Today’s guest is the Senior Director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech and the Director of STEM Education Strategy at Google.
Hear his story when he witnessed someone with a broken arm screwed to a board to set it instead of a cast opened his perspective to the differences in economies and education, and that set him in motion to aim to make a difference where he could.
As the first generation in his family born in America, to Guyana immigrants, his work focuses on building an equitable approach to computing education as a cornerstone of modern citizenship, to support opportunities in education for all. Please welcome Kamau Bobb.
- 3.37.55 STEM Education
- 11.55.69 Igniting STEM Sparks
- 13.30.64 Reflecting
- 31.19.63 Educational Impact
- 55.21.39 Entrepreneurs’ Social Role
Learn more about this guest:
Podcast Episode Transcripts:
Disclaimer: Transcripts were generated automatically and may contain inaccuracies and errors.
Hey, Kamau Bobb, it’s a pleasure. Welcome to the Learning from Others Show. Thanks for jumping on. Indeed. Thanks for having me. Yeah. This is as we were talking before we hit record, this is a first time topic we’ve talked about on the show. And I’m excited because you have such a deep skillset and knowledge on this.
And probably even more importantly is you’re, not only do you have the knowledge behind it, but you’re hyper passionate about it. And that’s always where I find appreciation for what people do is where they make it, made it their person personal mission and have a passion behind it. So I’ll let you explain what’s your formal title and then what is the title really mean, what’s, what is it that you’re out on a mission doing?
I appreciate it. I, my formal title, I have two. I’m the senior director of the Constellations Center for Equity and Computing at Georgia Tech on the faculty there in Atlanta. And then I’m the director of STEM education Strategy at Google also based in Atlanta. The gist of what both of those things mean is that in the Atlanta context, we’re just trying to make sure that the existent population has computational skills to participate in the economy that we’re building.
And in the Google version of that some of it is a bit more self-interested because we have to have a computational workforce to push the technologies that we’re pursuing which are at the frontier. And in higher education institutions, we need to make sure that in many of them as possible, have the tools to be able to educate the students that we need, obviously, for the future workforce.
So for those of us that aren’t familiar with what STEM education means what does the acronym mean? And what is it, what does the curriculum entail? That’s a good question. So after, over the last 20 years or so, STEM is just out there in the world and people, I. Act like you can go to school and study stem, and it’s as if it’s for sale.
But it’s, it means science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. So each of those are connected to a federal set of initiatives that were born essentially out of the space race. So when President Kennedy after the Russians lost, launched, Sputnik won, that catalyzed NASA and the federal government to put a man on the moon in a decade.
And all of that is where the federal support for STEM education, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics began. And really the gist of it there was to make sure that the United States was competitive and issued of kind of leadership role in science related subjects and also the space race. And it was connected to the Cold War at the time.
So while we use it in education circles, just talking about what students need to learn and so on, it does have a very kind of foundational role in national security and national priorities. But in terms of what the curriculum means, because it’s an acronym as you point out to, there is no set curriculum.
Science is a whole bunch of different things. There’s biology, there’s chemistry, there’s computational biology, et cetera. Technology is a whole host of different things, engineering, mathematics, and the like. So there is no STEM curricula per se. So I had no idea that it went back that far to the sixties.
And so it started as a element of government institution. And then was there something definitive where it crossed over into more of the public school system? Yeah, very much and I’ll just take you just for a second, I’ll take you back one step further. So when we I. And at the end of World War ii as the United States was the only country to drop a nuclear bomb on any other nation in the world.
And that created a whole host of issues surrounding science and the utility of science in service of the national interest and war and the like. And so we have an organization in the country called the National Science Foundation, which supports basic research in a whole array of different subjects.
It’s a, it’s part of the executive branch, and it was started in 1950 called by the National Science Foundation Act. And the whole premise of it was to make sure that the United States had a capacity to support basic research to keep us at the technological frontier. And then Sputnik one was launched in 1952 if memory serves 52 or 54.
And it was shortly thereafter that this kind of federal kind of a inertia really built. To support STEM education. So you’re asking about the translation into schools so much later on, I would argue probably in the late nineties when I coincided with coming out of the recession of the eighties, we were trying to figure out, the country was trying to figure out how to get a population that could really make the country competitive and also to rebuild the economy after it’s demised in the eighties.
And so then at those days, there was a real push to get engineering into schools, into student curricula, first, robotics, those kind of programs that we often hear about. They all started from the country trying to rebuild the economy after the recession in the eighties. But the through line in STEM education dates back to the end of World War ii.
And how did you get exposed to this? My own education, so I I. So I grew up in New York. I’m a child of immigrants. My folks came from Guyana, so I’m the first born in the United States. And in from a lot of immigrant communities, the emphasis on their children is to do science related stuff.
I would argue some of it is perhaps because immigrants tend to think that the fastest way to economic sustainability and to take use and advantage of what the United States education has to offer is in STEM related fields. So I studied mechanical engineering when I left high school, but I was also a product of all these programs.
