ISTE 2016 keynote speaker Ruha Benjamin | Incubate a Better World in the Minds & Hearts of Students


Now, believe it or not, there’s more. There’s our keynote speaker, right? We are thrilled to welcome assistant professor
in the department of African American studies at Princeton University, Ruha Benjamin. Yes. Dr. Benjamin has made her life mission to
touch on important topics like the relationship between innovation and equity, science and
citizenship, and health and justice. Dr. Benjamin specializes in science, medicine,
biotechnology, race, ethnicity, gender, health and biopolitics. As a published author, multifaceted scholar
and social activist, Dr. Benjamin asks important questions like, “How can we harness science
and technology for greater equality?” Please join us in welcoming Dr. Ruha Benjamin. Thank you so much! Good morning. What an honor and a thrill to be here. Especially taking the stage after Mr. LeVar
Burton. It was everything that I could do not to write
an entire talk about how much I love Reading Rainbow ,and Star Trek, and Roots. For your sakes, I’m going to rein my geek
flag in and stick to the topic at hand. But I did borrow a line from Mr. Burton here. Set phasers to love me. And you’ll see that’s part of the heart of
this talk. We’ll get to that in just a moment. So I want us to zoom out a bit. That’s the point of keynotes, right? For any community coming together to reflect
beyond the kind of narrow concerns that take our time in our institutions. To be able to think as broadly as possible
about what we’re doing here today. Right? What is the purpose of education? Because professional momentum has a way of
seeming inevitable. The impression of inevitability. And so I’d like to use our time together to
stretch our imagination about what we think is realistic in terms of education and equity. And in the process, I’m going to ask you for
one thing, and that is for real time feedback. Because my own students have got me used to
active listening through nods, and grunts, and snaps, and groans. I especially love groans. That means I’m doing something right. And it’s possible that they might just do
all of this to stay awake in my lectures, which is fine. But I’ve gotten used to it, so if I don’t
hear anything from you, I’m just going to assume that you’re texting each other about
what you’re going to do later tonight. All right? So, big picture. There should be little doubt that we’re living
in a time of social crisis, where most people in the world can not look to hospitals for
health, police for safety, politicians for competence, or schools for meaningful knowledge. If we happen to be among the small subset
of the earth’s population for who this isn’t true, we can easily observe evidence of the
crisis at every turn, if we choose to keep our eyes open. And what we see when we do that is a world
at war with itself. Not just literal battles, of which there are
many, but all manner of social struggles over material and symbolic resources, in which
the naturalized hierarchy between races, genders, classes and countries are being questioned
and confronted… as they should. At the same time, what we observe is that
the very idea of solid dualistic society where we care for one another, where we sacrifice
for one another, is undermined or deemed unrealistic. This, friends, is a social crisis. The etymology of which is a turning point. In this context, the question for us is how
do we make our schools laboratories of democratic participation, rather than sites where inequality
is reproduced, where not only is the potential of each individual child realized, but where
we’re experimenting with technologies of love, of reciprocity and of justice. Our role as educators, I’m sure you would
all agree, is to incubate a better world in the minds and hearts of our students. Let’s face it, this potential is great and
dangerous. This is one of the reasons why I believe the
teaching profession is always under such virulent attack. Undermined at every turn in terms of autonomy,
respect and resources. Because teachers, if actually unified and
empowered, can change the direction of history. It’s not scientific and technological development
in and of itself, we have to thank, and here I depart a bit from Dr. Kaku. Rather, it’s the revolutionary potential of
an awakened citizenry that demands more of itself. And this awakening has and will come just
as much from poetry as from a petrie dish. But because it’s harder to profit off of a
poem that touches people’s souls than a product that touches their pocketbooks, those making
decisions about how we invest public resources continue to devalue the arts and humanities,
to all of our detriment. Schools are the places where the next generation
either comes alive with possibility, or is crushed by the weight of the odds stacked
against them, and the fact is these two processes coexist. Children today live in parallel realities,
where some are nurtured, and others crushed. As we proceed, what I want to suggest to you
is that adopting technology without wrestling with this parallel, apartheid-like reality
ensures that 10, 20, 30 years from now the gap in educational opportunity and life outcomes
will be even wider than today. To do nothing is to choose the default settings
of this failing system. And we should acknowledge from the outset
