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University Advancement | September 2018  

 

Leveling the playing field in technology

Anowa Quarcoo, Journalism '09; Avery Swartz, Theatre Performance (Production) ’03; Carolyn Van, Business Management ’09

Left to right: Anowa Quarcoo, Journalism ’09; Carolyn Van, Business Management ’09; Avery Swartz, Theatre Performance (Production) ’03.

 

The Ryerson Connection spoke to three alumni who are working or volunteering for organizations that aim to give people from all sectors of society a voice in the digital realm. Though their Ryerson degrees are non-technical, they recognize the critical value of digital skills for full economic, political and social participation in today’s world.

Anowa Quarcoo, Journalism '09

Anowa Quarcoo, Journalism '09, is co-founder of Civic Tech Toronto, a volunteer-run community group that brings together developers, public servants, designers, community organizers, urban planners and engaged citizens to work on civic technology projects with the goal of solving public challenges. She has a master’s degree in global affairs and is an MBA student.

Avery Swartz, Theatre Performance (Production) ’03

Avery Swartz, Theatre Performance (Production) ’03, is founder and chief executive officer of Camp Tech, a company that offers beginner-friendly, hands-on workshops for adults who want to learn practical tech skills. She also works as a digital advisor and tech consultant through her other company, North Coast Group.

Carolyn Van, Business Management ’09

Carolyn Van, Business Management ’09, is director of program design at Canada Learning Code, which offers educational programs to improve digital literacy across the country. The organization also champions coding education through strategic industry and public partnerships, research and advocacy.

 

How are digital skills tools of empowerment?

Anowa Quarcoo: First, it’s important to acknowledge that they can be disempowering because not everyone has equal access to technology, let alone to learning digital skills. Millions — if not billions — are being left behind. But digital tools can also be incredibly empowering. They give people an opportunity to have a voice in an increasingly digital world, and open up a whole new universe of opportunity that didn’t exist before. You can find and connect with communities with common interests, backgrounds, life experiences, etc. You can build something that solves a problem in your life or community. And you can earn a really good living using these skills.

Avery Swartz: A website is no longer enough for organizations to succeed. They need email marketing, a blog and a thriving social media presence, but many charities, arts organizations and small businesses lack the required expertise. I started Camp Tech to fill that need. We make our workshops as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

Carolyn Van: Technology is only going to increasingly become a powerful tool that drives change and innovation across all sectors, from agriculture to retail to art. It changes the way we connect as human beings, it has the power to give us access to perspectives outside of our immediate bubbles and can allow people who may not otherwise be heard to have a voice.

 

Why is it important that historically underrepresented groups such as newcomers, people of colour, women, people with disabilities and Indigenous peoples
have tech skills?

Anowa Quarcoo: For one, when underrepresented groups are creators of technology, they bring something different to the table, whether it’s their perspective or a different way of problem solving. This allows us to have products, applications and tools that are inclusive in their design. It also means that young people start to see people who look like them taking part in innovation. In a field where diversity can be pretty limited, this is incredibly important and gives people permission to dream.

Avery Swartz: It's very important to me that the future of technology is not being created and designed by a select, limited group of people. It needs to be accessible to everyone in society, from every group. It doesn't make sense that people who are consumers of technology don't also have a voice in the creation of technology.

Carolyn Van: When we provide access to these skills to people, we empower them to share and communicate their talent, perspectives, how they feel about the issues and opportunities that exist in their communities, and what they want to do about them. These are instances that make me really proud of the work that we do here.

 

Can you offer a specific example or two of how your organization is
making a difference?

Anowa Quarcoo: We created an online database that helps people find talented women and people of colour available for speaking opportunities at tech-related events. It’s being used by organizers across the city so they can add new voices to the discussion. Another favourite of mine is the City of Brains project, which is exploring personal stories of accessing mental health services, and helping identify the challenges that come with this.

Avery Swartz: We create ongoing partnerships with underserved communities to help them build capacity for greater participation in the digital world. For example, we’ve worked with the
First Nations Technology Council of British Columbia to offer free seats to Indigenous learners at our Vancouver workshops.

Carolyn Van: We support and train educators to introduce the power of code to their classrooms. We want education around coding to exist beyond extracurricular activities. We want it in schools in the hands of educators – the people our young people spend most of their waking hours with. We also have 13 "Code Mobiles" that travel across Canada to bring technology education to rural and remote communities. The vehicles are loaded with all the equipment needed to set up in schools, community centres – even parks.

 

What would you say to people who claim they can’t learn digital skills?

Anowa Quarcoo: Be the change you want to see. Tech doesn't have to be scary for people who don’t think they can be involved. If you find an issue you're interested in or passionate about, that can be a great way to learn digital skills. At Civic Tech, we’re of the mind that you don’t have to be a coder to be involved. Tech is a tool, not a solution. We need a range of skills and abilities to do good work, create solid tech and elicit change, because a diversity of voices and experiences is important.

Avery Swartz: I have so much empathy for people who are learning technology because I've been one of them. As someone with a fine arts degree, I remember how intimidating it can be. That’s why we put so much emphasis on creating a welcoming environment at Camp Tech. I believe anyone with the desire to learn has the capacity to learn.

Carolyn Van: I was that person. In high school I enrolled in a computer science class, and I almost immediately disqualified myself because I felt it was too complex and, quite frankly, I found it boring. I took myself out of the equation of being involved in anything tech-related, and it wasn't until later that I taught myself code when I realized that the industry I was in (marketing) was transforming, and I’d be left behind if I didn't do something about it. Today there are more options than ever before for tech education. Find a beginner-friendly class that suits your learning style. Be open to making mistakes, dive in and don't be scared.