So I went, I did engineering sorry, I, I was in the robotics program at my school. I went to this summer program called Mites at M i T. So I was exposed and I was also just good in math. That was my thing. I did a lot of math in high school and the like, but some of it, I think, like I said, it’s just thinking about the immigrant experience to the country.
When you’re thinking about fields that are to some extent as, as least subjective as possible immigrants tend to want to go into those areas, which is why you find a lot of immigrants who are going into medicine and going into engineering and going to various technical fields and the like. I think some of it is generated there.
Y you had mentioned that like the US’ place in this and coming from an immigrant family, ha, what’s the comparison of STEM in the US versus other countries? Is this largely a US based platform or are other countries approaching this as well? It’s very much an international platform now, for sure.
I think if we scale back out just a bit and think about I. National development strategies. I said what I do in the current moment, but I’ve spent a lot of time, I used to be a program officer at the National Science Foundation. I used to work at a group called SS r i, the Stanford Research Institute, and there it is a center for Science Technology and Economic Development.
And what we did there was to help nations and regions develop their national science plants. And so in some cases what you’ll find is that countries are really trying to figure out a way to improve the STEM education infrastructure to support the most advantageous ways to position their economies in the global context.
So if you think, if you just think about who are the most, where are the most engineers and technologists coming from? More often than not, we’ll think of India, China, South Korea, and those countries were very intentional in setting up an educational structure to support students. Doing technical subjects for the purpose of building a robust economy in those countries.
And in some cases we’ve seen, certainly in China, we’re all running around with our heads cut off at the moment about the rise of China. And China is now the second largest economy in the world. And the reason is because a lot of it had to do with the focus that they put on education, stem education in particular.
Similarly, you’ll find a lot of for those who operate in the world that I do you’ll find a lot of departments that are in computing and engineering and computing, engineering and the like. At the most selective universities and in the most technical and in the most advanced fields like PhD and Masters and so on, in many of those schools, you’ll find that the vast majority of those students are from India, China, and South Korea.
And in some cases you’ll have very few US students who are at that level. So there are very clear national plans around STEM education in other parts of the world. So it seems like the, one of the main drivers, if not the main driver, is economic benefit. But where do you find that, like Venn diagram overlap for yourself of economic intent versus personal interests of supporting stimulation in people’s growth?
Like you’re so passionate about this topic and so I can’t imagine that the entirety of your personal mission is economic improvement. It is for maybe for your day-to-day part and that’s the part of the contribution that you make. But where do you find your overlap between your interests in stem?
That’s a good question, and you’re right. For me, there’s a, there’s an element here of justice and racial justice that’s associated with this. And I find certainly in the United States it’s of no surprise to anyone here that the race dynamics are really potent in the outcomes of everybody’s educational outcomes in several other dimensions as well.
But my interests are in education, and so one of the ways that, in my personal view is that in order for there to be a platform of justice we need to make sure that all students have access to this particular kind of education. Because in the US certainly there’s a value proposition with being associated with all of these technical issues.
So certainly for the last two decades or so, anybody who was involved in engineering, computing and the, like outside of entertainers in those, in that world, We essentially build whole cities and economies around these companies. The big tech companies right now are they’re nation states. And so for decades we were putting a value proposition on them that was outsized.
And so to some extent, for me, certainly for black and brown students in the us, they needed to be a part of that because it was not only economically beneficial, but it also positioned them and their families in a way that I think is in accordance with their value to the country and also to their communities.
And also, there’s an element here Damon as you point out that I just think about myself in this. So as I mentioned, I’m a child of immigrants. Yes. And, there’s a whole generation of America as a country of immigrants. So we’re all, we have some immigrant background somehow. Most do.
But I’m also, I just turned 50 the other day. I’m the first generation of black people in American history to be born in a theoretically free country. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the act that basically outlawed race based discrimination in the United States in 1964, and I was born in 1972.
And to that extent, the ability to participate in this line of education it connects me to a series of generations where I think because I’m the first as a responsibility to take advantage for myself, but also to advocate for other folks in this particular area that have been essentially precluded from the origin of the country.
Yeah. So how did you start to, was there a moment where you identified this was something that you’re passionate about? Because you talk about how you’re good in math and so you were exposed to it as a child through education, but when did the transition happen where you were intentional and say, I wanna be part of this?
That also is a good question. You’re clearly good at what you do. I was when I was a grad student, I went to University of California at Berkeley. And I studied experimental solid mechanics. And the lab that I was in is called the computer mechanics lab, C m L. And so what experimental solid mechanics means is that we were studying the distribution of stresses in our materials.
So at that time we were looking at hard discs like you’d find in your computer. My computers, yeah. So we were just trying to figure out, when you have the rewrite head that lands on the disc, How are the forces distributed in the discipline that dis when that head lands on it, the friction forces and the like.
In order to do some of the experimentation of that, we had to do it at night when the building itself was relatively still. That was how sensitive some of the the tools that we were using to measure these things were. Anyway, so I was involved in all of that and, you can imagine, I’m at Berkeley, I’m in grad school, I’m thinking very much of myself.
I’m smart and whatever. Everybody goes to your twenties then, right? Exactly, I’m the smartest. I’m that dude. Then I went to go visit my great aunt, my mo, my grandmother’s sister in Guyana, which is where my family is all from, and she, and I was explaining to her, what I was doing.
