Not Just Hidden Figures: Spotlight Series on Black Innovators in 2020

By: Fardowsa Ahmed (Mommy Monitor’s Youth Subcommittee)

As the 2017 biopic Hidden Figures so aptly showed, Black people — especially Black women — really are the hidden figures behind a plethora of our society’s best accomplishments — and are rarely given the acknowledgement they deserve. In this blog, we will highlight a few of the accomplishments of Black women, men, and youth in social, technological and scientific spheres. Not only because they do matter, but because we simply do not hear about them enough.

Technological Innovation: The Launch of a Youth Project & Maternity Care App

The pandemic has starkly highlighted the digital divide within our communities. While the advent of mobile phones and cellular data have improved access to the internet, research from the United States shows that individuals from black or Hispanic backgrounds have less access to desktop computers and internet connections at home. As a result, Black and brown youth struggled to have all the tools they needed for online schooling.

Enter the Hidden Genius Project, a non-profit founded by Black youth in 2012 with the purpose of creating opportunities for youth to pursue careers in technology. Throughout the summer of 2020 it has expanded its reach across three cities in California, and created a series of youth-led workshops that aimed to provide Black youth with training in leadership, computer science and business. In the words of one program alumnus, “Besides just learning how to code, you are surrounded by a community of people who want to see you succeed.”

In fall of this year, the project also created an Investment Seed Fund, with $150,000 in funding, which aims to assist aspiring young entrepreneurs as they navigate the stages of developing their own start-up. As it stands now, the project has impacted over 7000 youth — and with this new chapter, will only continue to do so. The opportunities for innovation in this space are endless; and the greatest innovations are sometimes simply those that create opportunities for individuals to innovate.

In this same vein of technological innovation, 2020 also saw the launch of the Irth app, by award-winning author, international speaker and maternal and infant health advocate Kimberly Sears Allers. Irth allows users to locate information about experiences with hospitals and physicians, by narrowing down results to show reviews from other individuals with a shared background — such as gender, race, income, and religion. Allers decided to create this app after experiencing birth trauma at a hospital, despite positive recommendations from her non-Black friends. The experience made her realize she wanted to empower Black women to be aware of racial biases healthcare providers may have, so they could ultimately choose the best fit for themselves, based on solid reviews.

When asked what the value of an app such as Irth is, Allers remarked “Irth is Birth, but we dropped the B for bias — so when bias is no longer a factor in birth experiences, then Irth will be the reality.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, she also utilized surveys to shed light on the care Black and other marginalized women were receiving during pregnancy and delivery.

Effective perinatal healthcare is not only based on reproductive care, but how you are treated every step of the way. Kimberly’s innovation stems from the recognition of the rampant disparities faced by Black women in healthcare, and allows users to choose who and where they can place their trust during one of the most special and vulnerable experiences in their lifetime.

If you are an Ontario youth aged 18–29 that is interested in pursuing social entrepreneurship, be sure to check out this platform. You can also learn more about funding available in Canada for innovative youth projects here and here.

Scientific Innovation: Improving Diversity in Medicine

Image Source: L’Oreal USA

2020 also saw growing concerns raised about the ways in which dermatology is failing people of colour, which is highlighted by the racial disparities in the diagnoses of late-stage melanoma (i.e. skin cancer), which are much more common in non-Hispanic Black patients in the United States than non-Hispanic white patients. In fact, when 52 percent of Black skin cancer patients are first diagnosed with skin cancer, they are informed it is already at a terminal stage, compared to only 16 percent of white patients who receive an initial diagnosis of advanced skin cancer. But why is this the case? Surprisingly, the fault may lie with the medical textbooks used to depict skin conditions.

One study found that less than 5 % of photos represented in medical textbooks featured dark skin, while conditions affecting patients with light skin tones were represented in 75% of images, creating a white-skin bias. Furthermore, the six most common cancers affecting people of color are entirely underrepresented in medical textbooks. This means that doctors in training are inadequately prepared to look for and diagnose these conditions in people of color.

During the course of his studies, Malonde Makwende, a medical student studying in London, England became increasingly aware of this disparity. He noted that the skin is normally used as a basic indicator of certain medical conditions — for instance, pale skin and blue lips are recognized as a sign that a COVID-19 patient is having difficulty transporting oxygen in the bloodstream, but this diagnostic tool would only be useful when treating a white patient. A healthcare provider would have to find other indicators when evaluating a Black patient for COVID-19. The lack of information and knowledge on how to approach treatment of a Black patient, as compared to a white patient, can cause misdiagnoses that prove to be fatal.

