About Talia Whyte

Posts by Talia Whyte:

What Black Females Think About STEM Education

STEM careers

Lately there has been all this talk about the lack of racial and gender diversity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.  This was spurred on by Google revealing a breakdown of their employees by race and gender.  And to no one’s surprise, the tech giant’s workforce is largely white and male.  Yahoo and LinkedIn followed suit with their own diversity reporting with similar findings.

I’ve been a web designer for about five years, and I interact with people on projects with a wide variety of computer programming skills, ranging from talented web developers who build databases to hardcore programmers who can build with C++ and Java in their sleep.  When I go to tech conferences or networking events, I am almost always the only black female in the room.

I recently went back to school to get more formal programming training, and, again, there were very few women and minorities in those classes.  Interestingly enough, the few women and minorities in my classes were all foreigners from India, Russia and Nigeria.

So I wasn’t actually surprised about the lack of workforce diversity at these companies.  Many people have insinuated that racism and sexism has caused this problem.  I’ve never worked for any of these companies, nor do I know anyone who currently works for Google, Yahoo or LinkedIn, so I don’t have any real insight into what is really going on in these respective human resources departments.  I also don’t have any solid proof that there is hiring discrimination.

I just don’t know.

But my initial guess is that there aren’t that many women and people of color working for these companies because there aren’t enough qualified applicants in the job pool because there aren’t enough women and people of color pursuing STEM careers in the first place.  Only 18 percent of women and less than 10 percent of African-Americans and Latinos pursue computer science college degrees.

Before there can be a serious discussion about STEM workforce diversity, we have to look at the state of STEM education in the United States.  From my vantage point, there are many reasons for the lack of non-white guys in STEM industries.  While these apply to all science, engineering and mathematics careers, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on technology education and careers.

1. Lack of role models and mentors – Simply if you don’t see anyone who looks like you working in that field, you are more likely to not want to consider a career in that field.

2. Gender stereotyping – As far as women are concerned, there has been this longstanding stereotype that computer science is a guy thing, geeky and not “feminine.”

3. Lack of training opportunities – Most people working in computer sciences are first introduced to the field while in K-12 schooling.  If you are a girl of color or a low income girl of any color, you most likely attend a crappy public school that probably doesn’t have computers, let alone computer science classes.  Even if you are lucky to have access to computer science classes at your school, most likely those classes don’t count towards your graduation requirements, so there is no incentive to take the classes in the first place.

I remember I had to take a computer science class in high school, and I really hated it because the teacher was an old guy who fell asleep in class and it seemed really hard with all that math.  I never had any real interest in technology until I was already into my journalism career.  By the time I started my career, the writing was on the wall and journalism was being turned upside down by the Internet.  I first got interested in technology when I started to see how the Internet was democratizing the media and making it possible to be your own publisher.

In my spare time, I mentor a couple of 15-year-old African-American girls – Cynthia and Keyshia – and I asked them the other day specifically if they had any interest in STEM classes or careers. Cynthia attends an public school in Boston.  She says she has to take a computer class at her school, but she hates it because her teacher is “soooooo borriiiiing.”  Keyshia attends a suburban public school outside of Boston that offers AP computer science.  She said she doesn’t want to take the class because it seems too hard, too much math and they’re only boys in the class.

Coincidentally, Cynthia and Keyshia are very tech savvy, as their eyes are always glued to their iPhones either texting or posting pictures on Instagram.  However, their tech consumption doesn’t seem to translate to any interest in pursuing a tech career or even finding out how the Instagram mobile app was built.

I recently showed Cynthia and Keyshia how I designed my new website Women Talking, and they were fascinated not only by the design, but how easy and fun it was to design it.  I showed them a little HTML and CSS and how they worked together.  I then helped them to create a slideshow using jQuery for a different website.   Both girls said they were really interested in these web design techniques because they could instantly see the results of their coding in a browser.

“Why don’t they teach stuff like this in my school?” Keyshia said.

Maybe schools should teach computer science in a way that makes it relevant with things we do and use in our daily lives.  Teenagers love to text, maybe there should be classes on how to develop mobile apps for texting.  Video games?  How about a class that not only teaches JavaScript and other game design tools, but also require students to design their own video game by the end of the semester.

Considering the fact that not many American high school students – regardless of race or gender – are taking AP computer science classes anymore, schools need to get more creative about how they teach technology. This would not only expose more kids to possible STEM careers, but also to other traditionally non-STEM careers that now heavily rely on technology (like journalism).  I know if I had learned how to design and develop a website in high school, my career trajectory probably would have been different.

I know there is a lot more to making STEM education and careers more inclusive than I can discuss in this piece, but at least we are starting to have that conversation.

Where I Get Real News

Cable News Logos Crossed Out I will just be blunt with you; American mainstream news sucks and it caters to the lowest common denominator.  I am fed up with the nonstop coverage of Kimye, the missing plane, and Hillary Watch.  American cable news doesn’t actually do news anymore; it bloviates – all the time.

I am sick of the so-called “pundits” arguing over issues that don’t really matter. I’ve given up on American mainstream news.  In recent years, I have been gravitating away from traditional American news outlets and more towards the ones that actually cover real news.  Below is a partial list of news outlets I check out on a regular basis.  Since my career floats between journalism and international development, many of these news outlets are from a global perspective.