Like I said, I’m, I got this very smart attitude. I’m like, yo, let me just explain to you what I’m doing, blah, blah, blah. She said that’s she. And she strangely was not very impressed. And and I was surprised. I’m like, look, I’m impressed. Why are you not impressed? So she said lemme show you something.
And she took me to visit this guy who was a carpenter. So was this, did you travel to Guyana? Yeah, she was still there. Okay. So this is happening in Guyana. Okay. This is happening in Guyana. So I spent most summers of my life, I would go back to Guyana and visit my relatives. And so I was very close to this great aunt.
And like I said, I’m visiting her now in a summer while I’m in grad school. After having done all these fancy experiments, I’m explaining to her what I’m doing and she says let me show you something. So we go to visit this friend of hers who was a carpenter. And it turns out that he had fallen off a ladder and had this terrible fracture in his arm.
But the hospital in Guyana at the time, didn’t have the public hospital, didn’t have plaster to make a cast for him. And so the private hospital would only accept foreign currency, and he didn’t have any. And so what they did is they took a weight belt and built like a platform for his arm and screwed his arm into this board.
Oh, damn. It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen. And you can imagine the, in, kind of infection and so on. And so she, she didn’t make a voyeurs moment out of it. She just introduced me to him and said, this is my, great nephew. He’s in the States and he’s studying what he’s studying, et cetera.
But as we were walking away, she was saying, the problems that you’re describing you’re so excited about are totally irrelevant to us in our part of the world. And this is where you come from. And so she talked about it in a pan-African sense. I have a lot of Pan-Africanist in my family. And so her argument to me was that all this education that you have, it’s important for sure because it gives you access, but the only reason that it would be useful is if you make it relevant to the places and the people from whom you’ve come.
And so for me, that was the transformational moment about how even to think about myself in all of this and what the utility of education is in the service of justice. So then you had a sense of responsibility and you highlight that there’s two significant different circumstances in Guyon in the states.
So then how do you digest that? One was and as you point out, the sense of responsibility was heavy. i thinking about what education is for. And I think there, while I didn’t think this at the time, but I do now pretty strongly that the relationship between having. This, elite privileged education that in the US everyone is clamoring for.
We have Supreme Court cases about it, and I’m like, it’s really important I think, to think about what citizenship means. And so for me, what I took from what she said, and I, like I said, I didn’t interpret this way at the time, but what it means to me now is that the utility of education is to pursue full citizenship.
And I don’t mean citizenship in terms of getting your legal status and the like, but citizenship in that when we’re co-located in a place, we have responsibilities to each other. And so it doesn’t really matter who you are or what your circumstances may or may not be, or your backgrounds and the like, but if we’re co-residents in a particular region and we have allegiance to it, then whoever is educated.
Not educated in the we have a responsibility. And I think one of the, one of the benefits of having elite education and high-end education in specific areas is that it gives you the opportunity to be very useful. Not to say that not having it isn’t that because there are whole ways of way, a range of ways to be useful for sure.
But I think in my little educated world, because that’s where I grew up you can get a false sense of importance that because you went to some fancy school, you’re somehow more important than other people or you’re smarter than other people and what have you. And I think all of that is essentially, it’s a myth.
The thing that’s most important is that you are using your skills in service. I frame it in terms of civic responsibility, but what I got from my grand aunt my great aunt there. What you’re asking is, that’s how I make those two things fit together in my head. So when did the world of a hotshot 20 year old Kamal collide with the one that now realized that these virtuous signals of importance based on places you attend and jobs you have is a myth?
I think that’s ongoing. I I really am once, so I used to be the director of the university system of Georgia STEM Initiative. So in, in Georgia we have at the time there were 29 public higher ed institutions across the state. We serve about 330,000 students. And what the STEM initiative meant was the governor was saying to the chancellor of the university system, We need to build a STEM education work, a STEM workforce for this economy that we’re planning.
As I alluded to in the beginning, a lot of this STEM education stuff is related to economic development. So if Georgia is trying to lure electric car manufacturing to Georgia or biotech firms to Georgia or big tech firms to Georgia, the precursor to all of that is the governor will say to the chancellor, do we have a workforce to support any of this stuff that we’re trying to do?
So I was the director of this STEM initiative that was responsive to the governor’s charge at the time. So what that gave me the opportunity to do was to go across the whole state. And as I told you, I’m from New York, so I don’t really, I’m a migrant to the south and my family’s migrants to the country.
But what that made me see going the length and breadth of Georgia and I grew up in New York in the eighties, in the nineties and in the early nineties and such. So that was like the crack days in New York and all that rough and stuff’s done. Coming down here. I had never really seen like southern poverty.
I didn’t know, I didn’t know anything about it. I’d never been to the south before I came here to go to school. So I got my PhD, Georgia Tech, and I’d never been in the south before I came here in 1999. And so what the way I’m, why I’m telling you that story is that the degree to which people are excluded from opportunities not just race class classifications, but people who are just out in these rural communities that are totally forgotten.
