Stop Being Poor: Access, Diversity & Opportunity Hoarding

stop-being-poorA few days ago I shared this Washington Post piece that breaks down the facts that dispel (yet again) the myth that poor kids just need to try harder.  The article points out that inequity starts at the cradle, but even that’s not entirely accurate. The inequity at the root of lack of access and opportunity is often part of a much deeper and systemic cycle of poverty and class stratification. This related Post piece discusses how your social position and economic class in first grade are prime indicators of what social strata you will occupy as an adult (or even the likelihood that you’ll reach adulthood at all).

Consider if you will my own kids, who have a great deal of privilege and access. My ex (their dad) works for Amazon and makes a solid six-figure salary.  None of our kids have ever wanted for anything. They’ve never worried about whether there was food in the fridge and pantry for dinner, or whether there would be presents under the tree Christmas morning, or if the power would work when they flipped a light switch. They’ve never not had access to technology in their home.  They all have video games, laptops, access to high-powered desktops, smartphones and other devices. They may not be in the top 1% of wealth, but as white kids growing up in Seattle with a dad who earns a high tech salary they most certainly are among the privileged “haves.”

But what does this access mean, in terms of real things that will have an impact on their lives over the long haul?  My 13-year-old son started making movies with an iPhone when he was eight, for a PTSA art contest. He makes his own YouTube videos. He knows how to edit video, he knows what “foley” means and how to add it to a video and adjust sound levels.  He has access to several XBox and Playstation boxes and a high-powered game dev computer at my house as well as access to experience virtual reality content, both on a Gear360 and in an HTC Vive. His dad is a self-taught programmer and my son, at 13, is learning Python because he wants to be a game creator.  If he wants to take spendy coding classes at summer camps to advance faster, he’ll be able to do that. His entire life he has been told “you can be anything you want to be.”

Now consider a hypothetical 13-year-old girl in the Central District, not far from where I live in Seattle, let’s call her Eve.  Eve is the daughter of immigrants and her parents, who were a teacher and an economist in their own country, here were forced to take menial jobs at minimum wage to support Eve and her three younger siblings. Eve’s father died last year,  leaving her mother to support the family alone; now she works at a daycare all day, and works a second job at night cleaning office buildings, leaving Eve to care for her siblings, fix dinner, do housework,  all around doing her homework.

Eve is a smart girl, she loves math and science and excels at drawing when she has paper and pens to draw with, but she’s never considered the possibility that she could be a software engineer or a video game designer. She doesn’t have a smartphone, or own any video games. The family doesn’t have a computer and her school doesn’t provide laptops the students can take home, so when her homework requires a computer she hauls her siblings to the library on the bus and has them read in the kids section while she does her schoolwork.

The computer lab at Eve’s middle school is full of outdated equipment, the classes are overcrowded and the teacher who teaches the “technology” class  is there because no one else wanted to teach that class and he doesn’t do much beyond have the kids learn basic word processing skills. There is no film equipment or film program at Eve’s school, no access to VR gear, no one to mentor or teach Eve Python or anything else related to a career in STEAM. No one notices her excellent drawings and tells her she could be a graphic designer or 3D animator.  No one tells her “you can be a game designer if you want to be.”

So let’s say that in spite of all the odds against her, a few years down the road some teacher or other takes notice and suggests to  Eve that she should consider college, when her SAT scores surprise everyone.  She gets a scholarship, goes to college to learn to be a software engineer and ends up at school with my son. By the time Eve and my son walk into their first class on that first day of college, his access, the advantages he’s had his entire life mean that he’s walking into that classroom with a solid 3-5 years self-taught coding experience, over a decade of serious regular game play under his belt, having done storyboards and made his own films and probably written several apps and maybe even sold one already.

Eve is so far behind the game before they even get started. But she just needs to try harder, right?

Beyond all that, my son is a white male which garners him all the privilege that our current societal structure affords white men.  He is and will remain significantly ahead of Eve and she will always have to work significantly harder to catch up to him – if she ever does at all – not because he is necessarily smarter, or better, or a nicer person, or in any way more deserving than her, but simply by the gift of being born into a family that allowed him all the privilege he has had. And in the end she will almost certainly be paid less than him for the same work.

Of course all this in turn is a part of the intricate social structure that keeps the “haves” having and the “have nots” serving them. Hence, the motivation and impetus required to genuinely enact meaningful change is relatively small; those who are hoarding opportunity aren’t exactly looking for reasons to share those opportunities with others, because then they might have to give up some of what they perceive as “theirs” to someone else.

This problem isn’t limited to the tech field, it’s a much broader global problem with a great many complicated interlocking pieces, and the solutions won’t come easy.  Diversity and access are among the most pressing issues facing the tech industry broadly and the VR+AR industry more specifically, and the white men with the power aren’t working overmuch to solve the problem – nor will they ever –  because they’re too busy hoarding the vast majority of VC money coming into the VR+AR space to worry about others having access.

How to we get access to technology, mentoring and training to low income kids, immigrant kids, low-income adults looking for an opportunity to retrain in a new field that will give them significant long-term economic gain? It has to be about more than just me and my kids, or you and your kids, or else why are any of us even doing this? The world is bigger than you and me.

Vast societal change on a meaningful level only comes when those  being oppressed by a system of deeply embedded discriminatory and oppressive practices first wake to realize there is a problem, then determine that change is both possible and necessary, then demand that change and refuse to accept “no” as a final answer, ever, until the inequity is erased.