“KIDS MADE FUN OF MY STINKY LUNCH, WHICH TAUGHT ME A HARD LESSON ABOUT LIFE IN AMERICA”

The article this week comes from PRI. It’s by Marcelle Hutchins. It’s entitled “Kids Made Fun of My Stinky Lunch, Which Taught Me A Hard Lesson About Life In America.” It’s actually a personal story about the author. She moved from Cameroon when she was 8 years old, and it was really talking about how she was confronted by some brand new things, including in the lunchroom. Kids often teased her about what she ate. She usually brought food from home, traditional Cameroon food, which she mentions in the article, is heavy on rice and peanut sauce. The kids teased her, called her food stinky, etc., and she eventually decided to start skipping lunch rather than endure the bullying. She makes the point that obviously she wasn’t the only kid that faced this type of teasing, and things have really changed now. States and city have started to bring culturally-appropriate items to school lunches. In other words they’re looking at the communities that they’re serving and the diversity of the communities that they’re serving, and the food that they’re then serving reflects that, which I thought was super interesting. It’s a good idea. I think everybody would agree that it’s a good idea to get kids exposed to a variety of foods, but what Hutchins talks about is that she talks to someone who is actually afraid to eat her traditional Chinese food at school, and really just phased it out of her diet completely as she grew older. And it was only now, she’s in her mid-20s, where she started to sort of bring it back, and she’s learned how to make some of the dishes she enjoyed growing up. What she talks about is that obviously diverse foods are great and gives people exposure. She mentions that if when she was going down the lunch line, if scallion pancakes had been in the cafeteria line, something that she ate at home all the time, and now that her classmates are getting exposed to and eating that, she probably would have been more likely to share her Chinese culture in school.

I really liked the overall article, but this particular anecdote really struck me. I grew up in Michigan in a school that was 99% white. I never brought food from home. It wasn’t because I was afraid of being teased. I probably preferred nacho supreme everything and cheeseburgers and whatever they were serving in the cafeteria to what we ate 3-4 times a week at home, Indian food. That being said, I do remember specifically my mom putting together a few days a year (where a piece of my Indian culture would come through)—she created an international food day at my elementary school. Every year we did a presentation on Diwali, which is an Indian holiday. She generally just tried to bring different pieces of Indian culture to my school and we go to India usually over Christmas break. When we came back, we’d share some of the Indian gifts or Indian crafts that we had bought there. Maybe even give some to our teachers. It was a way to bring your culture back. And I still remember those things. And when the author was talking about it, she mentions that eventually that she did embrace the American food. She did it almost in a way to help her make friends. But she also learned that it was okay—her mom spoke French, and it was okay to eat African food. And I think these sorts of ideas of creating culturally diverse menus that reflect the communities that you are serving is great, but it also allows a child to sort of bring their whole self to school and share their cultural background with about being ashamed of it or hiding it. I know that certainly happened to me. I really liked this article.

INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN CLARK

Kabir: Alright guys, this week, I’m really excited to have Dr. Kevin Clark. He is the founder and director for the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity. He’s also one of the founding members of Diversity in Apps. Kevin, thanks so much for coming on.

Kevin: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

Kabir: You started out with a background in computer science and then you worked for a number of years in the private sector and then joined the academic world where you founded the center. Can you walk me through how that happened and then a little bit more information about the Center?

Kevin: Great, I started out as a computer scientist. I took a computer scientist course in high school at the career center, and that really turned me on to computer science. So I started out in computer science and knew that I wanted to be a computer science programmer but also wanted to be a teacher. To make a long story short, I ended up getting a masters in computer science and then going on and getting a doctorate in instructional systems because it was to combine computer science and education. I did an internship while I was getting my doctorate at a company in San Diego that made educational software. And for me, that is when the light went off. “Oh my god, I can actually combine everything and do this!” Then I went and worked for those people who I had the internship with. They had actually left the company where I had interned and started a new company. They asked me to come and join them at the new company. I went out and joined the start-up. It was in the very early stages. I think I was like employee number 6 or 8. It was the best job I ever had, and I did everything from making copies ... fast forward to working at the university, from the company, once a company went public and everybody kind of went and did the next thing. I had decided that I had been fortunate to have this experience, and I wanted to share it with as many people as possible. By having a PhD, I thought, “I can go teach, so I can integrate all of this experience into the classes that I teach.” As a part of my work at the company, I had visited more urban centers to talk about the product, and in some cases, to try convince schools that this was their solution. And that was eye-opening for me because I got a chance to see the huge divide in access going from a really poor urban school district that was really was just trying to bring buildings up to code and having enough textbooks for everybody to schools that could do a 1:1. When I got to university, my initial research really was on the digital divide. I started doing some work around community technology centers access. Then I also began to look at the impact and effectiveness of educational video games because that’s what I had designed while at the company. So I wanted to do some more research to look at the effectiveness of those games.