Democracy Now – I start my mornings everyday with the “War and Peace Report” from one of my journalism heroes Amy Goodman.  Democracy Now does in-depth reporting on issues that don’t normally make the cut in most American journalism.  When another journalism hero William Worthy died last month, Democracy Now promoted an excellent interview they did with Worthy a few years ago about his ground-breaking career.

Vice – I have been following Vice for sometime now.  Their documentaries are amazing and thought-provoking.  I actually get excited when a new video is uploaded to their YouTube channel or shown on HBO.  Since Vice is not your traditional news outlet, many of their documentaries, as they say, “specialize in exploring uncomfortable truths and going to places we don’t belong.”  Vice is best known recently for traveling to North Korea with Dennis Rodman last year, but they also do other fascinating stories about air pollution in China and transsexual sex workers in Brazil.  I am a big fan of their web series Fashion Week Internationale and Last Chance High.

Al Jazeera America – Another fine news outlet – great reporting and analysis.  It is a shame that it has a really bad public relations problem in the United States.  Nonetheless, I can learn more from watching an hour of AJAM than from watching CNN all day.  I also tune to this channel to get the alternative perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Global Voices – If you really want to get your news unfiltered, you should turn to this news aggregator of hundreds of bloggers reporting from all corners of the world.  Whether its chatter about the Arab Spring, or discussions about Indonesian fashions, stories and news tips that appear on Global Voices first usually turn into big international news items eventually.  This is also a good place to get firsthand accounts of breaking news.  When the shootings in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall happened last year, I turned to Global Voices to see what Kenyan and other African bloggers on the ground were saying about it.

Foreign Policy Magazine – This is a must-read for all foreign policy junkies.  Everyday FP’s website has very engaging articles on many of the hot button international topics today.  Being a web designer, I also appreciate the fabulous responsive design of their new website.

The Economist – I mostly go here for my fix of international business news, but sometimes I buy a book because of a review I read here.  Some of their irreverent pieces are also good reads.

UN News Centre – This news service is not only good for news on General Assembly during UN Week, but this is also a great resource for year round reports on international development topics.

CNN International – American CNN is garbage.  If you are lucky to access the international version, you will see more actual news reporting, and less punditry.

BBC World – Straight, international news – no bias or punditry – every hour, on the hour.  During the weekends the network also shows great documentaries.

Other outlets I check out on a regular basis:

IPS News

France24

All Africa

Are there other outlets I should be checking out? Let me know in the comments below or email.

Prison Is The New Mental Illness

Crazy Eye - Image Credit: Netflix

I am a big fan of Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black.  I spent last weekend watching season two in my house instead of enjoying the beautiful summer weather.  It’s entertaining and captivating, but what I really like about the show is its social commentary on many serious issues related to the criminal justice system, namely mental health.

One of the breakout stars of OITNB is the ever talented Uzo Aduba (above), who plays Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren.  It hasn’t been revealed yet why she is in jail, but it is clear that Crazy Eyes is mentally unstable.  She is first introduced to the audience at the beginning of season one when she decided to make Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) her prison wife.

As the season progressed, it becomes more apparent that she is unpredictable.  One day she is reciting Shakespeare; the next day she is urinating on the floor after being rejected by Piper.  In season two we learn that Crazy Eyes was adopted by a loving, but pushy white family that made her do things she was afraid to do.  Some of her violent tendencies and disdain for her white mother give the impression that she had a major mental breakdown that led to her imprisonment.

Another unstable Litchfield inmate, Lorna Morello, is revealed to be an obsessive stalker in season two who was imprisoned for trying to kill a man she dated once.  She even breaks into his house during her driving duties.

This led me to want to learn more about how real mentally ill prisoners are handled.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, more than half of prison inmates have a history of mental illness. “An estimated 31 percent of women and 14.5 percent of men in jails have a serious mental illness. Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition.” Most mentally ill inmates are not violent criminals.  Most of them leave prison with very limited access to resources and treatment, and, thus, have a higher recidivism rate.

Up until recently, severely mentally ill people were treated in mental hospitals.  However, there was a movement to remove the stigma around mental illness by deinstitutionalizing mentally ill people.  As a result of not getting the proper care they needed in psychiatric hospitals, mentally ill people are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system.

According to a 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over one million mentally ill people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails.  The high numbers are creating a strain on prison resources.  It costs taxpayers up to US$400 a day to just take care of mentally ill inmates simply because extra supervision and medication is needed.  Mentally ill inmates are also more likely to be preyed upon in jail, injured in a fight and get into trouble for not following rules.

Even corrections officials are fed up.

“We’ve systematically shut down all the mental health facilities, so the mentally ill have nowhere else to go,” said Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart in a New York Times interview. “We’ve become the de facto mental health hospital.”

While Orange Is The New Black is fictional entertainment, mental illness in our society is a very real problem.  The growing number of mass shootings in America that are mostly committed by mentally ill people puts a solid spotlight on the issue. Eventually we will have to start the larger conversation about how to effectively deal with this problem in a structured, but humane way.

Introducing “Women Talking”

Women Talking

People have always asked me to put together an online portfolio that specifically showcases my best video work. The opportunity was presented to me to create an interactive journalism website doing just that. Most of these interviews were done for WGBH TV, the PBS affiliate in Boston, while the others were done on independent commission. I chose to focus on women interviewees not only because of their diverse backgrounds and opinions, but also because they are all women of color and their voices are generally either limited or not represented positively in mainstream media. My hope is to begin to change that conversation.

It took me two months to conceive and design the website.  I hope you like it.

taliawhyte.com/womentalking