that engaging these issues is not for the faint of heart. This is lifelong work with no magic fixes. The badass public scientist, Neil deGrasse
Tyson recently tweeted, “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things
go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is
hard.” I didn’t say it, I didn’t say it. As a sociologist, I appreciate the props though. And what I want to know from you now is whether
you are ready to dig into some of these hard issues. Yes? Yes. Good. Okay, so this is how I’ve structured my comments,
loosely in four parts, which you can think of more as provocations to get us thinking
together, rather than a traditional talk with a linear argument. First, I’ll briefly share some of the personal
and professional stakes that motivate me to think about questions at the nexus of innovation
and equity, and I’ll encourage us to take imagination seriously, as a locus of struggle
and possibility. Then I’ll discuss my central proposition,
that when it comes to fostering equity in education, this requires that we think not
only about access to technology, but also about its design. Who gets to participate in imagining and creating
the world we collectively inhabit. Third, building on this idea of designing
alternatives to the status quo, I’ll unpack what it means to prepare our students to either
play the game of life or hack the current system: metaphors that can help us to distinguish
between personal and collective empowerment. Not mutually exclusive. And finally I’ll discuss five ways, using
the acronym ALIFT that we all routinely limit our thinking about innovation and equity,
and I’ll encourage us now to stretch our collective imagination beyond what seems realistic. Okay, are you with me? Can we get together? Okay. So, one of the things I experience on a routine
basis during my research on biotechnology is how proponents of these fields don’t limit
themselves to things deemed realistic. As one journalist reporting on the three billion
dollar California Stem Cell Initiative put it, “Imagine cardiac cells beating in a petrie
dish, being used to form human tissue that might be used to replace damaged heart muscle.” Imagine indeed! Scientific inquiry, it turns out, is situated
as much in the realm of imagination as it is in the realm of reason. And you saw that firsthand in Dr. Kaku’s talk
on Sunday. But let me ask you this. Why is it that we can imagine growing heart
cells from scratch in a lab, but not growing empathy for other human beings in our everyday
lives? And even more, in our institutions. For many people, the idea that we can defy
politics as usual and channel human ingenuity to more and more egalitarian forms of social
organization, that’s utterly farfetched. Our visions of the future are often animated
by shiny, amazing new technology with hardly any mention of the quality of our relationships
with one another in those speculative visions. Instead, our collective imaginations tend
to shrink when confronted with entrenched forms of inequality and injustice, when what
we need is just as much investment and innovation in our social reality as we pour into transforming
our material reality. This is the kind of thing I have in mind when
I say our classrooms must become laboratories for social change. Are you with me? Now, I first started thinking seriously about
these issues when I was fourteen years old. My family moved from Conway, South Carolina
to the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific because my parents were asked to serve on
a board of education for the Marshalese government. And soon after arriving, I discovered my main
source of entertainment in half a dozen boxes containing my dad’s old VHS tapes, where I
found recordings of every episode of Star Trek Next Generation, and quickly got hooked
as a lifelong trekkie. I promise you this is not a digression, so
stay with me. Years later, I routinely encounter people
in my research who profess Star Trek and other speculative accounts of the future initially
inspired their work. So I’m just going to give you a couple examples
of this. A recent news report about the U.S. government’s
biological office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects agency described it as,
quote, “a small, secretive Pentagon outpost that has more than a whiff of Star Trek about
it. Its mission: invest in research that sounds
like science fiction.” In February 2015, a Belgian entrepreneur who
designed the first functioning handheld that measures all patient vitals and provides a
complete echocardiogram reading told CNN “Star Trek was more than just a movie. It was a business plan.” Likewise, the CEO of a Houston based company
that is working on similar non-invasive devices to regenerate bones and muscles commented,
“It’s not just science fiction anymore. All indications are that 21st Century science
will change dramatically during the next several decades.” And as what most predictions coming out of
the biotechnology industry, change is usually presumed to mean “better than the present.” But better for whom? And by what measures are questions that such
forecasts rarely interrogate? So, considering how yesterday’s fiction so
often becomes tomorrow’s blueprint, I’ve slowly come to grips with the importance of imagination
in the design of technology. Now, I want you to keep in mind that my introduction
in this futurist world, to Star Trek and others, took place in the Marshall Islands, which
