The explosion of technology jobs over the past decade has radically altered the career landscape–for better and for worse. For this generation of job-seekers, the tech industry offers a new, relatively accessible path for building the kind of wealth that was previously only available to a privileged few. But as the tech industry leverages the massive talent pool of computer programmers and engineers to expand into lucrative businesses like data mining, targeted ads, and military IT infrastructure, tech companies can perpetuate harm and violence on the same communities that make up their workforces.
For example, a child of refugees from the Vietnam War, looking for economic stability, studies computer vision and ends up working in military drone development that could be used to target other communities during war. Someone lands a job at Amazon, monitoring worker efficiency while their high school classmate working in the warehouse develops chronic pain from overwork. A market optimization developer unwittingly helps prototype clickbait messaging that contributes to disinformation that prevents their own extended family from getting the COVID-19 vaccine or a fair home loan.
Who do we hold accountable for the harmful impacts that tech companies inflict on our own communities, when for many, a job in tech is an economic lifeline?
How can we name the ongoing destabilization and surveillance of our communities, while recognizing that these jobs are opportunities for economic prosperity that were previously out of reach?
Silicon Valley players and community partners alike have sought to rectify community harms by investing in programs that better prepare folks for tech industry jobs. These programs promise lucrative job prospects as a software engineer, yet ignore the myriad barriers the tech industry has created including discrimination and displacement. Additional funding for these programs continues to proliferate, including through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which allocates nearly $2.75 billion dollars to digital inclusion efforts, including digital device distribution and digital literacy training.
As these programs grow, bringing more and more people into the tech industry, we must imagine more than the promise of employment at the expense of our communities.
Equity In / Equity Out: A Model for Building More Inclusive Industries
The energy world is plagued by equity challenges when it comes to workforce representation and the impacts of energy developments. Although environmental harms disproportionately affect communities of color, the energy industry doesn’t operate within a social justice framework. The consequences are similar: energy developments tend to create negative to neutral impacts on low-income communities and communities of color. An example of a program that has demonstrated its potential to break this mold is the CalSEED program. Run by the California Energy Commission and funded by SB 350, the CalSEED program provides funding and professional development assistance to early-stage clean energy entrepreneurs, with an emphasis on equitable access and benefits. The Greenlining Institute uses an “Equity In / Equity Out” framework to ensure that the CalSEED program does not further perpetuate this divide.
- Equity In: Recruiting individuals from low income communities, communities of color, and other communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and those who do not have as much access to entrepreneurship.
- Equity Out: Encouraging entrepreneurs to develop equitable solutions that positively impact the populations most vulnerable to pollution, climate change and economic opportunities.
Applying Equity In / Equity Out to Tech Workforce Development
So how does “equity in” translate to workforce development groups in tech? Through the Town Link, a year-long project to close the digital divide in Oakland, the Greenlining Institute worked with workforce development organizations that provide insight into how programs can build technical skills equitably. Here’s what we found:
To start, tech-focused workforce development groups should prioritize applicants who have limited access to technical education, yet are disproportionately impacted by the harms that new technology has created. These groups must also consider how to make learning opportunities more accessible — for instance, workforce development organizations in Oakland provide laptops, stipends or scholarships for participating in classes, and a flexible curriculum that allows participants to progress at their own pace.
The framework of “equity out” is trickier to imagine, but remains the same in the workforce development universe — skills developed during development programs should help students develop solutions oriented towards tech challenges that disproportionately affect communities of color, such as surveillance, data privacy, and algorithmic bias.
Putting it Into Practice: Hack the Hood
Hack the Hood, one of the workforce development partners in the Town Link, frames its coding curriculum as “culturally competent data skills”. Their programs provide an introduction into the tech industry, and training in software engineering and data science using a unique “justice-centered approach”.
Black, Latinx, AAPI, and Indigenous learners participating in Hack the Hood’s programs identify problems they have faced or seen in their communities, and Hack the Hood instructors contextualize classes within the learner’s experience. This empowers participants to think critically about solutions that are for and by their communities.
Hack the Hood’s program model includes mentorship by other Black, Latinx, Indigenous and AAPI people and teachings on topics like ethics in tech design, data activism, and the new Jim Code (coined by Ruha Benjamin in her book, Race After Technology). Their programs have enabled youth and community leaders to begin their paths toward a career in tech, while empowering them to address challenges they know already exist in their communities with just technical solutions.
When it comes to technical education, providing impacted communities the necessary tools and autonomy to make their own decisions is paramount. Dr. Lauren Quigley, Hack the Hood’s Senior Advisor for Curriculum, Impact & Innovation emphasizes the importance of offering participants a holistic understanding of the tech industry–including its complications, ethical dilemmas, and alternate pathways. For Hack the Hood, a metric of success is learners’ ability to make their own choices regarding their career and use of technology, not just a pipeline to a standard software development role.
Through the Town Link, the Greenlining Institute has had the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from workforce development organizations that center Black, Indigenous, and people of color to address equity issues in the tech industry. The takeaways are clear: workforce development should not just focus on employment alone, but should empower participants with the skills and agency to understand the sector, recognize its pitfalls, and if they so choose, rectify these harms with technical skills.
As more state and federal level funding is made available for more training in this ever-growing industry, we need to think about which programs to invest in. True economic resilience and equity in the face of an ever-growing industry cannot exist without the ability to name these harms in a digital world and have a path forward to correcting them.