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Zora Ball's Achievement: What Are We Missing?

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Zora Ball is only seven years old. She is the youngest person to create a mobile game. Although she is cashing in on technology when most girls are playing with dolls, a significant fact about the cornrowed, cherubic-cheeked little girl is her African American heritage.

Multitudes of articles and blogs herald her achievement, but fail to acknowledge her racial descent. Is this happenstance, an accident, or so insignificant it doesn't need to be recognized?

Even though some contend we live in a post-racial era (didn't we elect a black male president for a second term!), most Americans -- not just whites -- are uneasy discussing either our nation's painful apartheid or have a trembling grasp on how to handle not just racial exclusion, but myriad ways in which the underrepresented are portrayed and treated.

Academics, and to a different extent, media shape popular images and understanding of the underrepresented. Often these images raise barriers before any momentous contact is established with "these" groups.

At an invitation-only, national conference, leading researchers of computer science, education, and social psychology met to discuss digital equity issues. Conference facilitators charged a small group of attendees to share their experiences "working in underrepresented communities." One after another, participants shared their complete bewilderment of "why the parents didn't support our program" or "why the kids seemed interested in the beginning, so I have no idea why they stopped coming near the end."

As the anxiety level of the participants grew, a well-meaning attendee offered the following: "I really think that these kids simply don't have any role models in their communities, I mean adults who really care about technology and are able to do something innovative with it. It is no wonder these kids are only marginally interested and the pipeline continues to be void of their presence in any meaningful way."

Collectively, led by social scientists and well-meaning media experts, we are developing code to deal with the underrepresented. It is more genteel, and less shocking to speak of "these kids" rather than black kids, poor kids or even girls of color. This new label has not produced new action.

Two things have happened that continue to marginalize vast segments of our society and trivialize issues of race, social class and gender. First, even for man blacks the idea that race, social class, and gender are both related and very important is not discussed. Many pundits and educators are more comfortable discussing Zora's age as a celebrity point than her attendance at a Title I school with a majority black enrollment. The Afrocentric curriculum at her school is not germane. So, she is squeezed to fit perceptions that support prevailing culture and theory.

Second, the notion that the underrepresented live in a deficit culture, surrounded by a better, stronger, normative society, buttresses consignment of "these people" to a special category. In order to move into and participate in the larger context, technicians, engineers and educators who design and market both in- and out-of-school activities must craft "interventions." While many of these initiatives correctly attempt to broaden participation in science, technology, engineering and math, they often fail to collaborate in meaningful ways with communities, families and/or schools. By limiting interactions exclusively with "these kids," such strategies diminish the importance and potential positive influence of youngsters' social networks. Not all children from economically disadvantaged areas are Charlie Brown kids.

Zora Ball didn't have to deny her African tilt in schooling or dismiss race, gender, or social class. An interested teacher in her school taught her (and other students) the programming language to create her game. Her parents openly support her impressive achievement. She defies the image and proves that the underrepresented and our communities can be innovative and leaders in digital programming.

Maybe the way we treat race, gender and social class needs revisiting and intensive overhaul. Discussions about and programs encouraging digital innovation should include culture and diversity. For some, this may be a new approach, but it can lead to novel narratives challenging taken-for-granted ideas of digital potential. Zora Ball is writing her own story (pun intended). It's worth heeding.