Ta­mar Hug­gins wants to make Durham the Black Sil­i­con Val­ley

NOW Magazine - - EDUCATION - | @mis­s­rat­tan By CHRIS RAT­TAN

Ta­mar Hug­gins wants to build a Black Sil­i­con Val­ley in Durham. The re­gion is ripe for it. As the tech en­tre­pre­neur notes, it’s home to two tech-fo­cused uni­ver­si­ties and has a high-num­ber of ed­u­cated Black professionals com­pared to other re­gions in the GTA. The prov­ince is also more than ready, per­haps over­due, to have one: a re­cent On­tario In­cu­ba­tor Di­ver­sity Re­port found that our in­no­va­tion hubs are un­fairly leav­ing racial­ized com­mu­ni­ties be­hind.

Hug­gins’ large-scale vi­sion pro­poses to re­verse that trend, and to re­al­ize it she’s cur­rently fo­cused on build­ing the foun­da­tion. Her or­ga­ni­za­tion, Tech Spark, has part­nered with the Durham Dis­trict School Board to ed­u­cate and em­power the next gen­er­a­tion of young, Black tech professionals with a 10-week pro­gram that will serve stu­dents in five Ajax schools over the next three years.

An In­no­va­tion Day event on May 1 pre­viewed the pro­gram’s five streams for par­tic­i­pat­ing stu­dents: ro­bot­ics, UX de­sign, cod­ing, gam­ing and vir­tual re­al­ity. It also en­gaged stu­dents in a de­sign-think­ing com­pe­ti­tion, chal­leng­ing them to imag­ine how a $14,000 service ro­bot could ben­e­fit their school com­mu­nity. The ro­bot will be do­nated to the win­ning team’s school.

Hug­gins spoke to NOW about why there can’t be a Black fu­ture in tech with­out the tal­ent, stem­ming Durham’s brain drain and a new crowd­fund­ing

cam­paign that aims to send 100 un­der­served kids to tech camp this sum­mer.

“When it comes to cre­at­ing di­ver­sity in tech­nol­ogy, it’s some­thing that needs to be adopted over time. The an­swer isn’t nec­es­sar­ily to al­ways fo­cus on di­ver­si­fy­ing the work field. That’s im­por­tant for those in the work­force but if we’re not fo­cus­ing our at­ten­tion on children and teenagers, then in a few years, com­pa­nies aren’t even go­ing to have a pool of tal­ent to choose from.

We’re see­ing Black children at the high school level drop­ping out of STEM-re­lated cour­ses at an alarm­ing rate. Our goal is to cre­ate a pipe­line that moves stu­dents from be­ing in­ter­ested in tech­nol­ogy to en­gag­ing with it to even­tu­ally pur­su­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion and be­com­ing ac­tive mem­bers in the tech com­mu­nity as en­trepreneurs and cor­po­rate professionals. We want stu­dents to re­ally start think­ing about how tech­nol­ogy can be used and how they can use their own imag­i­na­tions to shape the world they want.

Our pro­grams are also fo­cused on build­ing key so­cial and emo­tional skills, such as problem-solv­ing, crit­i­cal think­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion, that stu­dents need, es­pe­cially children of colour. It’s not enough to just have the tech back­ground. If you don’t know how to col­lab­o­rate or com­mu­ni­cate prop­erly or solve prob­lems, you won’t be suc­cess­ful in a ca­reer that re­quires those skill sets.

We of­ten see large tech or­ga­ni­za­tions like Google and Face­book sup­port­ing ini­tia­tives fo­cused on peo­ple of color in the United States, but that doesn’t re­ally hap­pen here. Our cam­paign is ask­ing for $50,000 to send 100 un­der­served stu­dents in Durham to sum­mer camp for 6 weeks. They’ll learn how to build and fly their own drones, cre­ate mo­bile apps and mul­ti­page web­sites and build mov­able con­trap­tions through VR. It’s dis­heart­en­ing not to have the same sup­port from the tech com­mu­ni­ties here in the GTA. Canada is a very di­verse coun­try and it’s or­ga­ni­za­tions should re­flect and sup­port that di­ver­sity.

At the end of the day, as an or­ga­ni­za­tion, we want to be able to cre­ate an in­cu­ba­tor or a hub in Durham re­gion that is go­ing to be able to sup­port these stu­dents once they grad­u­ate – so they don’t have to leave and go to Sil­i­con Val­ley or any­where in the States. But we can­not be suc­cess­ful if the govern­ment is not sup­port­ing us. It’s about im­prov­ing the so­cio-eco­nomic sta­tus of this coun­try, and in or­der to do that we need sup­port from the provin­cial govern­ment to ex­pand ini­tia­tives like the Youth Op­por­tu­ni­ties Fund, which pro­vides grant dol­lars to the Black com­mu­nity and the Black Youth Ac­tion Plan. By pro­vid­ing those re­sources to the Black com­mu­nity, we can then build and grow.”

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