn together in a collaborative environment, see what other people are doing in their work, get inspired by it — that escalates what’s possible for you.

That’s what I think Web of Change is, and with it moving (near) Austin this year I think it’s going to be more accessible to women and other underrepresented communities in this field.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

This year’s WoC takes place Sept. 18-22, 2013 at the Retreat at Balcones Spring. The flagship event brings together senior technology and social media leaders who are pioneering new strategies of digital engagement to improve the world.