Who Gets Paid and Who Gets Played in the Digital Gold Rush

When the West Oakland Post Office was built and displaced 300 mostly Black families “not a single black plumber, operating engineer, sheer metal worker, ironworker, electrician or steamfitter was hired for construction.  When the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system (BART) was built in 1967 not a single African American skilled worker was hired to work on it.”  From Richard Rothstein’s. The Color of Law P.168.

Hundreds of millions of dollars will be coming in to Oakland to end the so called digital divide.  Major infrastructure projects will grow, laying cables and otherwise extending access into Oakland’s internet deserts. Tens of thousands of devices and broadband subscriptions will be purchased annually, now and forever, and there will be an ongoing need for both technical software solutions and technical support that really meets the needs of families.

This is the new digital gold rush, and whether Black folks and Oaklanders, are the mules, the drivers, those passed by or those who benefit from the mule train is still to be determined.

If you have been in Oakland for a minute, you have seen a lot of money come and go, and whole sectors grow around serving our poor and impoverished brethren.  Meanwhile, everyone gets paid, except the supposed beneficiaries, and those same folks are in the same place or worse.  Like the BART, prosperity, splits, goes, over, passes through and divides Flatlands Oakland, but rarely resides there.

As a new workforce is hired to do the infrastructure, provide hardware, design the systems and provide the support we need to make sure that folks from Oakland and diverse local contractors get a piece of the action.  Truly breaking the digital divide, requires that we involve the community in both designing and delivering solutions.

OUSD took a good first step, by including local hire requirements, that they also have in their bonds, to their recently approved distance learning policy.  But we need to be vigilant, and make sure that we are part of the solution.

Locals have an investment in the community, and we need to invest in them.  Locals also understand local conditions.  And there will be an ongoing need for software solutions and technical support for families and staff.  These need to aligned to the needs of the families, and locals can build this ongoing capacity in away that Comcast never will.

You may have seen how facial recognition software, is really designed for White faces, and highly inaccurate for people of color, or even how automatic soap dispensers fail to register darker skin. Bias, or at least, some iffy assumptions, was implicit in the coding of the relatively simple applications. With the rapid growth in the number and use of educational applications, we should be concerned, and we should be designing our own applications.

So as this rush of money and contracts start to flow, we have to ask.  Will this be yet another flow through, with shiny fliers and empty promises from the latest round of carpetbaggers, or will we invest in Oakland and Oaklanders, and building a better and more accessible broadband infrastructure for us, by us, and benefiting us. 

What do you think?

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