It’s, it was astonishing to me. And so the value proposition that we typically hear, in, in urban circles is, you go to Stanford and m i t and Harvard and Yale and all these fancy schools, and somehow those kids are the most elite in the country, and they’re the smartest kids that we have and the It can’t be true that all these other kids are not as sharp as, not as bright, not as hungry as, not as ambitious as they don’t have the opportunity that they, that these other ones have.
And to me, breaking this idea to, coming back to your question, ’cause I, I fully admit I bought into it like, yo, I came from New York, I’m going to Berkeley. I’m the truth and that’s it. But had I not been born where I was to the parents for whom I was born and I was born in some place in South Georgia, which didn’t necessarily have an area code, it would’ve all been different.
But my mental acumen is the same. So some of it was just experiential. I’ll tell you a quick story about that. I went to a meeting of the State Department of Education here in Atlanta. And I was addressing Educators from around the state. And I said to them that we have two systems here. We have a system in Atlanta, and then we have another system that serves everybody else.
And one of these teachers came up afterwards and was saying that she really appreciated the fact that somebody who is a representative of the state system was acknowledging that we have two different realities, one in Atlanta and one for everybody else. And Atlanta one is the one that everyone pays attention to and nobody really pays much attention by everybody else.
What does that mean? So like Atlanta is a metro and then the rest of Georgia or yes. Thank you for making me clarify that. So we have the metro Atlanta area about half the population of Georgia lives in the metro Atlanta area. Okay. So it’s nearly 4 million people or thereabouts.
And then by everybody else, the rest of the state, which is a very agricultural state. And so in those big, in our big metro area is where a lot of the attention this focus, a lot of people think Atlanta. Georgia. Yeah, but it’s not, so we have half the population that doesn’t live in the metro area.
So what this teacher was pointing out is that those differences are very real and people in Atlanta tend to forget about everybody else. And she asked, she invited me to visit some of the schools in western Georgia right along the the Alabama border. So I went down to visit this school, and first of all, what I learned was that they don’t go to school at the time.
And this would’ve been in, in 2000 10, 11, 12 somewhere in there. They don’t go to school five days a week. And I was stunned. And I, I literally, I had no idea that there were schools in the United States that didn’t operate five days a week. And what do they do? What did you see? It was really it was crazy and it was a traumatic experience for me.
I so what I saw was they go to school on Tuesday through Friday. ’cause Friday is high school football, so you have to be open on Friday. So what ended up happening was they didn’t have enough funds to deal with the buses and the heating and the food and all that for these, for the schools to operate the whole week.
So they they added hours to each day so that they still had the full instructional allotment. ’cause their federal laws about how many hours students have to go to school and they just crammed it into four days. And I was asking a lot of questions about that, like, how are you accomplishing all the same amount of work in less days?
And they interestingly told me, you’re asking questions like a regular city boy, like you don’t really understand. How it works out here. So and so then she explained how they, just the days to, to maximize the total number of instructional hours over the course of the year. And she said, but the questions that you’re not asking are what happens on the three days when kids are not in school.
And then she said that the devil is out there. And then she started talking about the meth. This was, like I said, this is in 2010, 11 or so. So the meth epidemic that was out there. The subjugation of girls to predators, male sexual harassment and the like. And then interestingly, there’s an element here of race that I have to concede.
I, I was surprised by, ’cause when I heard that they didn’t go to school for four days a week, or sorry, five days a week, and that it was out in this western Georgia community, I assumed that these kids were black, but they weren’t. So this was an all white school. Interestingly the the mascot of the school was a Confederate soldier.
Wow. Which I also thought was crazy. But she was telling me this story of this kind of rural poverty that I had never seen. So she was explaining all that to me while we were in the school and the concerns that they have about the students, they even organize food packages for them over the weekends.
’cause they’re three day weekends every week. So I asked is there some stigma associated with that? And she said that we were concerned about that, but so many of the kids need it, that it’s not stigmatized, it’s normalized. And then the other was, this is the part that I found gripping was after she had explained all of those things, she took me on tour of the vicinity.
And so we’re going out to the end of these roads, into trailer park homes and like the road ends and then it’s not paved. And then there a couple trailer parks in the back. And these, just deplorable conditions that these kids are living in. And when you think about that kind of American story, it’s typically about cities and how city kids do what they do and what have you.
And that part of the story is often untold. So I, coming back to your point, like what is it that makes this personal? I think, the absence of opportunity is extreme. It’s compounded by race dynamics in the country, of course. But my central thesis is that all this STEM education stuff that we do, a lot of it is oriented towards personal wealth.
Like we just. Everybody just wants to be rich. And I see it in the students that we interact with. Like their orientation is, how do I get a job? So I wanna study this so I can do this and get paid this. And that’s, I’m not being overly critical of them, but what I’m beginning to feel in terms of, breaking my own tie to my 20 year old self is, I guess just an increasing sensitivity to people suffering.
There’s just a lot of it and I’m seeing more of it. So perhaps that’s sobering me and breaking me of my own kind of egocentric ways. Yeah. Do you feel like you’re making an impact? Oh man. You’re getting into some hard questions here. That’s not to say that there’s always, there’s always more to do, but do you feel like you’ve started.