And then the Center idea came about really as an active frustration. My daughter at the time was in her princess stage and wanted me to read a princess book every night. And so I had read every princess book known. And then one night, she said, “Daddy, one night can we read a princess book that has a princess that looks like me?”I said, “Sure, sweetie,” thinking I’ll just go to Amazon and find a princess book, and I could not find one. I ended up driving up to Baltimore which is about an hour away from where I live to get a book that was out of print in a museum gift shop. It was a display. They didn’t even want to sell it. But I convinced the guy to sell it.

Kabir: That’s dedication! How did you find it?

Kevin: Well, I did an Amazon search and I found a book had been printed, but then when I looked around, I couldn’t find it. The closest place was in Baltimore and I called them and they said, “Well, we used to sell it, but the only one we have now is the one that is on display. It’s been sitting under a light for years. It’s faded.” And I said, “I’ll take it.” They said, “Really? You should look at it first.” So I drove all the way up there and said, “Okay, fine, I’ll take it.” On the drive back home, I was just fuming. I was like, I have a PhD. I have designed educational software. It should not be this hard to find a freaking princess book for my daughter. And so my sabbatical was coming up and I said, “Okay, I want to take this time to actually create a center that actually does research around these issues, that actually helps to scour the country and identify innovate diverse products. And I also wanted to create a connection to an industry.” So that’s how the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity was born. In 2009, the Center was chartered and I basically just started writing grants and networking and making connections around three things. The Center really has three goals. One, as I mentioned, is to do research in this area of diversity in media. The second is to provide access to, to provide an outlet for diverse products for people who create diverse products. Third was to begin to make a connection between industry and media organizations because what I found was that as a professor, people were very open to talking and to collaborating, but oftentimes higher ed doesn’t see themselves as a collaborator with industry in that way. They think, “We’re doing research, and industry is about making money, and never the two shall meet.”

Kabir: Right, there’s a clear line. I see.

Kevin: I was like, “You know what? That line doesn’t have to exist because industry knows how to make stuff and get it to market, and researchers, we know how to tell you whether it works or not.” So the Center has been doing that since 2009. I have reached across the country to collaborate with people, as well as within my own university.

Kabir: Right, right. You do a ton of work with a variety of different universities all over the country. One of the things that you’re focused on is a recent study that you’ve started called “The African American Families’ Use of Technologies for Learning Outside of School”, which is a mouthful. Talk to me a little bit about when this study got started, what you guys are hoping to achieve, and plans going forward. 

Kevin: So that study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was really focused on how do African American families use technology for learning in their homes or outside of school. The idea for that came about because I had been aware of several studies that talked about technology use by everyone. Latinos. African Americans. It really did two things. It primarily focused on pattern usage, you know, how much time do you spend on your cell phone, how much time do you spend on your laptop. When it did focus on specific groups, those groups were typically in a formal educational setting inside of school. My colleague, Kim Scott from Arizona State, and I thought, “You know, we should really try and get a study to look at how African American families are using technologies inside their homes,” because that is a true measure of how people use technology when you can get a window into their home use. So, we worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and got this project funded. It’s been about two years. It’s now 2016, so I think 2014 it was funded. The goal was to do a national survey of about 1,000 families, meaning parents and their teen children.

Kabir: Okay, so it’s focused on teenagers.