for those who don’t know much about it, was the site of U.S. nuclear testing in 1954. In the 1990’s, I got a close up view of the
environmental, social and public health catastrophe that still impacts people’s lives there today. On a number of occasions, I travelled from
the Marshallese capital of Majuro, where my family was living, to visit neighboring islands. And the two that made the biggest impression
on me was Kwajalein, a U.S. army installation and manufactured suburbia, which was occupied
almost entirely by military personnel and their families, who enjoy golf courses, Baskin
Robins and a long list of amenities. And the neighboring island of Ebeye, where
islanders who were forced off of Kwajalein to make room for the army base now reside
in crowded shantytown-like living that contains very little vegetation, not even palm trees
and we’re in the middle of the Pacific. What’s more, Ebeye residents require a special
pass to travel to Kwajalein for work. And many of them barely subsist off of the
small compensation for the nuclear fallout and military dislocation. Needless to say, the health of Marshallese
suffer dramatically, both from the direct fallout of nuclear testing, but also because
of the deeply unequal social and economic conditions in their present lives, which explains,
for example, the high rate of chronic and infectious diseases, including a TB rate that
is 23 times that of the United States. Now, in hindsight, I think my work as a sociologist
of science, technology and medicine stems from these early observations of how inequality
in engineered. In many ways, the Marshall Islands is a metaphor
for modernity, in which the health and well-being of some is predicated on the immiseration
of others. In a world such as this, we can’t talk about
engineering the material world without also discussing the ongoing engineering of the
social world, without careful attention to who’s version of the “good life” is being
imagined, and who’s is being ignored, and even devoured through such lopsided investments. So when I speak of reimagining the default
settings of technology and society, this isn’t mere rhetorical flourish. I want us to take seriously the notion that
there are in fact competing imaginaries that are fighting over our collective future. The incredible filmmaker, Alex Rivera I think
sums it up: “The battle over real power tomorrow begins with the struggle over who gets to
dream today.” Which says to me that we have to wrestle with
the unevenness of the imagination and education innovation, recognizing that the power to
make our dreams come true, to boldly go where no woman has gone before, is distributed in
radically unequal ways. For instance, most of you are familiar with
this story, are you not? It made international headlines last year. On September 14th, fourteen-year-old Texas
teenager, Ahmed Mohamed, shown here, arrived at school excited to show his teacher a project
he’d been working on over the weekend. Using a small circuit board, power supply
and digital display, he designed and housed a clock in his pencil case. But rather than appreciate his ingenuity and
resourcefulness, by the time his sixth period class rolled around, the school principal
and a police officer arrived to arrest Ahmed, accusing him of making a hoax bomb. He was suspended from school, with his fingerprints
taken, and was reportedly interrogated by five different officers. As many commentators have by now pointed out,
it’s doubtful that Ahmed would have ever been arrested for his homemade clock if his name
were, say, Adam. And while everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to
President Obama have expressed support, this story is indicative of a much broader pattern
that rarely has such a happy ending. It illustrates that the social and political
milieu can either foster or stifle innovation. Islamphobia, in this case, dampening a young
inventor’s ambitions and ingenuity. When fear and discrimination run amuck, as
they do in every corner of the world, this doesn’t just harm those who are directly targeted,
but all of us who are denied the fruits of knowledge that the Ahmeds of the world are
eager and ready to share. So let’s remember that for most young people…
many young people, at least in the U.S… technology in schools looks more like this,
where a certain version of who they are and what they’re capable of is embedded in the
very architecture of the place that is supposed to nurture their potential. And the kids ain’t stupid, y’all! As they are getting in trouble for fighting,
they see the politicians who govern their lives glorify wars over resources and ideology. So I think we should stop to ask, “Where are
the zero tolerance policies for congress?” A deep seated hypocrisy which, if not exposed
through education and the building of an active citizenry, will continue to persist. As it stands, the default settings of our
society undermine the potential and brilliance of oppressed youth. Exhibit A: Last week it came to light that
when you run a simple Google search and type in, quote: “three black teenagers” the images
that will pop up on your screen are dramatically different that when you search for “three
white teenagers.” Represented with mugshots for black youth
and something akin to a Gap commercial for white youth. Which ultimately reinforces popular stereotypes
about black criminality and white innocence. This is part of a larger process that analysts
