Voices of Change: Building Opportunity in Boston

 |   Turahn Dorsey, Chief of Education for the City of Boston

The recent Globe Spotlight series “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.” took a necessary look at the inequality that still lies within Boston’s systems, population, and policy. These structural inequalities are prominent in the intersection of race and technology, which we see firsthand in our work to provide access and opportunity to all Bostonians through technology. The data presented in the Spotlight Series really struck me and changed my perspective. So many amazing and thoughtful people in Boston are working hard to address equitable access in our city. While it’s clear we must do more, I thought we should ask some of these leaders what we can do now. This Black History Month, we asked local leaders to reflect on this series to explore how we can use technology to bridge Boston’s opportunity gap.

— Aimee Sprung, Civic Engagement Manager

The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Series on Race told a story of dangerous socio-economic stagnation for African-Americans in Boston. As some have interpreted them, the exposés highlight years of waning mobility for the city’s communities of color. I think it is more accurate to say that the historical trends betray the reality of a kind of caste fixity based on race.

Growing acknowledgment of rigid racial stratification puts Boston, and cities where the same conditions exist, at an inflection point. They can either continue upholding cultures and investing in systems that promote marginalization and racial power disparities, or they can purposefully chart a course to a more democratic future. I hope that we collectively understand that there really is no choice to make. Our future depends on doing the latter and we only get there by figuring out how to exponentially improve life outcomes for the most marginalized groups in America.

Now, I’d like to think that there is a version of Moore’s Law that applies to socio-economic progress. If such an analog exists, it stands to reason that the ever-expanding universe of technology – and the technical knowledge and skill powering it – could help us prove this corollary. Examples like the Barefoot College, where women in rural India train to become solar engineers, speak positively to the possibility of leveraging technology to advance (in this case) gender equality and profoundly change the social order.

Here in Boston, we’re at the beginning of a transformative journey to improve educational opportunities and disrupt Boston’s racial status quo by helping young people master technological tools and become digital citizens. In Boston Public Schools, we’re offering computer science courses across the district and 70% of BPS students participated in Hour of Code last year.  Additionally, my office and BPS’ Office of External Affairs are creating teacher externships to strengthen STEAM instruction in schools.  In these professional development experiences, educators learn how to improve planning for and delivery of STEAM lessons in local technology firms, from field experts.

Students are also learning about technology in out-of-school time settings. Nonprofit organization Tech Goes Home provides families with the tools they need to learn online and connect to community resources.  The South End Technology Center and Timothy Smith Network help mostly African-American students learn computer programming, digital fabrication and robotics. And, by 2022, we expect that 10,000 middle grades students will participate in rigorous afterschool STEM learning through the BoSTEM initiative.

I’m proud that students’ opportunities to build technological proficiency are expanding in Boston, but I’m not satisfied. Relatively (and, in some instances, literally) speaking, we are still solving for the basic connectivity problems of the 1990s in communities of color, while those at the leading edge explore virtual realities and new intelligences. As Boston’s Chief of Education, I intend to continue accelerating the pace of change by working to better integrate technology-based tools into the K-12 curriculum, expanding opportunities for students and educators to learn in tech industry settings, developing strategies to increase the number of degrees that students of color earn in high tech fields and creating faster, more direct paths to tech sector careers.  

This is not work that one person, one institution or even one sector can do alone. A new cooperative enterprise is needed that closely partners K-12, youth-serving nonprofits, higher education and industry in an effort to:

  • Expand the focus on STEAM content in K-12 and bring instructional approaches, equipment and classroom spaces into the 21st Century;
  • Embed STEAM curricula in youth-serving nonprofits that can help to transform our city into a classroom and turn traditionally didactic classroom instruction into community-based experiential lessons;
  • Create post-secondary credential accelerators – 12- to 18-month training tracks – that higher education and industry co-design to convey associates and bachelors equivalents, tech industry certifications and, ideally, direct access to entry-level positions; and
  • Guarantee more young people from diverse backgrounds positions in Greater Boston tech companies in the same way that State Street Bank boldly pledged 1,000 financial services jobs for Boston Opportunity Youth through its WINS initiative.

I’m certain that when we create more seamless and effective collaboration across the school-to-career pipeline, aimed at modernizing K-12 education, Boston’s youth will be equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the future. Moreover, when these same partnerships expand opportunities for youth of color to participate in the tech economy, I know that our young people will be positioned to break generational cycles of dispossession.

Turahn Dorsey serves as the Chief of Education for the City of Boston and is a member of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s cabinet. As Chief of Education, Dorsey is charged with setting a strategic agenda for the city that will improve the quality of instruction and student support across the education pipeline and better integrate school-, community-, and work-based learning opportunities. 

Prior to joining the Mayor’s cabinet, Mr. Dorsey served as Evaluation Director and an Education Program Officer at the Barr Foundation. At Barr, Dorsey led the development and implementation of data monitoring and evaluation frameworks for Barr’s strategic investments in local education and climate change. Additionally, he managed the Foundation’s giving in out-of-school time and focused on expanding
summer learning options, helping to create systemic approaches to school-community partnerships and developing education and career pathways for disconnected youth.

Mr. Dorsey’s career is built on the 15 years he spent as a program evaluator and researcher at Moore and Associates in Southfield, Michigan and Abt Associates in Cambridge, MA. In this capacity, he led and participated in research projects spanning a number of public policy, community change and public health related issues. The body of work he contributed to for state and local governments, as well as foundations, also covers a number of quantitative and qualitative technical areas including outcome and impact analyses, Theory of Change-based program evaluation.