Editor’s Note: Seattle native Sherrell Dorsey is a data journalist, entrepreneur and founder and CEO of The Plug, a venture-backed news and insights platform covering Black startups and ecosystems. Her new book is Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us. Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley.
Just before I was set to enter high school, Mom grabbed a flyer off a community board at one of my after-school programs. A technology training program through a nonprofit called the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) was accepting students for its program teaching computer literacy and programming languages, and providing college readiness and mentorship support. The program was just four years old at the time, launched in 1996, and was quietly changing the trajectory of some of Seattle’s most vulnerable families. As the story went, Trish Millines Dziko retired from Microsoft as a senior software engineer and was making it her mission to help kids of color learn about and get into the field of technology.
TAF ran the duration of the school year, with summers dedicated to paid internships with local technology companies. Twice per week, I’d hop the 48 bus from Franklin High School in Seattle’s South End and get off at Judkins and 23rd in front of Parnell’s corner store in the Central District—the same community in which I’d attended the Delaney Learning Center just a few short years prior. Classes ran from 3:30 to 5:30, which meant long days juggling classes and homework and taking the bus back home to the South End.
Both were predominately Black and brown neighborhoods of mixed-income economic situations and social paradoxes, harboring stories of gang violence and community picnics, Black, Hispanic, and Asian-owned businesses contrasted with street-corner weed dealers, poverty, and affluence.
Beyond the offered classes, TAF also provided SAT test prep, interview techniques, and resume building, and even took us on tours of local colleges. It was kind of like the Motown of training centers—they taught us how to walk and talk and land opportunities afforded to very few teenagers in the city. Between the fall of 1997 and spring of 2008, TAF trained 500 Seattle-area high school students of color within its technical teens internship program.
Today, the TAF Academy is a public 6th- through 12th- grade learning campus and operates as one of the leading public STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) schools and consults with school districts around the country. Over 75 percent of the students are students of color, and many come from households where English is not their first language. Over 95 percent of students graduate on time and 100 percent of students are accepted to a two-year or four- year college.
TAF also runs a fellowship program teaching a body of diverse current and future instructors’ best practices for delivering a STEM curriculum to kids of color. Two of my cousins attended and graduated from both the middle and high school programs.
A 2021 study by consulting firm McKinsey revealed that nearly half of Black workers are concentrated in occupations like healthcare, retail, customer service, and food preparation industries—essentially the jobs that provide some of the lowest-paying wages—and rarely within roles that are considered professional or managerial.
Reporting from the Brookings Institution also revealed that the highest proportions of low-wage workers are female (54 percent of low-wage workers, compared to 48 percent of the total workforce) and women of color. Hispanic and Black workers are overrepresented in low-wage work and paid less for equivalent educational attainment. While the typical wage for U.S. workers is $42,000 per year, 43 percent of Black workers are earning less than $30,000 per year, and 52 percent of U.S.-born Hispanic workers are earning the same. Those who migrated to the United States, earn a median income of $28,000.
As Amazon set up shop in Bellevue and eventually transitioned to South Lake Union in 2007, just another 12-minute bus ride from the Central District, opportunity stretched again, skipping the Central District and any other local school system that had not already been a factory of talent in good neighborhoods with decent funding.
As the city built its reputation and prowess through the progress of its major technology companies, with Amazon boasting some of the largest square footage occupied by any company in the downtown community, it also increased its taste for concentrated poverty, pushing Black and brown residents out of the proximity of the more desirable area to jobs, and leaving many untrained, distant, and without the opportunity to build wealth or land the kinds of jobs that locals could have been onboarded into had opportunities for college and growth been part of the city’s plan for workforce development and local investment.
Whereas my public high school had touted just a handful of Advanced Placement programs to help students earn college credit before graduation, the private schools in affluent communities where Bill Gates attended had already been well-equipped with computers and technical programs and courses that served as an on-ramp to jobs within the tech sector.
We’ve made getting into the technology space extremely complex. But it doesn’t have to be. And although historically we’ve been far too often on the receiving end of exclusion, we can include ourselves in the rooms and tables that will carry us into opportunities that enable higher salaries, strategies for navigating an education that won’t leave us in insurmountable debt, and career prospects that allow us to be pillars within our families and communities.
The increasing problems we face in society today, like threats to our privacy online, climate change, inaccessible banking tools, and other socially inextricable challenges, won’t be solved by white guys in hoodies alone.
Navigating the plethora of programs, research, statistics and opportunities available can be overwhelming. More important is deciding how to go about accessing these opportunities; determining the best strategies for what works requires time, knowledge, know-how and networks. Upper Hand is dedicated to helping make this process and pathway easier.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Upper Hand by Sherrell Dorsey. Copyright © 2022 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.