call algorithmic discrimination. Let’s remember algorithms are a series of
instructions written and maintained by programmers that adjust based on human behavior. And as such, they are seeded through and through
with biases and assumptions. For example, researchers found that Google’s
online advertising system showed an ad for high income jobs to men much more often than
it showed the ad to women. The Princeton Review’s prices for online SAT
tutoring shows that customer in areas with a high density of Asian residents are often
charged more. From retail to real estate, from employment
to criminal justice, the use of data mining, scoring and predictive software is proliferating. And when software makes decisions based on
that data, like a person’s zip code, it can reflect of even amplify the results of historical
or even institutional discrimination. The good news is that those who study algorithmic
discrimination assure us that it is possible to design these programs from scratch to be
aware of such racist and sexist biases. The key here is that it takes time to do this,
which runs counter to the rush to innovate ethos of marketing campaigns. So, as citizens, not just consumers, it’s
in our interest to actually demand slower and more socially conscious tech development,
so that when we think about what it means to integrate technology in education, I really
want us to move beyond questions of access, however important, and to think carefully
about questions of design. By whom and to what ends. Who’s imagination is at the heart of new technology? We have to develop in ourselves and in our
students something akin to a socio-technical literacy that can penetrate the shiny advertisements
that we’re being sold. Which brings us to the next story to help
us reflect further on who’s interests and values get integrated in the design process. So now that I live in a region of the country
that has much longer and colder winters than where I grew up, I jump at every opportunity
to soak in sunshine whenever I travel. So, during a recent visit to California, I
ended up on this bench located across from one of my favorite outdoor markets, hoping
to lie in the sun for a few minutes before carrying on with the business of the trip. But I quickly realized that I couldn’t lie
down because whoever designed the bench put armrest dividers at regular intervals. And if you can start brainstorming all the
possible reasons why, there are a number of reasons why those armrests may have been designed,
but my first guess was that this was a deliberate attempt to deter homeless people from using
the bench to sleep. And as it turns out, with just a little digging,
I found that benches are just one part of a global phenomenon of discriminatory design. I came across single occupancy benches in
Helsinki… no lying down there. Caged benches in France. And the best example I’ve come across so far
is this metered bench, where the user actually has to pay to sit down. Don’t get lost in a book, folks! Painful. And while this particular design was originally
created by a German artist to get us thinking about precisely these issues of the privatization
of public life, different cities around the world have actually gone ahead and adopted
it. The idea is to deter so called loitering in
public areas. As one U.S. government representative said
with respect to so called loitering at bus stations, “You’re not a customer, and our
customers come first”—A statement that would seem to sum up the ethos of many decisions
and policies that govern public life, including those in the educational arena. At the heart of discriminatory design is an
attempt to create a technological fix for social crisis, whether the crisis relates
to homelessness or health care, education or public safety. Rather than address the underlying social
and economic conditions that produce a problem, we design short term responses that too often
locate the problem inside kinds of people, like the so called loiterer, or to bring it
closer to home, the problem student. With respect to technology in education, the
way that we frame our questions, the places we go looking for the answers, the people
that we consult in the process, who we imagine will benefit from our designs or get in the
way, are crucial for us to reflect on. Another way to put this is to ask ourselves
who’s voices are missing when decisions are being made about technology in education. Because, without thoughtful consideration,
it’s likely that current forms of inequality, based on receptivity, gender and sexuality,
class, disability and nationality will all be unwittingly built into the design of new
tools and practices. So how then do we prepare ourselves and our
students to engage with these default settings? Do we equip them simply to succeed as individuals,
playing the game of life? Or do we teach them how to work together to
change the underlying codes that structure their lives and reproduce inequity? And finally, what roles should technology
have in this process. For starters, what I want to propose to you
is that the common understanding of what counts as technology is far too limited. So when we talk of educational innovation,
we often have material technologies in mind, but what about the default settings, those
unspoken rules and norms that mediate out interactions with one another and the world
