One of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the Maker Movement is dramatically increasing participation in the African-American and Latino communities. Colin “Topper” Carew, who was an architect, and a writer and producer in Hollywood before landing at the MIT Media Lab, has been working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to help provide opportunities for students to make and invent. Recently I interviewed Carew to ask him about the importance of African-Americans and Latinos realizing the potential of the Maker Movement.
“The Maker Movement is one of the few things out there that has the possibility of leveling the playing field in technology,” says Carew. “One of the great detriments to the inclusion of more African-Americans and Latino Americans in technology has been a lack of access. Makerspaces provide that possibility. In Boston, there are a significant number of Makerspaces and the African-American population does find its way to those spaces.
“Making should be an opportunity we provide to all people,” he continues. “Starting at very young ages, we have to grow and nurture our young people. Schools will eventually come on board and we need them. But most of the modeling happening in this country right now is going on outside of the schools. This is where young people get turned on.”
“By creating an environment where young people can play, experiment, and make mistakes, where they can learn to solve problems, where they can flourish artistically, where they can use code just like a paint brush or a musical scale — all of these things are what make for a more complete and well-rounded individual,” Carew says. “Ultimately, they become more confident, curious and capable.”
One of Carew’s talking points with HBCUs is what happens when the African-American community gains access to tools. “Go back to the early days of miniaturized recording machines. Now a young person could have access to a recording device, which at one point in time might have cost $400 an hour. Now they had this machine. I watched as these young people got the means of production, and, with the code being the 12 notes of music, they began to invent things. One of these things became rap, one of these things became hip hop. Now those things are Americana. That culture has impacted everything.”
At World Maker Faire last fall, I met DJ and hip-hop producer, Jazzy Jay, one of the founders of Def Jam Recordings. In an oral history interview by National Association of Music Merchants, Jazzy Jay said that he started a home production studio with “the crappiest stuff you could dig out of the garbage, out of people’s stereos that they threw out.” He added, “it was all primitive but it taught me how to manipulate electronics. We couldn’t afford going to the store to pay for this stuff.” At Maker Faire, Jazzy Jay was appearing with DJs from ThudRumble. “I get this event,” he said to me. “I’m a geek myself. I love seeing all of this.”
Carew says that Makerspaces can give young people the same kind of tools for production. “Once they have access and the code is understood by those communities, there’s going to be an explosion — I don’t know what it is. But I know that something wonderful is going to happen and it will be characterized one day as Americana. So the value of propagating a movement that brings those populations in is going to have a wonderful, long-term, highly productive impact on American culture, productivity and competitiveness.”
This is beginning to happen in youth Makerspaces across the country. Maker Education, of which I am the chairman, looked at 51 in the United States and found that participants average 42% White, 20% African-American, 18% Latino, and 14% Asian.
“When I talk to the HBCUs, I help them see the vision and see what is happening,” Carew says. “At Spelman College, young women designed a camera that mounts on a laboratory microscope. They designed and fabricated it and the new camera replaced an $850 camera. The expensive cameras now sit in a pile on the floor. Now every student who wants her own personal camera can get one for $20. That’s why the Maker Movement is an important platform for long-term productivity and accessibility.”
Here are a few noteworthy programs that are engaging young African-Americans and Latinos in making:
»The Parachute Factory is a Makerspace in Las Vegas, New Mexico serving Hispanic and Native American youth.
»Verizon’s Minority Male Maker program, which is a summer training program for middle school minority boys.
»DIY Girls, founded by Luz Rivas in Los Angeles, provides hands-on tech experiences for young girls and women.
»The South End Technology Center in Boston, which is the first community Fab Lab to spin out of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the MIT Media Lab.