I am trying my best. I think in limited measure, the things that we’re doing at Georgia Tech are pretty impactful. We’ve built an AP computing infrastructure for the majority of Atlanta public schools. I think that matters. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of students go through that process in the Google world, I think that some of the impacts are in, in elevating the importance of this kind of education for modern survival.
And I think to that extent we’re making an impact. The part where I’m struggling, to be honest with you Damon, is the team that I’m on, and team in the biggest possible way the team that’s concerned about racial justice the kind of identity of people and making sure that people feel heard and honored regardless of their orientation or where they may or may not be on the gender spectrum.
If I just make that a team for crudeness sake, it feels like the other team is doing big, enormous things where we have laws that are being passed to ban the kind of books that people read. We have laws that are banning women’s ability to choose their own health determination. In Georgia, we also have increasing encroachment on university faculty and their tenure and what they can and can’t study.
We have the Professional Standards Commission, which is an organization in Georgia that determines how education is played in the teacher professional colleges across the state. And they just passed with unanimous consent rule banning the inclusion of diversity, equity, and inclusion in any preparatory materials for emerging teachers.
Then we just had this the US Supreme Court passed overruled the use of consideration of race in front in, in higher education admissions, and each of those, there are a ton of arguments about each of those things. But the point that I’m making here is that those are enormous things.
The overturn, the Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, that’s an enormous counter step in my view of progress that we’ve made. Similarly with affirmative action, the crude determinate of the crude assessment of affirmative action, is it, it lets black people in who are not qualified and it’s stealing the seats from white kids and Asian kids and the like.
I think that’s crude. I think, as I pointed out, I’m the first generation of black people in American history ever to exist in the free country. For me, ever since its founding, Yeah. And so to turn around and say that somehow I’m stealing people’s seats is crazy. But to your question about whether I’m being effective, I think in a limited measure that I can be, I’m just one person as you are, and we’re trying our best to do the things that we do.
But I think the thing that’s missing is it, our team coming back to my original insertion, we’re not Grant, we’re not doing big things. This other team, they’re doing enormous things. When, the idea that you can, what we’re forcing trans fam the families of trans kids to do it’s brutalizing those kids.
And I think when you mandate through legislation to do that kind of stuff, that team is being very effective, incredibly effective. And I don’t think our team is matching them toe to toe. Is there a point in your involvement in this where you noticed that your interest in inclusion went beyond race?
Oh, it’s always been on race. I come from a family of like I said, pan-Africanist. My, my father in particular was heavily involved in Guyanese independence. So we got independence from Great Britain in 1966. And associated with that was the idea, not only of bucking colonial weight on us, but was trying to also buck the idea of white supremacy, which is the underlying theology of what colonialism is.
So that was all in my household. It was part of how I grew up. As you and I have discussed before, when we came I mean I was born here, but when I was a child, they had all these shows that my. The parents wouldn’t let me watch. So Tarzan good times Sanford and Son, and my dad’s philosophy was basically those shows they make they’re helping to indoctrinate a smallness of the black mike that we’re not fully autonomous intellectual beings that have control over not only our bodies and our state, but over our surroundings as well.
And he was saying that those are just comical, gimmicky ways to get it into our heads as a tool of control. So he banned me from watching any of those things. But of course, these kids at my school were watching them and I couldn’t talk about it ’cause I didn’t know. So at one point he came home and he caught me watching Tarzan and he literally threw the TV out, but he just threw it out the window.
And so the race part of it has always been there in New York in the eighties. It was fraught with race. You probably know about the Central Park five which those were five black guys in New York who were accused of raping a white woman. And Donald Trump, in fact, helped instigate the flames to try.
He wanted to get them killed through the death penalty, but they were kids. But Ava DeVarney has done a whole documentary about them. So none of them were involved in any of this, but what that catalyzed at the time was the police. So Trump and Giuliani were in kind of cohorts in New York at the time when I was growing up.
And I can’t be convinced by anybody that they’re not racist men. ’cause I was subject to what they unleashed the systems to do. And so when those guys were fueling the fires of trying to make it sound like young black boys or criminals and hunters and wilding and wolf packs, they use all of this pejorative terminology, and they were putting it out in the New York Post and the Daily news and the like. And what that did was it caused not only the police to come after us, but the education was coming after us too. And so when you show up in these classes, you’re constantly being put into the lower level classes.
So if you misbehave, suspend you immediately the police were on site, et cetera, et cetera. And those are things that I could see myself, I experienced it myself. So I could frame a lot of what I’m doing now in the race dynamics. Not only because of my own experience, but also because of the kinds of things that I was reading.
Like I said I was a part not only in my own ho household, but the community that I grew up in. There was a lot of Caribbean people a lot of African immigrants and such. And then we had a number of friends who were kind of soldiers coming out of the south who had relocated to New York.
And this group that I was a part of, not an official group, just my growing up group we were forced to read a lot about the history of the United States, the way that we interact with other countries the American history itself. And then because in Ghana the idea of Pan-Africanism is connected to independence all across Africa.