Kevin: Yes, focused on teenagers, 11-17. And so we were deliberate about that because we thought that that age group was the most heavy users of technology. Recognizing that we couldn’t survey everybody at once, so the goal is to really look at not only how teens and parents are using technology for learning inside their homes separately, but also what the interaction is. We were real specific that we wanted to focus on learning, so it’s not a study on how much TV do they watch. This is how do you use it to write a paper, do your homework, those things. The study has a couple of parts. The first part was we conducted focus groups around the country. We went to Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, California, and Shaw, Mississippi. We conducted focus groups with parents and teens, asking them about how they use technology for learning inside their homes. What we found was—we’re still analyzing the data, and we’re going to do a full release in the fall of 2016, but primarily what we found was that teens and their parents look at technology differently. And that in some instances, economics does not play as much as a factor as we thought it did. In some cases when we think about access, but it does play a factor in instances of what types of activities are current. The focus groups really helped us to create an instrument and create a survey to make sure we weren’t missing anything, and to make sure that we were on target with the types of questions we were asking. After we conducted all the focus groups, then we used that information to disseminate—first to create and then disseminate a survey nationally. We are working with Vicki Rydell who has a lot of experience with conducting national surveys. She used to work with the Kaiser Family Foundation. She has worked with the Cooney Center. She’s just really, really great at conducting these national surveys. So we’re excited that we’re in the process of analyzing data, and the hope is that we use the results of the data of this survey to help inform how we design and develop educational technology solutions.

Kabir: That makes a lot of sense. If we take a step back, you mention a couple of things I want to understand a little bit more. You said teens look at technology differently than their parents. What sort of results did you get from the focus group? How did they look at it differently?

Kevin: One anecdote is that teens thought that, for example, their cellphones or their smartphones are an essential part of their everyday life. They had to have it. It was no question. It was like your ID.

Kabir: It was like if they left it or forgot it, it’s like they would be naked, right?

Kevin: Exactly. Parents thought that the smartphone was not essential and that it was something extra. And when you hear that you think, well wait a minute, most parents have smartphones, but they thought that for teens, teens looked at smartphones as status symbols. They only used them to communicate with their friends, and so the discussion with the teens helped me to see what types of activities they are doing with their phones. We had one young lady, one teenage girl, who talked about writing a term paper on her smartphone. And the reason was she had to commute an hour to and from school. So for her, she didn’t have a laptop. And so for her, using the smartphone to do that work just seemed normal to her. That’s just one example of how parents and young people, the teens, have different opinions.

Kabir: I guess that makes a lot of sense that teenagers are sort of digital natives. That would make sense of how they view their cellphones. There’s a clear generational gap there. Another thing that you mention is that economics don’t play as much as a factor as you thought or they play a factor in certain areas but not others. How did that tease out? I know the full analysis, but what have you guys sort of started to see?

Kevin: One instance where we saw that is—clearly, economics does play a role when you talk about access and who has what and who has how many of a particular devices. But what we saw is that when you ask teens specifically what types of activities they want to get involved in. It was the same. Young people wanted to get involved in activities that allowed them to create. They wanted to build websites. They wanted to mod games. They wanted to start an e-business. And that was the same regardless of the economic level.

Kabir: One of the things I wanted to go back to… You had mentioned that there needs to be a better connection between industry and academia, the research that’s being done. Do you feel like since the center started or just generally over the last ten years—what has been the response in terms of industry reaching out? Do you feel like there is more of a connection between the two?

Kevin: I think what I’ve seen is that industry is actually hungry for connections to higher ed, and they want to have these partnerships and collaborations. The challenge is that higher ed sometimes doesn’t move as fast. I often tell people,“You know we’re on a semester system, right?” So everything is really about September to December and from January to May. Companies don’t work that way. So, what I found is that I’ve had to adjust and say, “Okay, you need this in a month when normally it would take three months.” Or I would design it for three months. I think the more of those in higher ed who can be flexible about how they work with industry I think the better because the reality is that industry wants to get it right. For them, it’s about return. It’s about getting market share. It’s about making money. They’re not just out there saying “we don’t want to do this because it’s taking too much time.” They are saying, “We want to figure out how do we get it right? How do we get access to the largest market share, and how can we address the needs of the most people we can, especially when it comes to educational technology or media for kids?”

