Op-ed: Black tech matters

NSBE U of T reflects on the first university-student run Black hackathon in the GTA
From left to right: Temisan Iwere, Kyra Stephen, and Ayan Gedleh. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIQA RAHMAN
From left to right: Temisan Iwere, Kyra Stephen, and Ayan Gedleh. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIQA RAHMAN

On January 26, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) U of T chapter hosted NSBEHacks, the first student-run Black hackathon in the GTA. It was held at the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The event brought together students, professionals, and tech-enthusiasts from across the province to spend 12 hours solving company challenges.

NSBEHacks was co-founded by the three of us — young, Black women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). To some, the need to highlight these particular aspects of ourselves — particularly our Blackness — will be viewed as a form of divisive identity politics.

In fact, we are well aware that for many, the very notion of a ‘Black’ hackathon may be uncomfortable. However, we hope that you are able to sit with this discomfort for a little bit as we describe the significance of having Black-centred STEM events like NSBEHacks.

It is first important to recognize the origin of NSBE itself, which was founded in 1975 by undergraduate students at Purdue University, shortly after the civil rights movement had ended. Their mission was to promote the recruitment and retention of Black students in engineering.

Despite the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and the Civil Rights Act passing in 1964, Black students still faced systemic challenges accessing basic services, including intense opposition from local school districts when trying to attend public schools.

As a result, the creation of NSBE represented more than just a university club. It offered Black students, and the Black community more generally, a safe space to simply exist and work toward a better future.

Decades later, Black youth remain underrepresented in educational institutions and higher-income employment, and overrepresented in correctional facilities. In the GTA, based on 2006–2011 data, Black students are disciplined more harshly than their non-Black peers, and they are more likely to be streamed into non-university-track programs. Black youth are also more likely to grow up in poverty, reducing their likelihood of enrolling in university.

In the professional world, Black youth are underrepresented in most STEM fields — especially in the booming high-tech industry. For those who do pursue a postsecondary degree, many self-select out due to ongoing discrimination in the classroom.

The NSBE U of T chapter was founded in 1999, to continue and expand on the legacy of its founders with a focus on establishing a safe, reputable, and prominent space for Black high school and university students to learn, mentor, and network among themselves and within the wider STEM community.

NSBEHacks was introduced as a part of this wider effort of creating a safe space, where Black students who are currently studying or who may be interested in STEM fields can connect with other Black and non-Black hackers.

We wanted to provide Black students personal and career development opportunities that they may not always find accessible or welcoming in traditional tech settings. We wanted to create a space where both Black and non-Black students have the opportunity to challenge their biases against the ability of Black students to perform in STEM industries.

Overall, we wanted NSBEHacks to be a Black-centred event to help alleviate some of the pressure and alienation that often comes with embodying the only Black representation in a space. Regardless of their programming experience, we encourage Black students to get involved and benefit from the opportunities that hackathons provide.

With these goals in mind, we think that the first NSBEHacks event was a resounding success. With sponsorship from U of T and major companies, including Google, IBM, Shopify, Bloomberg, and McAfee, we were able to organize workshops, programs, and networking sessions led by Black professionals. Students left feeling empowered with new skills and having formed new friendships with fellow hackers of diverse backgrounds.

And NSBEHacks is just one of our projects. This past academic year, our chapter hosted several other events aimed at supporting Black students in the GTA. In October, we hosted a day-long high school conference designed to foster and support Black interest in STEM. The conference also aimed to dispel any fears or myths young students may have developed about their own abilities to succeed as Black youth in the field, by providing a series of hands-on projects led by various STEM groups.

We have also established a mentorship program that connects Black undergraduate students at U of T to alumni working in the industry. The program developed out of our popular Meet a Mentor event, where students were given the opportunity to speak with, seek advice, and gain insights from NSBE alumni.

All these events address important parts of NSBE’s mandate to improve the experience of Black students in STEM. NSBEHacks in particular has been our biggest and most innovative event of the year.

This is only year one, and with all this success, we hope that it will continue to grow in the future. We also hope that Black students are given the space to have a stronger presence in tech spaces and STEM programs. Because Black tech matters.

Ayan Gedleh is the Programs Director of NSBE U of T and a fourth-year Industrial Engineering student at the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. Temisan Iwere is the Vice-President of NSBE U of T and a fourth-year Computer Science Student at St. Michael’s College. Kyra Stephen is the President of NSBE U of T and a fourth-year Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.

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