around us? These social codes include the elaborate systems
of stratification that we call class, race and gender, which were originally designed
not as markers of personal identity, but as tools of classification and control. So, what do I mean by this? I’ll show just a few quick examples of the
way that gender ideologies are, at their core, technologies that attempt to hold women in
place. Example #1: Michael Robertson, the inventor
of MP3, was trying to explain the overrepresentation of men in Silicon Valley, and in trying to
justify the status quo, tweeted, “Science tells us men & women are biologically different
including their brains and skills.” Here we have a classic form, it shouldn’t
surprise us, of biological determinism that allows men to justify their domination over
women, with the help of science no less. Never mind that those producing the science
up to now have been overwhelmingly male. As it turns out, sexism never let a pesky
thing like tautology get in its way. Example #2: Britany Mueller, first time speaker
at a premier tech marketing conference was about to get on stage when a male attendee
reassured her, “Don’t be nervous, you’re hot! No one expect you to do well.” Here we have sexism’s most popular prophylactic,
patronizing compliments with a dash of humor. And a final example: In an attempt to respond
to the low numbers of women in the tech sector, IBM decided to call its new campaign “Hack
a hairdryer.” Relying on tired gender stereotypes of women
as uniquely preoccupied with appearance. “Sorry, IBM,” wrote one of many respondents,
“I’m too busy working on lipstick chemistry and writing down formula with little hearts
over the I’s to hack a hairdryer.” This last example alerts us to the fact that
even our purported solutions to counteract inequality may themselves be seeded with sexism. And it’s important for us to come to terms
with the fact that these are not simply aberrations in an otherwise well functioning system that
we can simply patch up with a good program. Rather, sexism, racism and class domination
are coded in the very operating structure of our societies, so that our efforts to imbue
new values into the system will require that we work overtime and with as much diligence
as those who propogate tools of exclusion and marginalization. As educators, this means we can’t simply prepare
our students to succeed in the world as it is, playing and winning at the game of life. We have to develop and hone new social technologies
that will help transform the status quo. And here I’ll give you a sense of what I have
in mind: In the social sciences, there is this concept
you may be familiar with called code switching. This is a term used to describe something
many people do to some degree as we navigate different social and cultural spaces, by changing
the way we speak and interact to fit in. Social lubrication, we might call it, that
we learn to do from a very young age. This code switching is one of many ways in
which we, quote, “play the game of life,” garnering respect and advancing in school
and work-life that for many of us tends to be predominantly middle class, white and masculine
settings, all the while maintaining connections to community, friends and family outside of
work. But accepting this as just how it is, just
what we have to do, the concept of code switching tends to hide something rather crucial, which
is that not all codes were created equal, because not all social milieus can exert the
same power, rewards and consequences over those that conform and those that do not. This is what makes the work of Columbia University
professor, Chris Emden, so relevant to our conversation. His Science Genius program utilizes the power
of Hiphop music and culture to introduce youth to the beauty of science. Rather than force the students to turn off
what they value when they enter the classroom, the classroom changes to meet them on their
cultural turf. Through this, not only are they valued as
whole people, for who they are in and out of school, but now, through Emden’s incredible
work, we’re all learning the many pedagogical principles embedded in Hiphop music and culture,
which can actually enhance the work of teachers in a number of different ways. And while most of the research on code switching
has tended to focus on ethno-racial codes, and to a lesser extent economic class codes,
we could easily brainstorm a list of ways that many women tend to code switch when we
move from a setting that is predominately female to one that’s not. From the change in body language, a decrease
in assertiveness, to an increase in apologies. These are all ways girls learn from a young
age to perform gender and are penalized for not doing so. The point is that when we move through different
social worlds, each with their own unspoken rules of interaction, these are not really
parallel universes, but stratified ones. Stratified because judgement and scrutiny
of, say speech, and dress, and competence are often directed against those who have
the least power, by those who have more. Which is why, for example, in our current
rape culture, the burden continues to fall on women, rather than men to prevent rape. And you’ll notice the kind of “don’t rape
me” training that we impart is often in terms of telling women to, quote, “Stop asking for
it in coded language”, that is with their dress, speech and body language. Instead, we should be training men and boys—which