Kabir: That makes sense. I would think that you would be hungry for the answers that research can provide and help them design the best product.

Kevin: Yeah, but we as researchers, sometimes, we get arrogant, and we think, “Okay, I’m the smartest person here. It doesn’t matter that you’re trying to satisfy your shareholders or make money so that you can pay your employees. We need to be pure about the research.” I don’t have a problem with rigorous research, but I think it also needs to be relevant and applicable. It’s useless to do a study that takes 3 years to implement, write it up, and then at the end of the day goes into a journal that 300 people read. For the type of work that I do, that is not helpful because things are changing, if not daily, then weekly or monthly.

Kabir: We talk about that all the time with DIA when we’re making those guidelines because we have all those people who are in the academic world, but also those people who are active in the industry or both. There’s a natural sense that look, we don’t want this to sit on a shelf and one person from the company has looked at it. This is something that should be interactive and something that’s user-friendly and that they can look at consistently and have solid research behind it, but that can also help them when they are designing a product. That makes sense. 

Kevin: The last thing I’ll say is that industry also needs to adjust in terms of the way that they view higher ed and that we’re not just service providers. You can’t just call me up and ask for my expertise and think that I’m going to give it for free, give it for free especially, just because that’s how I am. I think companies need to begin to look at higher ed and higher ed professionals as professionals. Look, okay, just in the same way I would pay this person as a consultant, when I talk to this professor, I also need to grant them the same respect.

Kabir: That totally makes a lot of sense. In fact, you were actually at an event a couple of weeks ago that had both academics and from the industry there. It was at the White House. It wasn’t your first visit to the White House… you’re like a regular there now. So this particular event was a conference focusing on breaking down gender stereotypes in media and toys. You were actually on one of the panels focused on gender disparity. Can you tell us a little bit about your panel and you felt like were some prime takeaways from that event?

Kevin: It was a great panel. In the room were researchers, people from industry, people from community-based organizations, so it was a unique mix of people which are appreciated. Our panel really looked at this notion of gender and diversity in toys as well as children’s media. So what I talked about specifically was, first of all, I talked about video games because that’s kind of where my experience started and how, for example, when you look at video games, when you look at the developers, 80% of the developers of video games are white. 80% of the video game characters are white. So there’s a match. But then when you look at other groups, for example, African American, it’s only 2.5% of the developers who identify as African American, but 10.7% of the characters are identified as African American. That sounds like a good thing, but then when you take out the athletes and the criminals from those video games, you have a very small number. So the point that I was making about video games in general is that if you want your video games to be more diverse, then you need to start with the developers. When we look at gender, it’s clear that there’s about a 50/50 split in terms of men and women who play video games, but when you look at the developers, 77% are men and only 22% are women. Having the people who create the media be represented in that process is as important as having the people show up as characters.

Kabir: To me, it seems more important. I’ve said this before with the Oscars So White controversy and the question about how do we get more movies that have more African Americans or have more women in them. The people behind it, like you’re saying, the developers who are making the game. That to me seems to be where we need to make the change first.

Kevin: Yeah. A lot of people talk about the lack of available talent to fill these positions. That’s one of the first things people say. “There’s no pool. There’s no pipeline.” I hear that in higher ed and I hear it with media organizations. My response is often, “I hear you and I know that that has been your experience. But I think that the issue is not so much about pipeline as it is about network.” And what I mean by that is when companies and organizations go and look for people or advertise for jobs, they advertise in networks they are familiar with instead of looking at other networks that either are non-traditional or that they are not familiar with. I always jokingly say, “Okay, if you need African American game developers, I can give you a list by the end of the day.” And the reason is I have access to different networks than you’re probably accessing. So the panel really looked at this notion of how do we get those types of media to be more diverse.

I talked specifically about one [toy]. There’s a line of toys, dolls, that is really popular in Nigeria. It’s African dolls. They outsell the highest-selling doll that’s here in this country. The reason is because it looks like the audience, varying hair styles and varying clothes. And we know that this is not an anomaly. We know that when you create media where the target audience is reflected in that media and they see themselves, they will be more apt to adopting and consuming it. That was a part of my presentation to really talk about how we know that that’s important.