So when the Ghanaians were going through independence with with Kwame and Kruma then we had in Kenya, Jomo Kenyata and the ma rebellion and so on. So we had to read about all those things. And so there was always this subtext of trying to balance the racial dynamic against whatever it is that I could do.
Because I ended up doing engineering and education, I. My larger context never left, which is how those two things interact for me. Are those the events you just mentioned, are those moments of civil unrest in those areas? Yeah, very much in, in Kenya in particular, so my name for example, Kamau is a Kaku name.
It’s a Kenyan name. And some of it was because I think my family was impressed by the Kenyan movement for independence. So the Ma Mao Rebellion was a literal rebellion in the fifties. And it was the Kenyans essentially revolting against the British over their dominion. And so it led to what these ma Mao guys were doing was that you would have these British families who had, hectic of land and farms and the like.
And then the Kenyan population was allocated very small resources and living in kind of, Bantu, like shelters and things like that. And so they objected. So these ma Mao guys would go out and they started violently killing people. But what ended up happening was that the British just sent in, all the troops killed thousands and thousands of cans.
In fact there are several books about it. It’s called The African Crucible. There are similar examples in the Congo when king Leopold went into the Congo and he basically killed half the population in about a decade and a half. And so in the backdrop, yes, there’s a lot of civil unrest and violence.
And part of what was happening with me is in New York because I had a lot of that context because of the way I was educated and trained to read and think about the world. I could see it in New York playing out and the way that these communities were operating. The police, the schools, the police in particular in my time, they were, I don’t wanna be crude about it, but they were crazy.
They were coming after us. I was on a track team and I went to high school in Flatbush and these cops were all over the place and they used to have to give us instructions on how to avoid them because if we were, I was a four four by one squad, so we were often running like eight or nine deep in the train, going to practice and what have you.
So when these police would see eight or nine or 10 brothers walking wherever, they would always stop you. And all of us would have to get banged up on the wall and spread eagle and all this. And we were just going to practice. So we ended up having to get a lot of instruction on how to behave so that you don’t get, so it doesn’t escalate.
And so to me, I’m experiencing that, but then I’m also thinking about historical. Evidence of things that I was reading, and it’s the same, you just see the pictures of all these Africans lined up on the wall and British soldiers behind them with their guns, and it was exactly the same. So in my personal experience, the coming back to your original question, the race part of it is, it’s always there in, in, in the way these kind of system dynamics play out.
Yeah. So thanks for the background on that. And it’s wild to hear these from your, these moments from your own eyes. What I meant by the question was in addition to race, you had talked about sexual orientation. And so at what point did you go, oh, there are other groups that are neglected as well.
I don’t think that’s ever been missing for me, but I think in recent times perhaps like anybody else, my, my immediate circles. Just didn’t include folks that I knew at least that were openly gay or openly lesbian. I certainly didn’t know as a young person, I didn’t know many trans people at least that I knew of.
But what’s gotten me very sensitive. Now, interestingly, a good friend of mine she was, I was teaching a class with her as she was coming out, and it was, we were already very close. I didn’t know she was gay. But she went, I went through the process with her and I guess like anything else, like you don’t know until, and you can’t really know certain kinds of things like that until you’re really connected to someone who’s going through whatever it is that they’re going through.
And so for her, just thinking about the layers of trauma that she was dealing with I was just hypersensitive to it and for me at least, I wasn’t overcoming a phobia. It was not like I was homophobic. And now I had this gay friend and all of a sudden I’m not, that, that wasn’t it was that.
I just didn’t really appreciate how many layers there were to what she was going through, and it made me more sensitive to it. And then now and I think it may be different if I was trying to overcome a phobia, like maybe it would be more transformational or more aha or whatever. It wasn’t that I didn’t have that problem.
But I think even more importantly perhaps is that for just me who doesn’t have any particular issue to get more sensitive. And so the thing that’s right now, the thing that I really am, I don’t know, I don’t, it’s some word, I don’t know if it’s upset or angry or just uncomfortable, is the way that we’re legislating.
Against people. Like we’re making rules against people who have to be subject to them because of who they are. And it’s nuts. Like the trans idea, for example. And to be honest, I have emotional I’m unsettled emotionally about what the trans persona is just for full candor. But the thing that I’m absolutely not unclear about is that these are people and to make laws about what they can and can’t do and the way they operate in public and banning drag and doing all these crazy things, it sets up an, it’s an invitation to violence against these particular people.
And I can’t, there’s nothing in me that supports that. I just, it doesn’t matter whether it’s an issue of race or not. These are people, Yeah, and I think that part of it, I’m becoming increasingly not just sensitive, but enraged by, because anybody could be on that list, whatever this thing is that you are, we can start making laws against it and then turn the public in this environment that we’re in.
It just takes anything to catalyze the public to go after people with violence. And I think, I just think that is part of, it’s related to the question that you asked before about whether I think I’m being effective and I don’t think our team is being effective because we’re operating in environments where I, in an environment where I think that team is winning.
