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Motown Records.
Motown Records was a catalyst that expanded music and re-shaped America’s racial narrative. Photo via Shutterstock

I was born 30 years too late to experience Motown in its heyday.

Nonetheless, as a young boy growing up in Detroit, I benefited from a city known as the mecca of music where homegrown talent discovered in the least likely of neighborhoods became icons of American pop culture. The Supremes and the Jackson 5 paid regular visits through the stereo systems in my house. Saturday mornings, also known as cleaning days in my household, were serenaded by the howls of Aretha Franklin.

The music of Motown, admittedly powerful, however, was merely a by-product of something much greater. The music, in and of itself, existed beyond the vinyl records that crooned out do-op tunes within the walls of fans of all colors.

Motown, you see, was an incubator for not only music, but for producing leaders, refining and defining skills and accelerating racial progress within the industry and across America for black musicians, songwriters and executives. The institution served as a movement that challenged America’s prejudices and re-routed the course of American music at the hands of Mr. Berry Gordy, an $800 loan and his well-trained and well-dressed talented tenth.

africatownThose albums, and their creators, challenged us to change the way we thought about the color of music. They influenced the way we engaged as a society and delivered voices to previously discriminatory audiences.

Motown was a catalyst that expanded music and re-shaped America’s racial narrative. For the first time in history, integration and access sat on the same agenda that spoke to the relevancy of African American’s contribution to the nation and the social issues that reigned ubiquitously in all corners of the nation.

Through its music, and more so through its message, Motown influenced artistry and moved the world closer to equality using rhythms and tunes as a platform.

Now, as a long-time Seattleite and professional technologist, Hitsville U.S.A and Mr. Gordy’s astounding example of disruptive and transformative change vibrates through my veins, begging the question: Can Seattle’s Central District, better known for its moniker “Africatown,” serve as a Motown of sorts for a burgeoning tech scene to grow and influence young urban technologists?

Without reservation, I believe that it can.

In 2014, our challenge in closing the digital divide is not unlike what was presented before Berry Gordy in 1959.

Disproportionality in our education system, coupled with the reality of race-based gaps of kids of color adopting technical skills, mimics that of the record labels that refused to place a bet on artists from marginalized communities.

hackthecdSimilarly, when we look deeply into the dismal statistics that characterize the low rate of students of color entering STEM careers or earning computer science degrees, it is quite clear that our current systems must shift. Our focus must be turned to innovative thinking on how to get our youth and our communities engaged in the ever-evolving technology conversation, and from it, build our neighborhoods anew.

Bridging the gap, however, means much more than simply getting black and Latino kids on the internet. To truly transform lives, neighborhoods and the status quo, it is necessary that we build a new system that merges Silicon Valley innovation and resources with inclusionary urban culture.

It is at this intersection where we can pair young talent with the tools to help them cultivate their ideas, develop their skills and leverage their contributions to shift social outcomes. In short, we must make them contributors—not just consumers and influencers. They are our greatest resource and we would be remiss if we don’t ensure their piece of the technology pie.

As Sam Cook handsomely sang back in 1963, it’s been a long time coming but a change gonna come.

David Harris
David Harris

That change starts preeminently with #HackTheCD, an interactive entrepreneurial jam session taking place at Garfield High School from Sept. 26 to 28.

Working cooperatively with a community of technologist, entrepreneurs, makers and local leaders, we want to position “AfricaTown” to serve as the epicenter of neighborhood growth where young people can learn, train, develop, be mentored, write business plans and master technology for the betterment of themselves and their communities.

54 hours, 50 students and 40 developers will work hard to create the fertile ground for the African American community in Seattle to grow with the city’s current tech boom.

When it’s over, we’ll have a community ripe with ideas and concepts that will pour into a vision for a Central District that will breed inclusive sustainable economic and community development.

David Harris lives in @AfricatownSEA, is helping to @HackTheCD, teaches entrepreneurial education @STEMbyTAF, and is a grad student @hcdeUW.

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