The Idea Revolution: How Youth of Color Will Build Our Future

What if I told you that the cure for cancer will come from the mind of a Hispanic girl in South Central Los Angeles? Or that the invention that will replace the Internet will come from the imagination of a Black boy from Harlem?
01/07/2015 12:14 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

What if I told you that the cure for cancer will come from the mind of a Hispanic girl in South Central Los Angeles? Or that the invention that will replace the Internet will come from the imagination of a black boy from Harlem?

Don't be too surprised.

The thing is, all children -- whether they're from a suburb of Charlotte or from a housing project in Chicago -- are born with natural creative genius. However, due to wealth inequalities, asymmetric access to quality education, and general lack of opportunity equity here in America, many would-be young innovators are blocked from fully cultivating their dream capital. The primary casualties of structural inequality are black and brown youth and their ideas.

This is an American tragedy.

Because all people, regardless of class or race, benefit when all of us are able to contribute our talents to the economy. Likewise, all of us are hurt when there exists gaps in access and opportunity in America.

For example, imagine a girl named Rosa, a 15-year old from LA who attends a neglected high school without a strong science program, with few functioning labs, and only a small proportion of certified biology and chemistry teachers. In Rosa's mind, there are the seeds for a cancer vaccine, which given the proper nutrients -- high quality teachers, enriching after school programs, and modern labs -- could eventually develop into a product that could enter the pharmaceutical pipeline. But because Rosa's school environment is malnourished, so too is her creativity; her idea remains trapped within her imagination. Rosa's underperforming school reduces her chances of attending college, medical school, and the possibility of making her dream of a cancer vaccine a reality no matter how hard she works. As a result, the over 1.6 million cancer patients nationwide -- rich and poor alike -- would miss out on little Rosa's potentially life saving innovation.

We must ask ourselves, how many world-changing ideas are locked away in the uncultivated imaginations of low-opportunity youth of color?

Well, the answer may shock you.

There are over 30 million children growing up in poverty in this country. Less than 30 percent of students in the bottom quarter of incomes enroll in a 4-year college or university. Among that group -- less than 50 percent graduate. Even among graduates, life is tough. A study conducted by Youth Invincibles reported that black college students have the same chances of getting a job as white high school dropouts. Alas, structural inequality prevents millions of youth from reaching their full potential.

How does this impact all of us? McKinsey and Company released a report stating that gaps in achievement between rich students and poor students and as well as between students of color and white students has cost the U.S. economy over $1.2 trillion since 1998.

And then, when we look at these statistics within the context that public schools serving predominantly minority students receive $200,000 less funding on average than predominantly white schools, then there should be no wonder as to why we see huge holes in minority representation in tech and entrepreneurship fields.

To be clear, 5 percent of Google's employees are black or Latino while Facebook's U.S. staff is over 90 percent white and Asian. It's kind of upsetting, especially when likely Twitter and Instagram users are people of color. This means that black and brown kids are avid consumers -- but not producers of --social media and emerging technologies. They tend to download more than they upload.

But this does not have to be the reality.

Actually, I argue there has never been a more exciting moment for people of color to harness the power of innovation.

Tristan Walker, founder of CODE2040 and Bevel, says combining black culture with technology "is the greatest economic opportunity of our lifetime."

"The poor themselves can create a poverty free world," adds Mohammed Yunus, Nobel laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank. "All we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them."

Elson Nash, team lead for the US Department of Education's Promise Neighborhoods initiative, agrees:

"We have to guide youth of color in a way to unleash the incredible capacity they have. We as adults need to get out of the way and cultivate their creativity to solve problems in their world and everyone's world." He continued, "We just need to create learning environments for them to be successful that tap into their culture and learning style."

The organization I cofounded with Weeks Mensah, Enza Academy, is working everyday to build that environment. Enza is a leadership and innovation institute for high-potential high school students in low-opportunity contexts, and we specifically work in the Bay Area and New York City. Founded in April of 2014, Enza recognizes the creative force of youth of color, and develops Enza Scholars into agents of change who will empower their own communities with their own ideas. We provide workshops in computer programming, cultural competence, graphic design, and business development to high school students of color, led by college students from Stanford, Columbia, and Howard Universities among others.

For example, enter SmartPocket -- a financial planning app aimed at helping high school and college students to make stronger fiscal decisions. It was developed by a team of students from Frederick Douglass Academy I. The team built their app at our recent three-day pilot at Columbia University Teachers College, where teams of high school students designed and pitched tech-based solutions to social problems for cash awards.

At Enza, we push our scholars to design their revolution.

What exactly is that revolution?

The revolution we speak of is a global renaissance where youth of color are redesigning the world according to their likeness and imagination. A world where if we are not given a seat at the table, we build a whole new boardroom. A world where society's biggest challenges -- education gaps, health disparities, criminal injustice, environmental degradation -- can and will be tackled by our most undervalued natural resource -- America's black and brown youth.