Then I ended talking about television ratings and how when you look at the shows that have the highest ratings, it’s typically the shows that have the most diverse casts. And those shows are the highest rated across ethnic groups. So you have white families and their highest rated shows are shows that are diverse. This whole notion of “well, you know, if we try to do that, we’re not going to hit our marks” is not true because we’ve seen that diversity actually does pay off in the long run.

Kabir: For sure. You touched on a couple of things. One, a lot of this stuff is myths that have been perpetuated. This idea that there isn’t a talent pool that is diverse enough to build into this 50/50 men and women or build towards more African American developers. It isn’t true. It comes down to, like you’re saying, it’s the people you know. It’s the people you hire from. I think we’re all guilty of it. When you’re at a job and you’re looking to hire, who are the first people you research out to in your network. Well, you have to change your network and expand your network. It’s not a case where talent isn’t there. And then the second thing is media companies—you see this both, like you said, in television ratings and movie ticket receipts. Casts that are more diverse both on TV and in movies, the bottom line is better. Diversity wins. I think that is the biggest takeaway. You mentioned there were folks from all over. There were researchers. There were industry folks there. I think Netflix was there. There were a few other companies there, and obviously toy companies as well. I think even Barbie was there, correct?

 Kevin: Well, Lego was there. I think there was somebody there from Mattel also.

Kabir: It sounds like it was a great event. In terms of the African Americans study and how they use technology outside of school, I know that’s one of the things you’re working on. I know when we were exchanging emails, you hinted that there are a couple of things that you’re working on over the next couple of months as well. What do those look like? Do they fall under the Center as well or are these personal projects?

Kevin: It’s a combination. I’ll talk about the Center stuff. The project that is kind of in the works that I’m trying to actually find a way to fund is that I was talking with someone at one of these White House events. She was expressing frustration that as she tried to sell the notion of diversity to media, she could not find clipart of African American and Latinos engaged in STEM activities. This was a person who works for a science organization. I didn’t think she was right, so I came home and did a couple of Google searches and she’s right. And I thought, “This is crazy!” So one project that I’m thinking about now is essentially creating a clipart resource that basically just features people of color doing science so that when you’re trying to say, “You know, this is a myth. There are people out there of color who are doing stuff,” that there is a representation to actually back that up that people can use in slides and in things in media presentations that they make. It’s simple. 

Kabir: It sounds so simple, and it needs to be out there. That resource needs to exist. That’s great. 

Kevin: I’m trying to figure out how to get funding to do clipart. When I explained that to my wife, she’s like, “Okay, what do you do?”

Kabir: How is this a job? This sounds like a simple Kickstarter. I like this idea… This sort of touches on this notion. You sat on a panel with us at the Children’s Media Association back in November. One of the things you talked about is that you work closely with industry. You’re asked at times to come into consult. One of the things that you find frustrating is this idea that you’re brought in towards the end of this process. We’ve both talking about how hiring is super important, the network that you’re looking at, and what the behind the scenes folks look like (the ones who are creating the product). At times, you’re sort of brought into, as you sort of put it, to create this diversity sauce. And there’s this layer that you add on at the end. It’s creates a diverse product but not in a way that is meaningful. Have you seen that improve? Do you feel like industry is doing a better job at recognizing that this task has to be taken on as a company value but also very early on in the project?