When you talk about these theoretical teams, you talk about these massive decisions like all the way up to the Supreme Court level, and then you had earlier mentioned initiatives where, The governor talks to the Chancellor and more on these smaller ecosystems. Can you give some sort of context to like how long the initiatives that you are involved in it seems like Supreme Court decisions are happening at a more rapid pace than you would think historically unfold.
And so if we use that as, variable A and then variable B is the initiatives that you’re involved in, like what type of timeline are we comparing for things to get completed? That’s a good question. I think to some extent it depends. It depends on what, what the issue are. But let’s, so since we raised this issue about affirmative action the case that catalyzed the affirmative action talk in the first place was in 1978.
It was Backie versus the University of California. I think it was Davis and I may be mis misspeaking here, but it was a University of California school. I think he wanted to get into the med school and he felt that there was a quota system and he was being denied a seat. He was white being denied a seat because of his color.
But that was 1978. In 1978, I was six years old. And so now if we’re thinking about the timeline that you’re alluding to, so all these years, from 78 till now we have been operating under the assertion that the consideration of race and higher education is admissible for two reasons. The primary reason that the Supreme Court offers is because diversity is important for education for all students in the service of the United States.
’cause we’re one of the most diverse countries in the world. And the diverse education for all the reasons that we’ve heard a million times, that was the central thesis of that case. What they banned was the utility of quotas to say 16% of the students will be X race and Y race and what have you.
And I agree that the quota idea isn’t a good one, but to your question, so we’ve been operating under that for about 50 years and now it’s gone. And the presumption is that it reason that it was needed to be an issue in the first place has also disappeared. That is crazy, that somehow miraculously the United States is this meritocratic PR place and everyone can climb up on their bootstraps and its equal opportunity that has no tie to race.
That’s a, it’s a total fallacy. It’s totally imaginary and everybody knows it. And so to me, in terms of timeline, so I’m operating here, for example, we’re trying to build a computing education infrastructure for students who are in high school right now. So they’re 16 years old, 17 years old and alike.
I don’t know what the impacts of this Supreme Court decision will have on them immediately because they’re gonna be going to school in the next two or three years. But what I do know is that in computing, for example and I let me back up. So I studied engineering and the largest percentage of black students in America ever to get undergraduate degrees in engineering.
It all happened between 1988 and 1992. It was never greater before or since. Not numerically, but by proportion. So what that means is we came out of this end of civil rights. We had this kind of crescendo moment where everyone was trying to be progressive and get the country back together after all of the unsettled times of the late sixties, after Martin Luther King’s assassination and so on.
And then all these programs listeners might not know about the National Society of Black Engineers. In Rhodes there, there were a ton of the National Action Committee for minorities in engineering. All these programs began to get black students into engineering. And it was successful as evidenced by that period of time, as I’m alluding to between 1988 and 1992.
Now it’s all been dismantled at Berkeley where I went in their Department of Computer Science. Over the last seven years, they haven’t had a whole percent of black students graduate at all, and in some years they haven’t had any. And somewhere around 2000 1, 2, 3, I won’t get the year specifically they had a year where they hadn’t had any black freshmen in the College of Engineering at all. And that was the first time that had been true if memory serves since 1967 or something like that. So when you’re asking about these timeframes, We might think about, the heyday of civil rights as ancient history, but it’s essentially right before my lifetime.
And the consequences of it are being played out right now because we have Berkeley with 0% of Bs, ms, and PhDs getting degrees in computer science. And you didn’t ask this question, but the significance of that, for example, is as we’re going into this ai, we haven’t had any discussion yet about AI and so on and so forth.
But as we’re going into that world where we’re thinking about artificial intelligence and generative artificial intelligence and general intelligence period, and all of that the academic institutions that are at the forefront of all of that technology are the most elite technical institutions.
That would be Berkeley, Stanford, m i t, Carnegie Mellon, U s C, the schools that you’d expect. And it may or may not be, regardless of what I was saying before about the merit of students the reality is that the most kind of frontier pushing education in those fields is happening at those schools, and those are the very schools that have virtually no black and Latinx students.
So when you’re asking about the timeframe, we’re working on secondary school students now who are trying to orient themselves. But the decision in 78 for bci, for the consideration of race and higher education, what it did was it allowed for students to get in to be in college in the eighties and nineties.
So that decision basically took about a decade and a half to be realized. And so now what’s gonna happen as of 2023, what we’ll find is increasingly California had an anti was Proposition 2 0 9. That happened in 1990. 4, 5, 6, somewhere in that neighborhood. And what that did was ban the consideration of race in higher ed in California.
And then what we found was the results that I’m alluding to where over the last seven years after it took about a decade, and then all the black students disappeared from the primary university system schools, U C L A and Berkeley. It takes about a decade, and now there are virtually no black students at Berkeley at all.
And so what we’ll find now is that the hammer has been dropped from the federal constitutional level to say that no institutions of higher education in the United States at all can use race as a consideration of enrollment. So what you’ll find is that the most selective schools are really gonna struggle, and it’s gonna take about a decade, and then we’re gonna see those numbers drop even further.
You bring up on the topic of AI and I wanna be sensitive of your time. One of the last things I wanted to ask about was with this listening audience, largely being entrepreneurs, what could you advise to this audience, how they can tie this into their world and what’s the impact on them and how they can integrate or consider these things?