Image Source: Brian Stauffer

Makwende partnered with Dr. Turner and Dr. Tamony, two professors at his medical school to create a guidebook Mind the Gap that would serve to help fill in the lack of medical knowledge on clinical diagnoses of medical conditions in Black and Brown patients. Not only will this guidebook aid clinicians in treating their patients by providing more accurate diagnoses, but it will help improve the relationship that Black and Brown patients have with their healthcare providers. Black patients not only suffer from inequities in healthcare, but they also have a lack of trust in their healthcare providers due to long-standing misdiagnoses, and often feel their health concerns are not treated with the gravity they deserve. The guidebook will quite literally mind the gap between patient and healthcare provider, creating space for diversity and equity for all in our healthcare system.

Malonde Makwende has created space for greater prognosis and treatment of Blacks in medicine — and from this step, we can forge a path that is inclusive to anyone accessing healthcare. You can learn more about Malonde’s research here.

Social Innovation: Challenging Climate Change

Image Source: Associated Press

Let’s face it: 2020 was a year full of social events that forced us all to take stock of where we stand as a collective, beginning with the Australian Bushfires that caused the displacement of thousands of people, and the murder of an estimated one billion animals, as well as the ongoing (and seemingly endless) COVID-19 pandemic. In the spring, we saw reports of Asian Giant Hornet bees that could murder by a single sting, and were heartbroken by news of the murder of George Floyd and countless other innocent and unarmed black men and women by police, which was strongly protested by members of the Black Lives Matter movement. We have since had wildfires again, this time in California; and increasing COVID-19 cases that led to quarantine orders again as the year drew to a close. Even if you wanted to be neutral — or apathetic — about the state of the world, this year would have made that next to impossible.

One key takeaway from the social events of this year is that social innovation matters now more than ever. Social innovation is defined as: “the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress.” Outside of the factors beyond our control, if we examine the social events of this year, a common thread emerges: that two of the most pressing factors affecting our social climate right now are climate change and racism. We’ll put the spotlight for this year on activist and Marine Biologist Dr. Ayana Johnson, who has dedicated her time to fighting both, and was recently declared among “the most influential marine biologists of our time” and as one of 27 women leading the fight against climate change in 2020.

Dr. Ayana Johnson is the founder of Urban Ocean lab, which aims to restore the ocean and adapt to climate for the future of coastal cities. She is also the CEO and founder of Ocean Collectiv, which provides solutions for improving the sustainability of oceans, and co-authored the Blue New Deal, which created a road map to a blue economy. Since 8 out the 10 largest cities in the world are located near coastal waters, the Blue New Deal mandate outlines that it makes sense to shift to a Blue Economy, where there is a focus on economic activities that benefit communities and businesses dependent on the ocean for their livelihood and health. This ultimately results in new opportunities for communities of color, who often face the effects of climate change and pollution.

Image Source: Getty Images

As an activist, Dr. Ayana has focused her attention on the ways that racism and climate change intersect, which ultimately impacts Black and Brown individuals more than any other group. In one such call to action, she noted that people of color disproportionately experience the impacts of climate change, which goes as far as being linked to the current high rates of COVID-19 infection among Black people during the pandemic. Since fossil fuel plants and toxic waste from industries are disproportionately placed in Black communities, this creates poor air quality. Early studies across the world have already shown that poor air quality damages the heart and lungs; this in turn increases the risk of COVID-19. This year, her activism calling for environmental racism to be addressed during the Black Lives Matter protests newly positioned her as a leader within the environmental movement.

Ultimately, Dr. Ayana’s advocacy for the planet and for people carries the message that justice for people of color and justice for the environment are intersectional, and one issue is inextricable from the other. Only by addressing both, alongside each other, can we hope to address two of the most pressing problems in our society today.

You can learn more about Dr. Ayana’s work through a recent interview she did with Vogue, and you can hear her discuss the different ways that people can get involved in environmental justice in their communities via the How to Save a Planet podcast. You can also read more on environmental justice here, here, and here.

Overall, while these are only a small sample of the transformative projects completed by Black innovators in 2020, we hope these stories inspire you and show the ways in which innovations can truly create lasting and positive changes in our society!