“Survey your staff anonymously about their reflections and self-identity with your organization or if they even have an identity with the organization. Speak truth to the shortcomings of the organization and reflect on how this lack of diversity has occurred. Then create a plan and make it public to right these wrongs.“
What do you do?
I get asked that a lot. What is it that you actually do and the short answer is that I am an educator. More specifically I am an Instructional Technologist. I work at the intersection of our public k12 educational system and where it meets technology. I provide systems support, change management, pedagogical and andragogical training, as well as professional coaching. I do this all in the name of providing modern and equitable education to all of our students in order for them to become happy, healthy, and educated citizens who want the same for their neighbors and communities. I currently help manage a program through the Verizon Foundation called the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools where we provide full scope ecosystem change to the instructional environment for schools of at least 65% free and reduced lunch. We provide a full-time instructional coach to support the change and give every student and teacher in the building with a device, with a data connection, and show the schools how to manage, filter, and teach in a technology-rich environment that no longer has a digital equity divide. The schools are initially in the program for two years of intense work on systemic change, but we have recently increased that to an additional two years of support to provide a better foundation for sustained progress in the program. We also implement a fully-fledged AR/VR lab with a makerspace in the schools as well as coaching and support to better meet the needs of students. I also support and train students to take charge of the program to be the first line of support as the school shifts to a more project based and personalized learning environment.
We are currently doing this work with 152 schools from Maui to Burlington Vermont and have plans to expand this program by 225 schools over the next two years.
What keeps you passionate in the tech industry?
I stay passionate because I have seen first hand the impact technology can have on our children when implemented appropriately. There are few things more profoundly moving than helping a non-verbal student with autism who is also an english language learner have an educational experience that lights up their entire face by having an experience with augmented reality they can pick up and manipulate and use to communicate. To see entire communities of children teaching their parents English through technology and strengthening the home and school connection through increased communication about their child’s progress and feel empowered to help their student for the first time keeps me going.
The fact that I have schools who have created student tech teams that are 100% voluntarily female students introducing them to STEM fields and opportunities that previously were not on the table is a massive amount of satisfaction.
Working in the bureaucracy of education and all of its limitations and rules it is easy to become jaded quite quickly, but working with children provides me great joy as they grow and explore the world around them. Seeing them take charge and not back down gives me the passion I need to keep going.
Honestly, watching this next generation come up in the world first hand give me great hope. They are savvy, fearless, and caring in a way that I know my generation never was able to muster. Seeing their audacity and talent on display everyday gives me hope and keeps me passionate.
What do you like about the company you currently run/work for?
I like that I never have to hesitate about doing the right thing. A lot of people have to compromise – others sell out entirely.
I work for the International Non-Profit Digital Promise which many folks have either heard of and know about everything we do…or are reading this and googling Digital Promise right now. Working here in many ways is a dream job for me. I get to work with a diverse group cutting edge researchers, implementers, and technologists who bring a massive amount of talent and expertise that all want to impact our public education system in a profound way. We all recognize that our public education system is not broken…it’s actually working exactly as designed and has created an inequitable society. We are constantly talking about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in our meetings and how to improve this in our schools through the lens of technology.
I have to say one of the things I enjoy the most working here is that I get to make a broad impact on schools nationwide but that my opinion and thoughts are valued on the direction and projects we need to work on. It is a fantastic place to work and know every day that you are making a profound impact on our education system.
What are some initiatives that your company is taking to create a more inclusive workplace?
We have been working on at least a year long journey to ensure that we are not only talking about inclusion in the workplace but are actively including it in our mission and every project we take on. We want to make sure that we are bringing up the issue of inclusion in the workplace and in schools with every meeting and discussion. This enables us to ensure our projects and initiatives are inclusive from the onset. Since we have already taken on the “why” and the “what” of our mission we also work with external consultants on ensuring we have maximizing our inclusive potential. My project for the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools is also inclusive by design as we are working towards including underrepresented and underestimated populations of students into the fold of the next generation of our society.
