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COMMENTARY: Black Tech Genius Is All Around Us

THE AFRO — Black genius is all around us. It is inescapable. We see it in our neighborhoods. We see it in our schools. We see it in our churches.

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By Ateya Ball-Lacy

Black genius is all around us. It is inescapable. We see it in our neighborhoods. We see it in our schools. We see it in our churches. Black genius is sitting at the dinner table in plain sight.

You know those shows you like to binge watch and those GIFS we all can’t live without? We wouldn’t have them without the pioneering work of a Black woman named, Lisa Gelobter.

With her own personal flavor of Black girl magic and a degree in computer science from Brown University, Gelobter has completely changed the way information and entertainment are produced and consumed around the world.

You can also thank a Black man by the name of Mark E. Dean for being able to watch GIFs and videos in color. In addition to leading the team that designed IBM’s first personal computer, Dean created the first color computer monitor. With a degree in engineering from the University of Tennessee, Dean took the digital age from black and white to full color.

And did you know that before Bill Gates, Africa had Philip Emeagwali? Originally from Nigeria, Emeagwali moved to the United States where he obtained a B.A. degree from the University of Oregon and earned two Master’s degrees from schools in Washington, D.C. While this Black genius is known as the “Bill Gates of Africa,” it wasn’t Gates who developed
the world’s first supercomputer – it was Emeagwali.

Black genius is not just now guiding us into the future of technology – it has been the future for a while.

So, it’s no surprise that the next great tech hub in the United States is being built in an area with one of the largest concentrations of Black communities and Black talent in the nation.

Amazon should recognize this as it begins to build its HQ2 in Crystal City, Virginia, just a river jump away from the nation’s capital.

Washington, D.C. is the “East Coast” answer to the “West Coast” Silicon Valley. We’ve watched D.C. steadily emerge into a well-known incubator of start-ups. From federally funded IT and defense projects to major innovation sector titans like Amazon who are pitching tents throughout the region: D.C., Maryland and Virginia (or “#DMV” as it’s affectionately known) has evolved into a region also defined by tech giant HQs in Northern Virginia to the biotechnology laboratories extending from Montgomery County to Baltimore.

This should sound like great news for Black folks in the DMV area, a region that is nearly 30 percent Black in population composition. Washington, D.C. itself is just barely majority Black at 48 percent of the city-wide population and neighboring Prince George’s County (Maryland’s second largest) is nearly three quarters Black. Baltimore, Maryland is also a majority African-American city. And as the region’s technology corridor grows, so do parallel efforts from school systems and area universities (some of the top in the world) to produce more graduates with “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees.

Yet, the entire National Capital region still suffers from high Black unemployment rates and low wages.

What could easily solve this problem? Obviously, the burgeoning tech industry in the region. Still, for a number of reasons, the tech industry hasn’t yet received the message that there is a deep well of Black digital genius ready and waiting to take on these roles.

Let me take a minute to boast Howard University, my Alma Mater. Howard University is an innovative leader in STEM fields. Howard is a top producer of undergraduate African American students who eventually earn a Ph.D. in STEM-oriented subjects. Let that sink in!

As D.C.-area WTOP News recently reported, “Information Technology (IT) professionals can write their own ticket right now, with a nagging shortage of talent restricting U.S. information technology job growth despite high demand.”

According to the WTOP report, Mark Roberts, CEO of TechServe Alliance, blames the country’s inability to fill IT jobs on a lack of talent-supply in STEM fields. He is quoted as saying, “Despite robust demand in many IT skill sets, we simply do not have enough qualified IT professionals.”

Really? Something’s not adding up. Especially when Amazon will need 50,000 more of those professionals.

If there is high unemployment in, for example, D.C.’s Black community – where the Black jobless rate, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Center, is nearly five times the national rate at 14 percent – then that should naturally match high demand for IT employees. Why isn’t Black talent being tapped to cross this bridge?

Complaints of a “shortage” suggest that while the area is flooded with Black folks looking for employment opportunities, they don’t have the proper training required to access those opportunities. In other words, the tech corridor has an education pipeline problem.

