Black History Month provides Americans an opportunity to celebrate our successes as a nation, reflect on what might have been and begin to craft a more inclusive future. Recent reports about the paucity of minority professionals in tech are all the more devastating because today’s underemployment has its roots in our collective failure to prepare all of America’s youth for the technology revolution that has swept our nation over the past 20 years.
Almost two decades ago, we had the honor of having front-row seats at the advent of the Internet era and the emergence of information technology as the new engine for driving global economies. Working at the Commerce Department under President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Secretaries Ron Brown, Mickey Kantor and Richard Daley, we saw the dawning of a new era of opportunity and prosperity.
It was clear that the technology revolution could change the trajectory of some of the challenges facing low-income and black and Latino-American communities. On behalf of the Clinton administration, we worked to educate our communities so they could participate in the emerging high-tech economy; to stem the emerging digital divide; to connect urban, rural and low-income schools to the Internet; to inform black and Hispanic-serving colleges and universities about the need to prepare their graduates for careers in technology; and to educate black and Latino youth about the necessity of obtaining the skills they would need to succeed in the new economy.
As assistant secretary for the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, Larry outlined a Straight A Strategy consisting of three components—access, aptitude and attitude—in an attempt to steer a course for technological advancement that would include more of America’s cities and all of our citizens. When the 1990s tech boom collapsed and the Clinton administration ended, efforts such as the Straight A Strategy cratered. Despite the failure to develop an inclusive strategy for minority youth employment in tech back then, elements of that strategy still present a framework that has the potential to work today.
Access: Low-income and minority students still don’t have access to the educational technologies that are commonplace in more affluent American communities. The Federal Communications Commission’s new E-rate program will bring improved access to America’s schools and libraries, making institutional access more available to millions of Americans. The Internet Innovation Alliance, which we co-chair, has joined with key members of Congress and the FCC in calling for an overhaul of our Federal Lifeline program to bring greater access to broadband to millions of low-income Americans’ homes and to foster broader use of computing and Internet technologies.
Aptitude: In addition to providing connectivity and hardware, we also must provide students training and help them obtain the skills they will need for tech-industry jobs. Over a million additional high-tech jobs will be available between now and 2022—high-tech companies should make clear to public-sector leaders what skills students should learn so they are prepared to fill these jobs. Why are we talking about importing skilled workers, when we should be talking about imparting work skills?
Attitude: Finally, we need to ensure that all students and communities are familiar with new technologies and aware of the importance of high-tech skills. As President Clinton said in his commencement address at MIT in 1998, “All students should feel as comfortable with a keyboard as a chalkboard; as comfortable with a laptop as a textbook.” Sadly, that goal still eludes us two decades later.
One way to inspire our youth is to highlight the successes of those who come from their communities: Jewel Burks recently won a pitch competition for Partpic, her app that helps locate replacement parts for companies. Trey Brown recently started selling the Wemojis app that makes round-faced emojis with different skin colors for smartphones. Both of these entrepreneurs are recent Howard University graduates.
Two decades ago, America failed its children by not providing them with the tools, skills, environment and encouragement they would need to thrive in the high-tech economy we knew we were creating. Today, it’s imperative that we enlist the brightest minds in technology, government, education and urban communities to craft a new Straight A Initiative that ensures the future of all of America’s children and to create a new chapter in black history.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Larry Irving and Jamal Simmons serve as co-chairmen of the Washington, D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group that includes telecommunications companies.