Breaking down barriers for Black youth in tech

An education program trying to remedy the tech sector's diversity problem also wants to ensure no one ever feels alone in the workplace

Dana Herbert stood out when she was studying animation at Cambrian College in Sudbury.

“I was the token Black girl,” she says, describing an awkward time filled with microaggressions on top of other stresses. She eventually dropped out, unable to keep up with work, bills, rent and sending money home to assist her mom.

Today, she is working a four-month paid internship at Spin VFX, the Liberty Village post-production firm that does special effects for TV shows and movies like John Wick, Suicide Squad and Game Of Thrones.

She’s among 12 graduates from the Black Futures Digital Tech cohort, an initiative funded by the Ontario Black Youth Action Plan, which the former Liberal government put into motion to fight systemic barriers, disenfranchisement and the unemployment rate among Black youth.

Run by the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, the program includes four months of coursework in addition to the internship, and is designed to encourage Black youth to overcome the emotional baggage inherent to the tech industry’s diversity problem.

Last summer, a Fortune article entitled Tech Companies Are Still Struggling To Hire Black Workers noted that Black employees at major companies like Google and Facebook represent about one-to-three per cent of staff, a statistic in line with the top eight companies in the U.S. That lack of representation is why we have the Black Arts & Innovation Expo, which takes place February 21 and helps prospective employers connect with Black talent. On the same day, the Black Professionals in Technology Network is hosting its Black History Meets Tech event at the MaRS Discovery District.

Tech isn’t the only industry the CEE Centre targets. It works with sectors where Black people are vastly underrepresented, including hospitality, social services and trades – sectors with labour gaps that require minimal to no training rather than a four-year degree .

“We work with Black youth who are having economic challenges and barriers to being more economically mobile,” says program manager Xavier McLaughlin. “If you got a criminal record, I actually want you more.”

“CEE as a whole is dedicated to working with folks who are furthest from the labour market,” adds executive director Agapi Gessesse, describing how the company searches for candidates with prospects but who need help networking and boosting soft skills.

The program developed with Spin VFX is a little different from CEE’s other streams. It’s the first to come with a guaranteed job placement, but it also required participants who already had some exposure to post-secondary education in the arts and tech field, whether that be a certificate or just few classes. Humber College helped develop a curriculum for the successful candidates to be trained in compositing using an application called Nuke.

With Doug Ford’s Conservative government in power, the fate of programs focused on counteracting the nuanced stresses that come with being the only Black person in the room are shakier. The CEE Centre’s work isn’t limited to just finding opportunities, but making sure that disadvantaged Black youth are prepared to tackle the challenges – practical and emotional – that hold them back.

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Samuel Engelking

Dana Herbert

“Un-othering themselves”

“Compositing is taking two or more images and putting them together seamlessly so you can’t tell they are bits and pieces,” explains Herbert, who had no clue what that was before entering the CEE program. “Green screen is compositing.”

Herbert and fellow graduate Isaiah Franklin are both enthusiastic young folks from Scarborough. She lived and went to school in Wexford, but now lives in Pickering. He lives in Mornelle Court. They are both at the CEE centre’s humble North York office walking me through the program and how they ended up involved with it.

After leaving high school, Herbert pursued animation, seeing that as a way to direct her passion for arts. She wants to be a fine artist like Kehinde Wiley. But then came her struggle at Cambrian College.

“I just let it go,” says Herbert, who moved home with her family and started working night shifts at Life Time gym while taking programming courses at Durham College. A fellow employee at the gym recommended the CEE program.

Franklin hopes to author his own graphic novel. The CEE’s program facilitator, Yao Togobo, introduced Franklin to Kelvin Nyeusi Mawazo, the Black Sun comics creator, not as part of the CEE’s program, but just so the young artist could start building a support network to realize his dreams.

Franklin completed a continuing ed program at George Brown College, earning a graphic design certificate. But he still thought he was falling short.

“It felt like my skill set was not on par with everyone else,” says Franklin, describing being surrounded by adults working corporate jobs in classrooms where he was the only Black student.

“You don’t want to compare yourself to other people. But in that setting, it feels weird when you have to put your work up against other people’s and then feel like you’re always a step behind.”

According to a study by York University education professor Carl James, Towards Race Equity In Education, high school dropout rates are approximately 10 per cent for white and other racialized students and 20 per cent for Black students. However, Black youths who are third-generation Canadians show a significantly higher dropout rate of 28 per cent than their first- or second-generation counterparts.

“The more you get steeped in Canadian culture, the more you get disenfranchised from it,” explains McLaughlin.

“All of our programs have a facilitator and a social worker who are able to tease out a lot of what was really holding back our young people,” he says, “which is issues around mental health, self-confidence and not feeling represented. There are all these feelings of inadequacy that young people go through. Do they feel secure? If something happens, do they have the network they can reach out to as opposed to blowing up and walking out of the office.”

“Entering into a workplace, you might encounter somebody who is just a rude person,” Gessesse adds. “It’s easy to internalize that interaction and think, ‘I’m a person of colour and there’s no one that looks like me.’ All it takes is for somebody to say or do something unwelcoming for you to feel like ‘I shouldn’t be here.’”

On top of “exposure” trips to media companies and outlets like public broadcaster TVO, CEE’s four-month program involves confidence-building workshops. Students learn self-care, how to field criticism, handle pressure and meet deadlines while beginning a process Gessesse describes as “un-othering themselves.”

The training applies to employers, too. CEE is ready to talk to workplaces willing to open up and create inclusive environments. That can include having a friendly person available to answer a newcomer’s questions (like whether an outfit is office-appropriate) without the inquirer feeling othered.

They’re hoping other companies take after Spin VFX, which is welcoming a dozen young Black recruits from CEE Centre. When I ask Herbert if she’s ready for Spin, she makes a confident declaration.

“We have the power to make our realities come true,” she says. “I just tell myself, ‘I’m officially a junior compositor. I’m gonna work at Spin. And after the internship, I’m going to land a permanent job.’”

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Samuel Engelking

Isaiah Franklin

Anti-Black racism strategy

Black youth unemployment in Ontario is around 28 per cent – double the national average. While that remains a pressing issue, funding is dwindling due to the age-old refrain about fiscal responsibility.

“We had the summer of the gun in 2006,” Gennesse recalls. “All this money was pumped into organizations like ours – that’s how we were founded – but now that funding has run out, you’re seeing a spike in violence again. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

CEE received charitable status in April, which opens opportunities for more donors. It currently relies on grants and funds from the city and organizations like Maytree and the Metcalf Foundation.

More support was meant to come from Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate and Anti-Black Racism Strategy, whose plans completely aligned with the CEE Centre’s methods. But, as the website for Ontario’s 3-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan so plainly indicates, those ideas were cooked up by a previous government. Since taking office, Ford moved the Anti-Racism Directorate to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, as if to make a point by association.

For Gessesse, who grew up in Toronto public housing neighbourhood Sparroways, the dwindling support is not just heartbreaking but also illogical.

“Black and Indigenous youth have been identified as groups that have very unique barriers,” she says, arguing that empowering marginalized groups to overcome their specific challenges and become economic contributors benefits society as a whole.

“When you’re doing a test, answer the hardest questions first and the rest fall into place because they’re not that hard.”


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