In a U.S. News ranking of the best STEM high schools in the United States, Maryland boasted 9 of them. Still, these schools aren’t opening doors for Black students as much as they could. Of the 13,761 students afforded the opportunity to attend one of these nine schools, only 1,218 are Black. Maryland’s Black population is nearly 35 percent, including
a massive presence of African and Caribbean migrants. But the Black population of the top STEM schools in Maryland is less than 9 percent.

There’s your pipeline problem.

To access positions in STEM fields through the National Capital region, “talent” must be formally trained and certified. This usually comes from accredited colleges and universities. If there is a lack of trained professionals available in STEM fields, it would follow that there was a lack of people interested in being trained in those fields.

But a closer look at institutions – such as the University of Maryland, for example – proves that there is an abundance of interest in advanced STEM degrees. In fact, there is so much interest the university has employed questionable gatekeeping methods on their graduate programs to ensure that people are actively fenced out.

According to the University, “Certain majors are very popular and require a limit on the number of students they can accommodate and are designated Limited Enrollment Programs (LEP). Students in an LEP major must successfully complete a specific set of courses, or ‘gateway’ requirements by the semester in which they earn 45 credits.” Computer Science and Engineering are both LEP programs.

That is why it’s now, more than ever, crucial for regional Black communities to develop creative ways to circumvent the clogged tech sector pipeline. Especially with Amazon’s HQ2 on the way. While encouraging industries, policymakers and academic institutions to recognize the diverse talent and potential employment pool they’re overlooking, we also need to mold and strengthen our own community organizations, religious institutions and schools (from K-12 to regional HBCUs) to fill these voids left open by systemic ignorance.

There is no shortage – only a lack of will and vision. The gateway is blocking Black talent access into places like the DMV corridor. There isn’t a gap between talent and the tech industry – there is a fence. And it’s time we stop it from keeping Black genius out.

Ateya Ball-Lacy is founder/executive director of Hood Smart: The UrbanSTEMulus Project, a dynamic DC-based program that promotes increased STEAM education for Black youth in the region.

This article originally appeared in The Afro

City Government

A New Mayor in 2022 Must Take Major Steps in Their First 100 Days

In 2022, the voters of Oakland will have an opportunity to elect the next mayor for our city.  The Mayor of Oakland is the head of the executive branch, in charge of implementing actions and laws that have been passed by Council and community.

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Hands place ballot envelope into a ballot box/ Arnaud Jaegars via Unsplash

In 2022, the voters of Oakland will have an opportunity to elect the next mayor for our city.  The Mayor of Oakland is the head of the executive branch, in charge of implementing actions and laws that have been passed by Council and community.

The mayor also selects and hires the city administrator, appoints members of key boards and commissions and sets the direction for the administrative branch of government, thus having a major impact on what action gets taken.

In recent years, the City Council has adopted numerous laws and funded positions and projects – many of which have not been implemented, such as providing gun tracing and cracking down on illegal guns, civilianizing special events, providing pro-active illegal dumping remediation, a public lands policy to prioritize affordable housing, direction to provide healthier alternative locations to respond to homelessness, and many more.

In order to ensure that we build a safer and healthier future for Oakland, it is vitally important to ensure that we elect leadership for the executive branch with the dedication and commitment to take the actions needed to fulfill the needs of our communities.  

With serious struggles facing our communities, it is vital that the next mayor take immediate action in their first hundred days – and so, I am undertaking to provide proposals regarding what the next mayor can, and should, do in their first 100 days in office.  

These efforts will need to include recruitment and retention for the workforce, effective relationships with county government and neighboring cities to solve common problems, working with stakeholders including to expand equitable economic development and housing for all income levels, presenting and passing proposals at Council and bringing in and properly stewarding the finances needed.  

Even within the first 100 days, a mayor can accomplish a great deal, including taking action to implement vitally needed services that already have Council authorization and thus can be brought about more quickly.

This is the first installment, listing of some of the first items that the next mayor can and should do to build a healthier Oakland, and which should be factors in our decision-making in the year ahead.

 

1.     Ensure implementation of the directive to prioritize stopping the flow of illegal guns and stopping gun violence, including implementing gun tracing, tracking and shutting down sources of illegal guns, and providing immediate response to shooting notifications.