I am particularly invested in as the mother of two sons—to stop misreading the codes. Cultural codes, in short, are not neutral,
nor are all codes created equal. They reflect particular values, and interests,
and forms of social organization that allow some people to impose their values and their
pathologies onto others. And to be successful, we’re told, we must
master the dominant codes, learning, in short, to play the game of life, a game in which
the rules have been created by someone else. So, let me pause for a moment and break down
what I mean by these competing metaphors: Gaming vs. Hacking. These, as you know, are two widespread ways
in which people engage with technology in a literal sense. But I want to use them figuratively to illustrate
two possible ways we can prepare our students to approach life more broadly. The first mode of engagement—gaming—is
typically characterized by recreation, competition and consumption, that is we use and we play
with, but don’t create the technological platforms and social systems that we set out to game. The second mode—hacking—is typically characterized
by some degree of mastery, collaboration and creativity. That is, to hack a system, one needs in depth
understanding of how it works. What are its strengths and weaknesses? And a vision for how to make it better. These insights allow us to potentially subvert
the system that we’ve come to understand and make it do something it wasn’t meant to do. This, to me, makes it a potent metaphor for
intervening in unjust social systems. Now, keep in mind, there is nothing inherently
wrong with the qualities on the left side of your screen: recreation, competition and
consumption. There’s a time and place for all three. But too often, these become the defining features
of what it is to life a good life. And in that way, we’re confining ourselves
to our own needs and wants, and this causes us to forget that good living actually requires
more of us: courage, sacrifice, and purpose most of all. When we begin to re-write codes, rather than
simply code switch, we can set out to embed new values and new social relations into the
world. Whereas the idea of code switching is about
fitting in and leaning in to play a game created by others, what we really need right now is
for more people to stretch out the arenas in which we live and work, to become more
inclusive and just. And I’m going to share just two examples of
why this matters so much by referring to the content of video games and blockbuster films. So, first, when we look at the world of video
games itself, and examine the connection between violence, gender and race, one study found
that the majority of African American female characters—a full 86%—are either props,
bystanders or participants, but never competitors. Nearly nine out of ten African American females
are victims of violence in these games, making them far more likely than any other group
to be victimized. And more than half of the African American
characters, both male and female, are, quote, “unaffected” by the violence exacted upon
them, with only a fraction exhibiting both pain and physical harm. Now, we might be tempted to minimize or dismiss
how violence and stereotypes in these virtual worlds impact us. But to do that, we really have to ignore the
fact that the line between virtual and physical has been completely blurred, and the fact
that from the moment we wake up in the morning, to the time we go to sleep, so many hours
are spent in virtual reality. So that what people think and feel in so called
“real life” directly impacts and is impacted by these screen-mediated interactions. Virtual worlds represent and shape our imagination,
including what we value and desire, and what we fear and hate. So the fact that the lives of black women
continue to be valued less and are considered less tragic on the screen, both reflects and
reinforces devaluation in everyday life. Example number two: You might recall that
on the opening weekend of the movie Hunger Games, many fans took to Twitter in order
to express their disappointment and even disgust that one of the characters that they had come
to love in the book version didn’t match their imagination, that their beloved Rue was not,
quote, “a blond haired white girl with whom they could relate innocence.” This set off a string of vehement tweets from
fans with one writing “Call me racist, but when I found out Rue was black, her death
wasn’t as sad.” Now, as long as we pretend young people are
immune to the racism embedded in every aspect of social life, then we are ensuring more
of the same. As long as we pretend that color blindness
is a solution in a world saturated with racial meaning, then we’re ensuring more of the same. And unless we in this room become proactive
in addressing racist messages about human value that persist in and outside of the classroom,
then the default setting that young people will internalize is that some version of “white
is good, black is bad, and everyone else falls along this pole” to be true. For all these reasons and more, it is urgent
that we not simply empower our students to succeed in the world as it is, but rather
begin to imagine and design alternatives to the current system. To do this requires some degree of mastery,
that is understanding how the social order works. Collaboration that is collective action and
