Navigating Youth Well-being
November 18, 2023

Black youth have been leaders: here’s what they can teach us about building innovative technologies

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been record-high rates of adolescent sadness, and there has been an increase in struggles with anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, and suicide among young people. The rates are significantly higher for Black and Brown youth who have intersectional identities. The use of technology offers a chance to improve access to mental health care services, connect and socialize, and develop skills and learn. Technology has the potential to make it possible for a greater number of young people to receive the assistance they require.

Black youth have been leaders: here’s what they can teach us about building innovative technologies

About the author: Sabrina Abdalla leads Headstreams youth engagements, and is a community builder, multidisciplinary creative, and founder who is passionate about guiding communities toward an innovative and equitable future.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” wrote the late James Baldwin in an essay for The New York Times in 1962. The work of dreaming, imagining, and dismantling is no easy feat. It requires radical imagination and consistent efforts to sustain the relevance and weight of the inequities trying to be solved. The road to solving inequities cannot be paved with new and emerging technology. The discrimination must be confronted, examined, and grappled with in real life. If not, they appear neutral, manifested in the technologies we use, and further marginalize and perpetuate what we intend to solve. To begin facing the digital divide, discriminatory designs, exclusionary languages, racist AIs, digital youth wellness, and I can go on, we must consider who has a seat at the table when creating the technology of tomorrow. If it doesn’t include our most vulnerable people in society, systemically excluded youth, we must go back to the drawing board.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been record-high rates of adolescent sadness, and there has been an increase in struggles with anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, and suicide among young people. The rates are significantly higher for Black and Brown youth who have intersectional identities. The use of technology offers a chance to improve access to mental health care services, connect and socialize, and develop skills and learn. Technology has the potential to make it possible for a greater number of young people to receive the assistance they require.

Additionally, according to Telosity Venture’s 2022 Market Guide, investments in mental health companies focused on youth have seen a substantial increase in both the number of deals and the amount of funding since 2018. If there is a demand for building technologies for youth then there has to be a push to bring them to the forefront of building these tools to ensure that nothing is created for them, without them.

Youth have grown up with technology and have a deep understanding of its potential to make a positive impact on society. By involving youth in the creation of technology, we can ensure that it is designed to be more inclusive, accessible, and equitable. Black, Indigenous, POC, and LGBTQIA+ youth can help identify and address biases that may be present in current technology, making it fairer and just for everyone. Additionally, youth are often more adept at using emerging technologies and can help push boundaries to develop new and innovative solutions.

Headstream’s Youth 2 Innovator program (Y2I) is a creative cohort-based program that positions youth at the forefront of emerging technologies by advising entrepreneurs in three sectors: digital health, ed tech, and social tech. They lead the way by advising, consulting with, developing cutting-edge technologies, and shaping the world's future to a safer digital world that centers on youth wellbeing and empowering young people to take action on issues they care about. They are driving the development of new technologies that focus on youth wellness, mental health, and community building by supporting the entrepreneurs in Headstream’s Accelerator program. The youth are engaging in virtual programming that aids in their self-discovery, makes room for radical conversations, and ideas needed to dream up a new world. Youth advisors share that their confidence is increasing, their ability to influence powerholders are being sharpened, and they feel closer to solving issues they experience. One of the most significant contributions Black youth have made to the tech industry is their role in dismantling biased marketing and improving content strategy to use inclusive language.

As their program's designer, a Black Muslim woman mixed into the ether of the wild wild web not only as a user but also as a creator, it is impossible to separate my work from my lived experiences. My work is personal. As one who has felt the sting of inequities, I am compelled to work hand in hand with our most vulnerable, systematically excluded youth, to co-create with the builders and changemakers - a world free from the shackles of URL and IRL disparities.

By involving Black youth in the creation of technology, we can identify and address biases that may be present in current technology, making it fairer and just for everyone. Their expertise is vital in the creation of equitable technologies that are accessible to all, and their work is paving the way for a more inclusive and just future. Here are a few highlights of how our Black youth advisors harnessed their cultural abundance and worked with entrepreneurs to build the changes they want to see.  

Inpathy - a social app that inspires transparency, normalizes moods and recreates the human experience.

Salma Djalal is a multidisciplinary artist studying communications and media studies. She is passionate about cultivating community and finding creative ways to express and embrace all parts of her identity. As a Youth Advisor for Inpathy, she strategized pathways to make social media more accessible, healthy, and transparent by advocating for authentic content and purpose-driven user experience. Salma tweaked features and reviewed aspects of the app that she felt would be age appropriate and culturally relevant. Most importantly, she suggested Inpahy update its prototype video to make it more welcoming to Gen-Zers.

She Health - A go-to resource for mental and sexual health support

Lexi Lewis, a multi-cultural neurodiverse lesbian with a heart for justice and peaches, played a pivotal role in improving the app's content strategy by deconstructing biased marketing and creating more inclusive language. By focusing on the language used in the app, SHE was able to create an environment that is more welcoming and inclusive to users from all backgrounds. Her experience in the LGBTQIA+ and disability community gave her a unique perspective to successfully achieve this. Lexi, utilized her wealth of knowledge to advocate for other people’s experiences and how to design with them in mind.

Rap Research Lab - is a community-based creative technology studio that uses a Hiphop framework to develop new ways for people to engage with data and culture.

Se’Kani Frett, a high school junior who loves soccer and has aspirations to become an entrepreneur, is passionate about digital wellness. The multidisciplinary Youth Advisor is interested in making the internet a place free of harm. While advising for the Rap Research Lab, Se’Kani supported a virtual and augmented reality, sculptural data visualization, and collaboration tool called Mappers Delight. It demonstrated how global hip hop influence is and opportunities for people to reference lyrics with regions and cities. While collaborating, Se’Kani found a bug on the website and was able to share that feedback for the developers to solve.

Local Civics - Enables students and educators to build their civic engagement and community leadership skills through game-based learning.

Maya Nicole Dummett is an eighteen-year-old activist, student organizer, coder, and speaker who is passionate about social justice above all else. As a Youth Advisor with Local Civics, Maya helped to expand the scope of the app’s civic education, encouraging functionality that would allow students to turn their lived experiences with civics into lessons, effectively expanding the app’s curriculum. By brainstorming such a feature and validation system for its practical implementation, Maya was able to make space for users to play an active role in their education.

Black youth are leading the charge in creating more equitable and inclusive technology. Through programs like Headstream's Youth 2 Innovator program (Y2I), they are taking an active role in advising entrepreneurs and developing disruptive solutions that prioritize youth wellbeing. Their unique experiences and perspectives allow them to identify and address biases in technology, making it more accessible and fair for everyone.

But the work is far from over. As we continue to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world, we must continue to elevate and support youth in their efforts to create more equitable technology. We must actively involve them in the design and development process and ensure that their voices are heard at all levels. By doing so, we can build a future that truly works for everyone. Let's join together to support and empower the next generation of technology leaders, to carry the torch and help build a brighter, more equitable future for all. Learn more about our programs and how to get involved with Headstream.

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