What does being an ally to underrepresented folks in tech mean to you?
Growing up in rural Ohio I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be an ally until I joined the Marines after high school. I came from an all white rural neighborhood that had not an ounce of diversity or underrepresented folks. When I left for the Marines it was my first experience with anyone different than myself. Everyone was forced to come together and work through their personal issues, overcome them, and work together. Living that close together for that amount of time with that many type A personalities with alpha syndrome you start to see those who have voice and those who do not. Those who had given up their previously held beliefs and prejudices, and those who had not. That was my first experience with defending those who did not have a voice and being prepared to attack those who did and used it for less than stellar reasons. This was before “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed and before women and men trained together in the Marines. You would hear the comments, see the sideways glances. As a leader you could do one of two things. Ignore it and hope it goes away and morale improves. Or. Tackle it head on that everyone was equal and we all wore the uniform for the same reasons.
That was when I first understood what it meant to be an ally to underrepresented folks. I refused to enable that culture in my Marines. We were all eating the same dirt, we would all eat it together as equals and come out better for it on the other end.
I understand and embody the unfortunate reality that as a white cisgendered male I am engendered certain borne in privileges that I did not earn. What matters is what you do with that privilege, you can use it to make yourself a victim by never taking the time to reflect on who you are and what you are. Or, you can look inward and understand that you must use this privilege to give others voice when their voice is not welcome at the table. To climb up the wall and provide a ladder to those where there are none.
What is the importance of making sure the tech community is inclusive?
This is extremely important. With the pace of technological change it is to easy to innovate one-dimensionally and create products and services that are inadvertently exclusive. If we are not providing space for all voices then all of us are not being our strongest and best selves and are therefore not able to provide our strongest and best products and services.
By providing space, opportunity, and value of all voices and opinions we are able to create and innovate in ways that enable a stronger society and have more fun innovating for each other in ways we never thought possible.
I see it all the time in educational technology products where they are creating products that only produce results at the best schools, with hours of time working at home with parents, and are exclusively expensive and are only designed to be purchased by rich districts. They tout their massive gains and impact on education. Which is great…but of course you are successful look at the makeup of who is using your product. That success will not translate to schools of high poverty because they are completely unable to use the product as prescribed. Many times they do not even realize that this is the product they have created and are limiting their growth opportunities.
Many people and organizations do not realize they are being exclusive until after they have spent tons of many and hours building something. However, if they have the inclusive voices at the table from the beginning the iterative design and growth process is much stronger, which also enables a stronger product and culture of community within their organization.
A lot of people are afraid to publicly learn, but it’s important to be transparent about moments of unlearning. This shows others it’s okay to admit your wrongs in order to grow. Can you share one or more “a-ha!” moments you’ve had where you realized “this is wrong” or “this way of thinking is biased”?
As an educator, I believe that public learning is essential to growth as an individual and a society. I also understand that safe places of learning do not exist for everyone therefore as a white cis-gendered male there is less risk for me to publicly learn and that if I am not willing to take that risk and then provide a voice for someone else then I am not being an ally.
One public learning moment that I had was when I was working as a public teacher institute one summer training new teachers on the art of teaching. It was my role to support the technical implementation of the one thousand teachers and staff. My direct supervisor was a transgendered individual who I rather enjoyed working for and had become quite a good friend over the course of the summer. I had never had any experience with the transgendered individuals or community. At the time this was my only transgendered friend and as the summer winded down and we were all out celebrating. We all had a few drinks and I used a term which I thought was innocuous and had no idea it was an offensive term to this individual. Because of our great relationship so far I was quickly corrected publicly on my verbiage and explained why it was a derogatory term. I apologized profoundly, vowed to never use it again, and we all moved on with a splendid evening.
I would say that was my first experience with understanding how much the verbs we use to describe others is dramatically important to others self-actualization and feelings of inclusivity. From that point forward I have tried to always be aware of my language and descriptions of others to ensure I am not excluding someone from the comfort and self-agency I am able to enjoy at all times in any situation.