not simply individual goodwill. Good intentions are not enough. And creativity that is making sure that our
plans for change are infused with a rigorous imagination, so we don’t just create a shiny
new version of the same old thing. To that end, I want to suggest to you five
ways that we may consciously or inadvertently constrict our imagination and that of our
students when it comes to social change. Naming these missteps is not meant to depress
you. I want to suggest that it’s necessary if we
want to do and be better. For the sake of time, I’m just going to breeze
through them rather quickly, with the understanding that each point could comprise a talk of its
own. So, the first way we restrict our imagination
of how to engender social change is an Ahistorical Fallacy, which is this tendency to project
forward in time without the temporal corollary of careful reflection on historical precedents
and processes. Too often, our collective imagination & thinking
with respect to technology, mirrors the hyperbolic rhetoric of science and marketing campaigns—breakthrough,
cutting edge, breathtaking, miraculous—all leading us to overlook continuities as we
train our attention on all that appears novel. Some of these historical continuities, I should
point out, are no doubt empowering, as with the many ways that women of color have contributed
to the STEM fields. Most of our students don’t know that before
computers were machines, they were people, and than NASA couldn’t have made it to space
without its pool of human computers, including mathematician and programmer, Annie Easley,
pictured here, who’s work has influenced everything from solar technology to the centaur rocket. But some of these patterns are deeply discouraging,
and yet we shouldn’t shy away from them. Kiera Wilmot, a Florida teenager who was handcuffed,
expelled and sent to a juvenile facility, initially charged for a felony in 2013—all
for a science experiment that caused a small explosion in her school. Many in the scientific community pointed out
that one: scientific accidents are part of science and that two: Kiera would not have
been as harshly treated had she not been in a school with zero tolerance policies that
essentially feed the school-to-prison pipeline. As it related to the ahistorical fallacy,
we have to resist the urge to assume the passage of time equals social progress. Just because people like Annie Easley have
broken barriers, it doesn’t mean students like Kiera Wilmot will be able to reach their
full potential. In fact, the broken glass of a previous generation
may very well turn into the violent shards and the bloody eyes of this generation. And so the only way forward is not to presume
we will necessarily more forward without struggling for it. Time is nonlinear and social change is not
given. The second way we limit our imagination of
how to engender social change is a Legalistic Fallacy. When we assume that reforming policies and
laws is sufficient to shaping the context of science and technology for the greater
good. Despite the formal gains women have in terms
of workplace discrimination, we can still have someone like Nobel Prize winner, Tim
Hunt, say, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen with them when they’re
in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love
with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” He then went on to propose single sex science
labs, so that women and men might work separately. But then thank goodness for the way social
media allows us to rewrite outdated codes, expressed by such luminaries. Here’s a great caution sign that made the
rounds: No falling in love and crying permitted in the lab. And then there was a #distractinglysexy hashtag
that went viral pointing out the absurdity of Hunt’s statement with women in STEM all
over the country tweeting “Oh don’t mind me, I’m just distractingly sexy.” The point is that official policy change has
to go hand in hand with much deeper transformation of social and cultural norms. No easy task, but I do think primary and secondary
schools are in a much better position to contribute to this than say human resource officers or
even diversity trainers who attempt to intervene at the point at which such norms have already
been solidified. Whether we think of ourselves in these terms
or not, educators are cultural workers on the front lines of either reproducing the
world as it is or empowering students to create it as it can and should be. The third we may inadvertently restrict our
imagination when it comes to social change is an Individualistic Fallacy, when we assume
that the world simply reflects individual’s intentions, whether good or bad. In the case of the tech sector, there is a
never ending proliferation of self-help advice of this kind. “5 Ways Women in Tech Can Beat the Odds.” Top on the to-do list, according to this article:
Be assertive, not aggressive. Oh, really! We’re still pretending that there is a qualitative
difference between assertiveness and aggression, rather than recognizing that those in power
code behavior that threatens the status quo and their authority as “aggressive”. If we’re going to fall into the individualistic
trap, let’s at least flip the script a little bit and focus on the right individuals. To that end, I propose a new set of self-help
headlines: “5 Ways Men in Tech Can Combat Sexism.” Number 1: Be less aggressive, more cooperative. And here I’m only partly joking because, yes,