2.     Remove blight and illegal dumping, implement pro-active removal of blight rather than waiting for complaints, incorporate blight removal throughout city efforts (rewards program, summer jobs program, etc).  Clear up backlog and establish a new normal that it is not okay to dump on Oakland.

3.     Provide healthier alternatives for homeless solutions, including safe parking/managed RV sites and sanitation/dump sites, to reduce public health risks. Partner with the County and others.

4.     Implement previously approved Council direction to switch to the use of civilians (rather than sworn police) to manage parades and special events.  Help ensure community and cultural events can go forward without excess costs undermining them. Strengthen the arts and economy and equity of event permitting system and ensure that expensive police resources are directed where they are needed, rather than wasted on watching parades.

5.     Implement previously approved public lands policy to ensure using public lands for public needs, with a priority for affordable housing.

6.     Make it easier for local residents and small businesses to grow, build and expand by providing coherent and simplified permitting and by implementing the Council-funded direction to provide evening and weekend hours and easy online access, to allow people to do projects like adding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and make other renovations and construction projects more timely.

7.     Work with stakeholders and community to advance effective and equitable revitalization of the large public properties at and around the Oakland Coliseum, including with housing for all income levels, jobs and business development, sports and entertainment, conventions and hotels.

8.     Work to speed the filling of vacancies in needed city staff positions and improve recruitment, retention and local hiring, to help provide vitally needed services, including for cleanup, parks upkeep, gun tracing, and other needs.

9.     Fire prevention and climate resiliency.  Our region is facing growing dangers from climate change and fire risk, and we must take action to reduce and remedy risk and protect our communities with a more resilient future, including by planning for and starting fire prevention and brush remediation activities earlier in the year, improving brush removal on public land as well as private, fully staffing the fire department and improving public infrastructure to protect cleaner air and reduce risks.

10.  Job training and pathways.  Some industries face challenges finding enough prepared workers while many in our community also need access to quality jobs.  Support and connect job training programs and quality job policies with growing sectors and ensure Oaklanders are prepared for vital openings in needed jobs while allowing our community to thrive.

 

 

 

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Barbara Lee

On Barbara Lee, Afghanistan and Covid Scapegoating

All ye news consumers are probably thinking more about Afghanistan in these last two weeks than at any point in the last 20 years.

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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and members of his delegation take off from Kabul International Airport aboard a Black Hawk helicopter en route to Khowst province during a trip to Afghanistan, Dec. 4, 2007. Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison

All ye news consumers are probably thinking more about Afghanistan in these last two weeks than at any point in the last 20 years.

But if you live in Alameda County, thank goodness you have a representative who showed some backbone against the jingoistic rhetoric from the very beginning.

That would be Rep. Barbara Lee, who after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, stood up to other members of Congress and just said no to retaliating against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

On Sept. 14, 2001, 420 members in Congress said yes to military force.  98 Senators went along with them. 

Your congress member was alone in speaking the truth for peace.  

Lee warned of “perpetual war,” and she said, “However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’”

It was a call for a mindful moment. Politicians typically show no skill at that. 

Want to see the cost of being less than mindful in politics? The U.S. has spent by some estimates close to $2 trillion in Afghanistan since 2001. We’ve lost more than 2,400 military lives, tens of thousands of injured sons and daughters. 

And now we are in a “smoldering” situation. It’s like extracting yourself from a bungled divorce. The Trump administration began negotiating with the Taliban and presented artificial deadlines. That was the chaotic plan President Biden inherited. It was really negotiating a surrender rather than a withdrawal. But it means the Taliban is dictating everything. The U.S. wants to extend beyond Aug. 31? Taliban says, no and has “red-lined” the date.

The group that had offered to surrender to the U.S. 20 years ago,  is now making a mockery of the U.S.

Surely, the Afghanistan situation wouldn’t be quite this way if we had more leaders like Barbara Lee who dared to be mindful when it mattered. The situation remains smoldering.

African Americans Scapegoated

Donald Trump called the Coronavirus the ”China Virus,” and “The  Kung-Flu” for laughs. That kind of talk scapegoated Asian Americans and made them targets of the Trump hoard. More than 9,000 instances of anti-Asian hate have been recorded since the pandemic began by the group #StopAsianHate, based at San Francisco State University. 