What results have you seen from your tech equity and advocacy actions?
At this point my program has reached over 115,000 students and Eight Thousand educators. We are able to profoundly impact entire communities and set a catalyst for change around a community by providing a learning ecosystem that is on par with more affluent schools. I have seen schools that have seen enrollment decreases for two or more decades have hundreds more students enroll in their school. I am lucky enough to be able to change the narrative of schools all over the country and enable the next generation of innovators and technologists with the skills and self-agency necessary to be successful on their terms.
Personally, I can see my philosophies on diversity and inclusion impacting individuals and teams around me when I am asked by my colleagues and institutions to include my voice in the conversation because they trust me to advocate for them when their voice is not provided space. This has pushed me further to realize work towards a society that understands all of our profound innovations and biases are a choice and I hope to help guide them on making a choice that provides everyone with a seat at the table.
Some research shows that it’s hard to have empathy and, in this case, practice tech advocacy without being exposed to some form of human suffering from someone different from yourself. Have you ever had an experience like this that has helped you to prioritize tech equity in your life and career today?
As much as I dislike that unfortunate reality, it is the reality we all must live with.
I would say that I have had a few such profound experiences that have shaped my viewpoints and philosophies. I have managed to bear witness to profound human suffering that has impacted me and driven me to who I am today.
From my time in the Marines and living through the Battle of Fallujah it helped me to realize that I wanted to spend the rest of my days in peace building something that provides people with happiness in their lives. To teaching in Washington DC Public Schools where I watched eighteen of my colleagues get fired in one day due to a budgetary decision which made me never want to lose sight of the reality behind the spreadsheet. To losing ten students who I personally taught in my classroom to gun violence in the streets which cemented my advocacy for underprivileged youth. Teaching my students the importance of civil disobedience when an act of injustice occurs. All of these realities have shaped my point of view and identity as an ally and have provided me the space to understand what it means to be empathic to the plight of others.
What is some advice you’d give to other men in tech, older or younger, who are seeking ways to be more inclusive with their actions?
Lose the ego. Take up less space. Listen. Be vulnerable.
I say lose the ego because when you have been engendered to believe certain things about yourself you never take the time to reflect on why they are that way. Men in our society are forced in many ways to believe they are who they are because of who they are as an individual and that inhibits connections and empathy to others. You can be set in your ways and who you are and still value and love others for who they are. Lose the ego and let others in and tack a crack at help shaping you. You are not your khakis…
I say take up less space because we need to provide space for others at the table to give their opinion, thoughts, and dreams. This, in turn, makes us stronger. It is not a threat to take up less space because it can provide for new opportunities for growth as an individual and a society.
I say listen because the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room. Taking the time to listen and be thoughtful in words and action enables a more trustworthy and inclusive environment. And listening to the words of others is like water and sunlight that helps us grow.
I say be vulnerable because historically men are not supposed to be, do not have to be, and do not want to be. You can live your life in comfort and never challenge your own viewpoints or you can choose to be vulnerable and let others see you for who you are and what drives you.
What is some advice you’d share with diversity-starved organizations?
Take the time to reflect on the “why” you are starved for diversity. Ask yourselves why your candidate pool is not diverse, survey your staff anonymously about their reflections and self-identity with your organization or if they even have an identity with the organization. Speak truth to the shortcomings of the organization and reflect on how this lack of diversity has occurred. Then create a plan and make it public to right these wrongs. Your bottom line will improve, your workers will be happier, and you will experience less turnover. Your organization becomes stronger by listening to the opinions, thoughts, and beliefs of your employees.
CONNECT WITH DAN:
👀Want to sponsor a spotlight and get eyes on your business or event? Invest in our community to help keep our platform growing, nurturing and inspiring talent in the Pittsburgh pipeline.
💌Wanna stay in touch? (We’ll only bug you monthly with useful resources, exciting updates, jobs, and events!)💌