the preoccupation with self-help lists at both ends of the line of power overshadows
the great importance of institutional policies and culture to shape people’s experiences. Even so, when we do start talking about the
responsibility of individuals to address inequality, too often we expect that those who are harmed
by current arrangements to conform, but rather than grooming people who have been actively
kept out of STEM to be less susceptible to discrimination, which sounds absurd when I
say it but that’s the subtext, how about we expect those who currently monopolize power
not to implicitly or explicitly discriminate. The fourth way we may inadvertently constrict
our ideas of social change is a Fixed Fallacy about what our measure of progress should
be, that in the prior era the physical inclusion of women and people of color in arenas that
up until then had been reserved for white men of a certain class and religion, was certainly
a step forward. But it should go without saying that our aims
should evolve. Yes, we should care about numbers, but the
content and quality of what happens in STEM fields are vital for us to consider. Along these lines, I’m really inspired by
the work of Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, who runs a STEAM lab in Boston, where she’s not simply
training her students, shown here, to enter the STEM pipeline, but together they are basically
fashioning their own pipes to irrigate futures of their own making. What’s more, she’s contributing to a model
of culturally situated education in which students bring their passion and insights
to the table. The become creators, not just consumers of
ideas and technologies produced by others. In this way, we can imagine alternatives that
push past the fixed notions of progress and, in the process, cultivate a kind of intellectual
agility and creativity in our students. The point is not simply that students need
jobs, we know that, but they also need and crave purpose. The fifth and final way we may limit our imagination
of how to engender social change is Tokenistic Fallacy. This is the assumption that the presence of
women and people of color in influential positions is enough evidence of progress. One bright bulb does not an enlightenment
make. In fact, what we know from the social sciences,
is having token individuals in high profile positions may actually serve as an excuse
not to engage in more fundamental transformation: a perpetual placeholder, if you will. Which is why organizations such as Black Girls
Code are so vital in offering opportunities for young people to gain programming skills. But even the founder of Black Girls Code,
Kimberly Bryant admits this is a drop in the bucket. After all, the bowl is much bigger than expanding
the gender and race diversity on a company’s piechart. Instead, the point is to give all of those
who are routinely coded as less proficient in STEM the chance to become the masters of
their technological worlds. These young people are not simply individual
players learning to win at the game of life, but are learning to work together to design
alternatives to the status quo that will impact us all. So, coming full circle and moving to conclusion,
I want to end with Ahmed and the many people who’s contribution to science, medicine and
technology are stifled, ignored and shut down. The clock is ticking. Thinking from the margins with those who have
been historically harmed and pathologized in the name of progress, forces us to remain
vigilant about the ways technology can actually increase social divides and the needs for
us to put structures in place for individuals to be granted more agency and room to participate
is vital. With that, I have one final thought, taken
from the Baha’i writings, which serves as a center of gravity because it reminds me
what stands at the heart of this endeavor we call education. “Children are the most precious treasure a
community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future
society, which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail
to do with respect to children. They are a trust no community can neglect
with impunity. An all embracing love of children, the manner
of treating them, the quality of attention shown them, the spirit of adult behavior towards
them—these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline, the courage to accustom
children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own
devices.” (Get it? Devices?) “And finally, an atmosphere that needs to
be maintained, in which children feel that they belong to the community and share in
its purpose.” With that, let’s move past the idea of love
as some sappy sentiment we find in romantic comedies and Valentine’s Day. Love is, in fact, the most powerful technology
at our disposal, with it ability to reshape human relations as we know it. So with that, let’s recommit ourselves to
turning it on often and in abundance in service to humanity. With that, thank you so much for your attention.

4 thoughts on “ISTE 2016 keynote speaker Ruha Benjamin | Incubate a Better World in the Minds & Hearts of Students”

  1. I wish more teachers designed for students to do now instead of preparing them so they can do once they are in "the real world" and know enough. They are in the real-world now so let them learn and do now.

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