Kevin: Yeah. I think that probably about 7-10 years ago, it was that. It was “get the diversity guy in here.” And I think now probably in the last 5-7, companies that I’ve been working with, I’ve actually found them to be pretty courageous in a way because everybody’s talking about diversity and a lot of companies are now realizing, “Okay, we really need to tackle this thing head on.” But companies, let’s face it, they have existing structure, right? They’ve got departments of people. They can’t just walk in and fire a whole bunch of people and make it diverse. We’re going to hire. That’s not going to happen. But what I found is that companies have been really authentic and it’s been a part of what they want to do from a business standpoint. A lot of times, they’ll say, “Look, you know what? We don’t have the answers, but we want to get it right. You help us figure this out.” So what I am finding is that the more and more companies that do that, the more successful that those companies are. But it’s a slow process and a company has to be really dedicated to say, “Okay, this is not a one-off thing. This is not ‘bring Kevin in. He’ll do a diversity workshop and it will all be better.” It doesn’t work that way. And typically when companies approach me and want me to do that, I’ll say no. I’ll tell them why. I say, “Look, I don’t think this is going to work for your organization especially with what you’re trying to do.” But the groups that I do work with understand that this is a long-term commitment. The challenge that I do see, though, is that I try and get companies to recognize that diversity is as important as the content areas that they oftentimes plan for. So when you’re building something and it’s science, you bring in a science person early on, right? You don’t build it—

Kabir: And then bring a science person in!

Kevin: Right, you don’t do that! So getting organizations to recognize that diversity and inclusion is something that needs to be a part of the process early on is something that organizations are getting used to as well as getting used to this notion as diversity as being multi-layered, whether it's ethnicity, whether it's gender, whether it's gender identity, whether it's economics or family situation. All of those things need to be taken into consideration when we talk about diversity. It’s not just “do we have the right color pallet?” It really should be are the characters interacting in a variety of ways? Are we providing a variety of solutions or situations? All of those things make up what we’re referring to.

Kabir: That makes a lot of sense. I think both how you mentioned this idea of diversity needs to get elevated to a place where—not thinking about something added on, but it’s built into your organization. And then the other piece that I think we talk about or even struggle with at DIA is focusing on this idea of different types of diversity. When we had Raul on from Tinybop, he talked about how, yeah, we have over 50% women. There’s a ton of languages spoken in this office. But a lot of the folks that we hire are from Ivy Leagues, and they’re probably upper middle class kids. So there’s another piece of diversity there that might be getting lost. it’s another thing to focus on and will only make your organization stronger. To sort of bring this back full circle, I have a daughter. She’s just over 1. Do you think when she enters her princess phase (I don’t know if she will but if she does), do you think I’ll have to drive an hour to find a book with a character that looks like her?

Kevin: I hope not, and you should start looking now!

Kabir: Do you feel like there are a few rays of light out there? When you look especially at children’s media, is there something that you look at and say “they’re getting it”? For someone who’s been at this for so long, I think there are times when I’ll be reading an article or see something and you feel like we’ve taken 5 steps back or are we really making progress. But as someone who’s been trying to move the needle now for a long time, do you feel like there are rays of light and you can point to specific things?

Kevin: Yeah, there are specific companies and I shouldn’t name names, there are companies that I think get it. And they are trying. What’s interesting that they’re not tooting their horn and saying, “Look over here! We’re the diversity posterchild!” They have incorporated it into their mission as a company. So it’s not anything special outside of this is “this is what we need to do to be a successful organization.” So I do see a few rays of light. But I also think that the tent does need to be expanded. When we look at the number of companies that produce content and the access into the entrepreneurial spaces where you can create this type of content, there aren’t as many women and there aren’t as many people of color. I think figuring out ways to increase those pools of people is important.

Kabir: That makes a lot of sense.

Kevin: And that’s actually the last part. I’m on my sabbatical now. That’s my project. I’m looking at a way to design and create a new incubator that focuses on ed tech and media for diverse audience, but that approaches the incubator model differently. Right now, the incubator model is “okay, you and a group of people go off for two months and you live in a house and it’s like Big Brother or Survivor and then you pitch.” Well, there are a lot of people that don’t have two months of their lives that they can give up because they’re working. They’ve got kids. I’m working with some people now to figure out how we create an incubator model that allows you to step in, step out, dedicate chunks of time that are convenient for you and still allow you to care for your family and still allow you to work. This innovation ecosystem doesn’t just have to be made up of people who can give up two months of their time. My hope is that as we begin to stand up that incubator model that we can get more people into this innovation sphere and begin to diversify who we see as innovators.

Kabir: That sounds really exciting. Really awesome. We’re going to have to bring you on in the summer for you to tell us how that’s going. Great to have you on.

Kevin: Thanks for having me!