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Silicon Harlem and the Vision of Clayton Banks

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Could the new Palo Alto be steps from the Apollo? Since the turn of the 20th century, Harlem has been a mecca for innovations in music, literature, and fashion, not to mention social and political activism; it now looks to add digital technology to the list of fields in which it has broken ground. Silicon Harlem, a for-profit venture with a deep social commitment, has taken major steps to making this aspiration a reality.

Silicon Harlem was formed in 2013 with the ambition to transform Harlem into a tech-forward business destination and center for educational training in the latest digital platforms, machinery, and software. Its CEO and co-founder, Clayton Banks, has been collaborating with local businesses, politicians, and cultural centers to rebrand the historic Manhattan neighborhood as a focal point for technological innovation and entrepreneurship.

Why would you leave a portion of your population behind when there is genius in there?

A Harlem resident since 1992, Banks is helping his community using the tools he developed throughout his career in tech-driven media, which has included tenures as regional vice president of Comedy Central, regional director of Showtime, and senior vice president of the Sega Channel. Discussing the neighborhood he calls home, Banks explains, “I noticed all these gaps—in health, housing, and crime. What if we could change all of that? What if we could close all those gaps? Why not utilize what I know—technology and innovation, the 21st-century economic engines—and implement a strategy to move our entire community forward? We set out to encourage incubators and accelerators, co-working spaces, startup activity. We wanted to transform Harlem into a tech hub.” He proudly cites the 600 students that have graduated from Silicon Harlem programs, as well as the 40 businesses that have made investments in the area facilitated in one way or another by his organization.

“Why would you leave a portion of your population behind when there is genius in there?” Startups and entrepreneurs are every day more eager to set roots in Harlem and tap into the local community. Becoming a “destination for companies” has created “an automatic economic impact,” says Banks. While one of the main goals is to increase the economic value of the area to make it more desirable for outside investors, the focus, he insists, remains on creating changes “on the ground and at the systemic level” to expand “access and exposure.”

We went from envisioning the technological future to seeing it evolve to now working on making it sustainable.

To make the community’s economic advances real and enduring, it is essential to provide Harlem residents with access to affordable and high-speed broadband internet. Banks elaborates, “We said the most important part was to sustain all the activity we would generate. We would need to make sure that the infrastructure would support the tech innovation—that meant broadband. We went from envisioning the technological future to seeing it evolve to now working on making it sustainable. That’s Silicon Harlem’s main mission: to bring digital literacy uptown so it’s sustainable from the humanizing perspective, but also building, working with everybody collectively, public and private, to ensure our infrastructure is state of the art and that everyone is connected. Forty percent of the households are not online, not because they don’t have access but because they can’t afford it. We’re working on low-cost high-speed broadband.”

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In addition to senior programs that educate the elderly on how to get connected and handle today’s technology, Silicon Harlem runs afterschool and summer programs dedicated to equipping young people with the technical tools for future success, whether that be in higher education or the workforce. Describing the Apps Youth Leadership Academy, a collaboration with the Caribbean Cultural Center, Banks says, “This year’s summer program focuses on video games, particularly on integrating virtual and augmented reality. It will give them new skills to navigate technology well into the future and not be intimidated by the upcoming technology.” The seminar accepts ten boys and ten girls. “The outcome is that they get great jobs. One hundred percent of our seniors go to college.”

We help young people put together a strategy of thinking. We call it computational thinking.

Beyond this, Silicon Harlem hopes to develop problem-solving skills that will help students succeed professionally in any field from trade to higher education. “We’ve given them a set of skills that are very important for 21st-century jobs. We help young people put together a strategy of thinking that allows them to solve their problems, whether that’s in the neighborhood or in their jobs. We call it computational thinking.” The students are interested not only in becoming fluent in the latest technologies but also using what they learn to create a stronger local community with more opportunities for everyone. “I’m finding that young people want to work hard, but want to see their community move forward.”

Silicon Harlem offers young neighborhood residents the chance to attend tech conferences and meet both established and rising leaders in the field. Banks knows firsthand the importance of exposure to the frontlines of the tech industry. He grew up during the rise of the internet and digital technology. “I was fascinated with the world going from analog to digital, working in the cable industry. I cut my teeth in technology growing up. My father let me play with machines all the time in the garage. When I worked in cable, I saw how networks were built. It was fascinating to see television explode and see the power it had with people. I saw how technology impacted everyday life. Silicon Harlem is a result of that experience of exposure to great people around the world.”

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Questioned on how much responsibility tech leaders, such as those in Silicon Valley, should shoulder to push for more diversity in a field largely dominated by white men often from privileged backgrounds, Banks emphasized the great benefits of diversity, but also the necessity to reframe the question. He emphasizes, “Diversity is not a problem; diversity is an opportunity. That’s the most important message I can give to tech leaders. You want a diversity of thought and experience. That way you get the best outcomes. We have to get away from the idea that optics drive success. It’s about the experience and character of the people who come together.”

Banks stresses the desirability of all forms of diversity—not only for social reasons but also for truly boundless innovation and corporate success. He says, “Tech leaders who are serious understand that their sustainability and longevity are tied to one thing and one thing only: attracting the best and brightest with an emphasis on difference. The outcome isn’t to make it fair for women or an African American man; the outcome it to make it just fair and equal so we get rid of inequality. Inequality is inefficient. It doesn’t make any sense. Diversity is not about gender or the color of your skin but about difference period. Amongst the people chosen for the summer program, there is diversity beyond gender and skin color. Students share their stories and provide a better environment to learn from one another.”

Inequality is inefficient. It doesn’t make any sense.

With Silicon Harlem, Banks is promoting digital technology as a catalyst for diverse thinking, compassion, and power on the ground. The community becomes stronger when it encourages creative thought, productive outlets, and collaboration—all of which informs and enriches its members, the spaces they occupy, and those who will follow.

 

FURTHER READING

TECH IN HARLEM – LOOKING BACK: The Ralph Bunche Computer Mini-School

In the fall of 1990, seven teachers at the Ralph Bunche School, a public elementary school in Harlem began an experiment in school restructuring they called the Computer Mini-School. An unexpected outcome of the project was an increase in standardized test scores among their 120 students. A whole language approach to literacy was used, and computers were used extensively for student writing and a student newspaper. Read or download the full report below.

Ralph_Bunche_Computer

Melina Gills

Melina Gills is a culture and tech journalist who also works as a teacher and translator. She was born in Argentina and raised in Brooklyn. With degrees from Brown University and Rutgers University, she has focused her studies on cultural theory, film, modern fiction, and the intersections of politics and art. Her writing has appeared in Film Quarterly, Indiewire, Tribeca Film, Cineaste, and Storia.
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