Thinking Research: Social Justice, Technology and Meaning

Thinking Research: Social Justice, Technology and Meaning

By Yethzell Diaz | April 17, 2014

First, let me be clear about something. I am not a techie. At all. The first time I interacted with a computer was probably in seventh grade. Technology stuff was completely foreign to me. My family and friends didn’t know about it. And there wasn’t someone we could turn to for guidance.


I did, however, become a student at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), majoring in sociology, and at one point I desperately needed to get into a popular class. A hundred students were competing for ten open spots. How was I going to swing it?


Social Justice and Technology Helped Me Out

I knew the course professor was involved in the Everett Program at UCSC, a group that aims to use technology to address issues of social justice. I sent him an email and told him I was interested in the program—which I was. It’s a really interesting idea. But I didn’t exactly mean I wanted to be involved in it.

He met with me and said, “OK, if you show up first thing for the class, you’ve got a space. Oh, and I’m expecting you to work with me on a youth project we’re working on. See you there.”

This was not my plan. I’d cared about social justice for a long time, but I didn’t really see the connection with technology—remember, I’m not a techie!

And then something amazing happened. I went to the first lecture and I loved what he had to say. He described the power of technology to transform communities and lives. He emphasized how important it is to create opportunities for students to learn about technology and use it to create effective, passionate solutions within their own communities. And he talked about how we must actively offer young people a vision of these possibilities, because so many have not been given the chance to imagine what they might accomplish.

And that’s what I’m working toward now.

Supporting Tech Learning for Latino Students

Research shows that parent connection is very important to Latino students. Through the Everett Program, some classmates and I joined with ETR’s Watsonville TEC, a program that empowers underserved youth by teaching computer and technology skills. We offered a computer class for parents of students involved in the program. Many of the parents were agricultural workers with limited education and, like my own family, most were not knowledgeable about technology and the opportunities it offered.

The parents generally saw computers and the Internet as a threat to their family. They worried that computer games or websites would draw children away, and that the kids would become distant and unreachable. They’d heard there were predators online who would harm their children. The parents’ main interest when they started the class was how to apply filters that would screen out dangerous content.

But, as the parents gained their own sense of mastery on the computer, their views and goals changed. They wanted to know how to help their children find the resources they needed to learn, and where to go when they wanted to help their children find answers.

This was the real-world experience that gave meaning to my studies in sociology. Up to that point, I’d felt like a starfish floating in space—not quite in my element, alone, needing something to anchor me. Sociology was just too big and too general. Pairing it with a specific area of interest was essential for me. I shifted to a dual major, combining sociology with Latin American/Latino Studies.

ETR’s Math Pathways Project

I’ve now completed my degree and am working with ETR on research to build greater knowledge about math learning within the Latino community. These students typically underperform in math. We hope our findings can help boost performance and offer more young people the chance to imagine and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

We’re actively recruiting families—mothers and fifth graders—and teachers to participate in this study, and we’re learning some helpful things about the recruitment process. How do you get people to agree to take several surveys? How do you get kids to volunteer to take extra math tests? What strategies make recruitment effective, and respectful, in the Latino community? Here are four guidelines that my colleagues and I are putting into practice in this effort.

1. Get buy-in from everyone in the school setting. It’s important for everyone, at every level, to understand and communicate the same message. We started with superintendents, then talked to principals. Principals talked to teachers. Teachers help us communicate with students and families.

These steps help eliminate some of the barriers that can arise when we’re using schools to aid in recruitment for an after-school program.
2. Incentives help at every step of the way. We’ve done a lot of work with the community to understand what kinds of incentives resonate with our participants. For example, originally we talked to focus groups of kids about gift cards to Target. That sounded OK to the students. But when we mentioned gift cards to Yogurtland, they went crazy with excitement. Yogurtland wins.
3. Opportunities to contribute to the community matter. In Latino communities, the default mindset is, “How does this affect us as a group?” not, “How do I advance myself individually?” While individual incentives are important, we always emphasize the ways participation helps build a stronger community. Parents and students know that we want to bring back information that helps schools, teachers, students and parents.

For example, we spoke with a mother the other day who said, “Well, my son isn’t very good at math. Would we still be eligible?”

“Yes,” we told her. “We need your son’s voice. He can speak for other kids who struggle with math—this is important to the study!” This sense of having a unique contribution to offer that would help others cinched the deal, and they signed up to participate.
4. Language needs to be a non-issue for participants. We do everything we can to make participation in the study barrier free for parents, whether they speak Spanish only, English only, or both. There are projects that have special meetings for Spanish-speakers or call in interpreters, but as soon as we do something like that, we create a “special case” that can be uncomfortable for families.

So, when we pass out packets on our program, the Spanish-language parent flyer is on top. Speaking Spanish isn’t viewed as secondary in any way. Having to flip over the English flyer to see the Spanish version can be subtly belittling to parents. Every event we have is equally welcoming to speakers of both languages.

It Comes Around to Meaning

Through my work at Watsonville TEC and on ETR’s research team, I’ve found a space where I’m comfortable. Like lots of other people, I enjoy doing the focus groups and talking directly with kids and parents. But I’ve also discovered that I like the research part as well—the bits and pieces we pull together for greater understanding.

You don’t often hear about the people behind the scenes who work directly with the data. I could never have guessed that this was work I’d find fulfilling. But because people who mentored me gave me an opportunity to experience putting research to work for social good, I’ve found work I love to do. Now, I want to help create those possibilities for others.

It’s powerful and moving, and it’s the place where my heart is.

Yethzell Diaz is a Research Assistant at ETR. Contact her at to learn more about the Math Pathways Project or discuss this column.

You can find out about the Everett Program at .


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