Belfer Fellow Perspective: An App Story

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August 14, 2018

By Patricia Novick | Belfer Fellow with ADL's Center for Technology and Society

Six years ago, I was working with a group of 10 preteen girls from a predominantly Latinx community in Chicago. They were participating in a summer program hosted by the Field Museum. One part of the program involved looking at communities like an anthropologist, evaluating the community’s positive assets.

One week, the girls invented their own homework assignment. They said they wanted to create a “treasure hunt” for next week’s class. They would each identify a place in the community that they loved and provide clues for the others to guess what it was.

When the time came, it turned out that each girl had chosen a different place—places that included a vivid mural, a public library branch, a bountiful flowerbed in a park, and a friendly neighborhood store. Each description led to enthusiastic comments and questions from the other girls. It was a moving session, and all I had to do was watch as the “theory” I was teaching turned into a powerful reality.

When they finished, I asked “How did this make you feel?” When one of them hesitantly answered “Proud,” the others strongly agreed. I asked, “What do you want to do next?” “Make an app,” they said, “so everyone can see what we see here.”

This “treasure hunt” highlighting their community starkly contrasts with the disparagement of minority communities. The U.S. president says people in “inner cities” are “living in hell” and claims many immigrants come from “shithole countries.” Many other media depictions and social media memes focus only on negative aspects of minority communities.

Discriminatory perceptions don’t only affect those who live outside the communities; research shows that negative portrayals often affect the self-worth and self-confidence of those within communities, particularly younger people. As one researcher stated, “The residents of neighborhoods with damaged reputations are not only stigmatized but also suffer in material and psychological terms from the stigma.”[1] In Chicago, as in many other places, community stigmas have led to political and cultural separation between groups that have many common interests in combating discrimination. For example, African Americans often stereotype and dismiss Latinos, and Latinos often do the same toward African Americans.

In 2016, a Chicago organization, the Latino Policy Forum, began offering a nine-month Multicultural Leadership Academy for Latinx and African American community leaders, with the aim of inspiring them to collaborate toward constructive social goals. I am a faculty member in that program. When nine graduates of the Academy decided in 2017 that they wanted to make a big contribution to combatting negative stereotyping, to show the positive assets of both communities in some way, I asked them, “What about an app?”

They took this idea a group of young women first had years earlier and thought big, envisioning an augmented reality app that would guide users through more than 100 sites in two communities, one predominantly African American (Bronzeville) and one Latinx (Pilsen). Each site would engage the user in some positive aspect of the community’s history, culture, art, or nature. Parts of the tour would show videos of “community heroes,” who had fought for rights, respect, and pride.

Today that app is becoming a reality through dedicated volunteer efforts among the founders and many other community members. Chicago-area institutions, including the Park District, the Field Museum, and Northwestern University, have contributed expertise and staff time. A California-based entrepreneur, Dan Mapes, has offered to assemble the full app at no charge.

It’s remarkable to see what has become of the young girls’ “treasure hunt” and how the app they imagined is now coming to life. The pride they felt will soon be shared with many thousands of others.

In my work with ADL’s Center for Technology and Society, I’m inspired by the spirit of the young people I’ve worked with in Chicago and look forward to continuing to find ways to use technology to help showcase positive attributes of communities everywhere.

[1] Pascale, C. Social Inequality and the Politics of Representation (Sage, 2013)