I recently attended the second annual Journalism School Hackathon at Arizona State University. The challenge: creating solutions for underserved communities. My team created Uproot: a real-world scavenger hunt that allowed travellers to discover African-American history.

It was a noble project — and a familiar one. In my first project at the Reese News Lab, NewsLing, we attempted to create a broadcast news app for another underserved community, Latino audiences.

But there was one major difference between the team I joined to create NewsLing and my team at the Hackathon.

The NewsLing team had two members involved in the Latino community, one who was Latino. From the beginning, we had an understanding of the Latino community and its needs.

The team that created Uproot, on the other hand, included no African-American members.  We started with only second-hand knowledge of the African-American community’s information needs.

My team quickly discovered that there are particular concerns that we need to pay attention to when we try to serve communities we aren’t a part of. My group learned several lessons through the course of the Hackathon:

  1. Be conscious of stereotypes: It seems obvious. Under the time crunch of the Hackathon, however, my team’s brainstorming session turned toward stereotypes we were familiar with. Stay aware of your own thought process and push yourself to consider where you’re getting your facts.
  2. Do your secondary research: The quickest way to replace stereotypes with facts is by doing your research. Instead of assuming, say, that most African-Americans have smartphones, look it up. Eighty-one percent of African-Americans have smartphones. At this stage, resources like Nielsen and Pew Research Center are your best friends.
  3. Talk to your market: Once you know the numbers, prove them for yourself. The numbers are a statement of fact, but they’re not an explanation. Go out to understand why people do what they do — and to make sure your numbers are actually reflected in your community. When we went out into Phoenix to talk to people, we discovered that seven out of the first eight people we spoke to had smartphones. However, they mostly used their smartphones for social purchases. Few downloaded games.
  4. Be aware of larger issues: While doing our secondary research, we discovered that one of the dominant issues in the African-American community is health. For most of Saturday, we were ready to create a website to promote awareness of health issues, but we came to realize that African-American health issues were not due to a lack of awareness. Instead, they were due to the socioeconomic position of many African-American communities. To claim that we, as outsiders, needed to educate African-Americans about their own health seemed, in that context, disingenuous and condescending.

Everyone should be creating resources for minority communities. We shouldn’t leave that task to entrepreneurs in those communities alone. However, as outsiders to those communities, we have to be aware of our positions and educate ourselves.

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