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Baltimore, blind spots and innovation

March 26, 2012 writer Irin Carmon recently penned an interesting (and wonderfully titled) article exploring “white male nerd” culture’s attempts at achieving diversity, using the influential South by Southwest festival as a case-study. As Latoya Peterson, publisher of the award-winning blog notes “We [women and people of color] have to make sure that we’re not ceding the technological future.” Carmon makes an excellent point that “technology itself cedes something” by excluding people of color (as the future looks increasingly less “white”) and women, who increasingly represent more and more of our college educated population.

But what about a place like Baltimore City, which has a majority non-white, undereducated population and won’t be going the way of Washington, D.C. anytime soon. In fact, Baltimore City looks about as antithetical to “white male nerd” meccas (think Portland, San Francisco or Seattle) as any city can possibly be. How do “typical-tech-dude[s]” dance with diversity in Baltimore? attempted to answer that question with its Inclusive Innovation (InSquared) Unconference this past weekend, which included Tara Hunt and “How to be Black” author Baratunde Thurston, who also keynoted South by Southwest. Admittedly, it’s a difficult question to wrestle with, and I’m generally skeptical about speaking to “inclusion” in a place like Baltimore City, where “white male nerd culture” is increasing but certainly isn’t normative. But Baltimore is unequivocally one of the most segregated cities in the country, both racially and socio-economically, and it’s a reality that has to be confronted if we are truly to achieve any level of inclusiveness—I’m still not quite sure if that’s even the word we should be using given the city’s demographics and the presence of educational institutions such as University of Maryland, Baltimore County, lauded nationally for its ability to graduate technologists of color. As Thurston remarked during his talk, “There are too many people saying ‘let’s get more black people/women/brown people in technology’ without doing anything.” Achieving diversity requires deliberate effort.

But InSquared is an example of moving away from the “We TRIED to make it diverse!” meme Carmon writes about to a much more instructive “HELP us make this inclusive.” And that’s the direction we need to be heading. It acknowledges significant cultural blind spots (recall how astonished the Twitterverse was by the outcome of the 2011 Mayoral elections) and demonstrates willingness to move outside of established comfort zones. It requires a muscular empathy, first acknowledging that your worldview or cultural perspective is less than extraordinary.  Because that’s what needs to happen.

As Thurston explained, it’s about accepting that “Your ‘thing’ is suboptimal without including everyone. You are short of perspective and resources otherwise.”



From → Baltimore, National, Race

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