Scapegoating on the virus is dangerous and racist. 

Now African Americans are getting a taste after Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick went on Fox News saying that unvaccinated African Americans in Texas are the cause of the virus spread in Texas.

It’s just wrong. Compared with Texas’ Black residents, nearly four million more white Texans are unvaccinated, said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP.  He even points out that four million fewer Hispanics are vaccinated compared to Blacks. The stats don’t justify blaming  African Americans in Texas for the spread of Covid.

But what did we expect to hear from Patrick, a former broadcaster and talk host. He knows how to incite an audience and “make the phones ring.” As Trump did, the TV showman. As does Larry Elder, the African American Republican talk host atop the polls of people who want to be governor if Gov. Gavin Newsom is recalled. 

Lesson. Don’t listen to nor elect talk hosts. At least the irresponsible ones.

Need a model for public servant in elective office? We have one in Alameda County in Congress.

It’s Rep. Barbara Lee.  

Try putting Elder next to Lee. He wouldn’t stand a chance.

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Commentary

Commentary: Here’s Why You Need to Vote in the California Recall Election

We cannot afford to be complacent and watch like spectators as our rights are rolled back, our interests are ignored, and our power is discounted. This recall election will be a crucial test of our will as voters.

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Young woman voting from home. She is filling papers to send by mail for the upcoming presidential election.

On September 14, a special election will be held to determine whether Governor Gavin Newsom should be recalled. This is only the fourth time in American history – that a state has held a gubernatorial recall election.

The last gubernatorial recall election in California took place nearly 20 years ago.

This recall election was triggered after the Secretary of State certified that 1.7 million Californians signed a petition demanding a vote to remove Newsom from the office he assumed in January 2019.

Under state law, to initiate a recall, proponents need to collect the signatures of enough registered voters to equal 12% of the turnout in the prior governor’s race.

The recall ballots will ask two questions. The first is a simple yes-or-no question: should Newsom be recalled.  If 50% or more of voters mark ‘NO’ then the effort to recall Newsom is defeated.

However, if more than 50% mark ‘YES’ then the second question comes into play: who should replace him? There are 46 names on the ballot, and the candidate with the most votes, as dictated by state law, will become governor for the remainder of Newsom’s term – which is through January 2023.

Whether or not you support Newsom, your vote in this election matters.

When we cast a vote, we win. We are represented. That’s the power that lies at the heart of the democratic process. It is the beauty of having free and fair elections.

Black Americans have a long history of struggling to exercise their right as citizens to vote. Those who came of age before 1965, less than 60 years ago, felt it all too keenly, particularly in the South, where they were systematically turned away from polling places.

Once they secured the vote, the idea of not even attempting to participate in an election would have been an abdication of their rights as Americans.

The people we entrust with our vote to lead us — whether it is at the federal, state, or local level – are responsible for developing policies and legislation that affect how safe we are in our homes and communities, our access to quality health care and education, the financial opportunities available to us, and more.

An outcome of the 2020 Presidential election cycle has been an extension of the unprecedented assault on voting rights beginning with the Supreme Court decision, Shelby v. Holder (2013), weakening the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and has led to more laws restricting our ability to vote.

California has taken extraordinary steps to remove barriers and increase access to the polls, setting the national standard for what free and fair elections should look like.

We cannot afford to be complacent and watch like spectators as our rights are rolled back, our interests are ignored, and our power is discounted. This recall election will be a crucial test of our will as voters.

Sometimes it might feel like democracy happens election by election, step by step, once every two or even four years.

But democracy doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t take a day off. It’s a constant process, happening all the time, whether we choose to engage or not. It’s messy, ugly, hard work.

Not voting is just as much an act of democracy as is voting – refusing to participate is a choice.

Every registered voter will automatically receive a ballot. Vote by mail started Aug 16. The last day to register to vote is August 30.

However, you can “conditionally” register and vote at your county elections office or polling location after the voter registration deadline, up to and including Election Day.

It’s a chance we must seize, regardless of party affiliation – our democracy, our community, our lives depend on it.

Rick L. Callender, Esq. is the President of the California/Hawaii State Conference of the NAACP and serves as a member of the National NAACP board of directors.

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