And you don’t have to only speak on ai, but with this audience and my background largely being ss e o and internet marketing, and there’s a big use of AI in that field. What’s the consideration at hand where we’ve talked about a lot of this is economic driven. A lot of these listeners are entrepreneurs, so it makes sense to marry those two topics of, why should they integrate the, these type of considerations and what are the opportunities for them.
On the considerations part of it, I think we all have a responsibility to be considerate of the dynamics of the country. As I was alluding to before, I think we have a civic responsibility to make sure that our entrepreneurial efforts, whatever they may be, are somehow contributing to the betterment of the society itself.
And I think the kind of pure profit driven world, like it’s, it doesn’t lead anywhere good. And so to some extent, I think there’s this kind of a, a civic code that needs to be embedded in what we do, all of us, whether we’re entrepreneurs or not. But then I guess more concretely in thinking about this landscape we have now, and I think entrepreneurs are really, and to be clear, I’m not one I have a regular job.
I’m on the faculty and I go to work and somebody tells ’em what to do. But I think I do think though that entrepreneurs serve this Almost pioneering role for the country where, you all don’t adhere to rules, so you forge ideas in nooks and crannies that other people don’t see.
And so there, I think the relationship between that kind of cavalier, innovative, no rules, no boundaries view of the world, the way that relates to the education stuff that I’m talking about is one, being open to the source of expertise and skills. It doesn’t, it certainly just doesn’t necessarily come from these most elite places.
Notwithstanding the fact that I come from one, that’s not where skills necessarily are. And so then I think that engaging with people who may not come from these fancy schools but have the kind of creative juice and proposition of the world that aligns with whatever the entrepreneurial endeavor may be is important.
But I do think that the other part of this that is a bit challenging now is the infusion of ai. It’s real. We haven’t talked about it, but the significance of where this technical frontier is, I don’t think can be overstated in any way. And so in any entrepreneurial endeavor, there’s gonna be facets of it that will be made better by the utility of artificial intelligent tools.
Regardless. So having the creativity to identify what those things are and incorporating into teams, people who have the ability to make that clear for whatever the business proposition is, I think is gonna be increasingly important. And the way that the language here, if you’re you and your listeners or entrepreneurs, so you’re more fluent in this language than I am, but I think some of the distinctions will be that, some of the popular fear is that AI is gonna wipe out whole occupational sections and make people irrelevant in certain job classifications and the like.
I think some of that is true. I don’t think it’s as extreme as people make it sound, but the distinction will be though, between those companies and people that can use these skills to enhance their abilities versus those who can’t. And so in the entrepreneurial world, being like quickly creative to discern what is it that I can enhance with these tools?
To make me better able to do whatever my business goal is gonna be really important. And I think to the extent that we think about the way that the entrepreneurial world is gonna push us forward, it’s gonna be in that regard. And then, we’ll, we’re gonna start looking at these, on these entrepreneurial spaces, and the education world is gonna react and say, look, we’ve seen these businesses that are the most successful do these things, so we need to teach these kids how to do those things.
So it’s gonna be symbiotic in that way. Y you’re right. I’m on the board of advisors at a local college on their digital marketing curriculum. And that’s how those worlds operate is they tap the entrepreneurs in the community and go, what do we need to know? It is literally that.
So you nailed it. The entrepreneur world, I think, like the. Yeah, I don’t have a whole bunch of positive things to say about like those pioneers that went out to the American West and whatever. But one thing that those guys had were, those are some courageous people. So the the, if I, just to to make my point though, like the migrants, so we have, there’s a book called the Warmth of Other Sons by Isabelle Wilkerson, and it’s about the black migration out of the South after reconstruction.
And she poses it as, these are American black people coming outta slavery, but she poses it as they were migrants running away from terror. So there were refugees going into Philly, dc, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and then they went west into New Orleans, LA Compton, so that’s where all these bad people came from, just getting outta south.
The kind of white version of that story is the western migration in the century before where they were going out to the gold mines and going to lay the railroads out with the Chinese guys and all that. And to me, a little bit romantically, the entrepreneur is that guys that are just going out there, men and women who are just forging this new frontier that nobody knows whether it’s gonna work or not a lot.
They’re gonna crash and burn along the way, but then they’re gonna be successful and set up these new ecosystems and whatever. I just, I find it fascinating. I really do. Yeah. Yeah. It’s that there, I think you, I agree with the word you chose the romanticism about it is there’s certainly some blissful ignorance to the rules as an entrepreneur and what your boundaries and limitations and possibilities are.
Kamal, I appreciate you jumping on. It’s been a pleasure learning more about this. I appreciate your passion. As I, said before we hit record and we’ve chatted a few times I appreciate you bringing this to a different audience that’s not as familiar with this and helping us better understand tell our listeners as we wrap up how they can find out more about you.
First I appreciate it. Thank you very much for having me found out about me kama Bobb.com. You can look me up at Georgia Tech. There it is, Kam out. Bobb. Thanks. Appreciate you jumping out, learning further indeed. Thanks a lot