How One Woman Has Been Working To Create Social Change Through Tech For Two Decades–And Why She Has much More Planned

February 21, 2018  |  

(Photo: Urban Tech)

Patricia Bransford has spent most of her life trying to encourage young people of color to enter the tech world. In fact, it was more than two decades ago that she created a non-profit called the National Urban Technology Center (Urban Tech) in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NY. Since then Urban Tech has expanded across the nation, with the goal of empowering young people in urban communities with self-awareness and education of core life skills.

Urban Tech is a social enterprise with the goal of changing the game in education through digital storytelling, critical thinking, and social emotional learning. And it’s not just about tech—it’s about life. Urban Tech works to help students improve their social skills, emotional and physical health, digital literacy, financial education, and a host of other subjects.

And the program starts early, for children K-12. To date, Urban Tech has worked with more than a million children across 40 states. The organization’s programs have been in more than 700 schools and community-based organizations–including more than 100 New York City public schools and afterschool programs.

Continuing on her quest to promote social change and wellbeing, Bransford and her daughter created a new bullying prevention and safety course called, “Dignity for All.” The program is interactive, has digital and off-line components, offering students workbooks, and uses storytelling, role-playing, and popular culture to promote anti-bullying behavior.

Bransford, herself, has been a pioneer in the tech world. Her career includes 25 years at IBM in executive level positions, including directing IBM’s $100 million business with New York City. Here Bransford shared with us why her organization still has a lot of work to do.

MadameNoire (MN): Do you feel the tech industry has made significant strides as far as diversity?

Pat Bransford (PB): Over the last 25 years, there have been enormous strides made to close the digital divide and increase employability in diverse communities in computer-related fields. However, students in underserved communities are still suffering from lack of opportunity.

MN: What would you still like to see be done?

PB: We are now worried about the impact of technology and social media on today’s youth, specifically regarding bullying. Data shows that the use of social media is growing exponentially and penetrating the lives of younger and younger children, causing both short-term and long-term health and wellness problems. We hope to find a way to work together to reverse the harm that is causing increases in depression, social isolation, and bullying among our children.

MN: What prompted you to start your own non-profit nearly two decades ago?

PB: For 25 years, I worked at IBM in various executive-level positions, leading innovation in technology-based solutions for government and education agencies. I left the corporate world because I saw a strong need for this kind of program. While working in tech, I was stunned by how unprepared our youth was. Young adults who were just entering the workforce, particularly in tech roles, were not as prepared as they should be.

According to a study in 2013 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), youth and adults in the United States are far behind in proficiency areas such as literacy, mathematics, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. The study found that among 16-24-year-olds in 20 countries, the U.S. ranked second to last in average literacy rates and last in average proficiency in basic mathematics.

Globalization and advancements in technology have increased the capacity of our educational systems to prepare youth and adults for success in school, career, and life, yet we still see a gap. High school and university dropout rates continue to soar and the divide between the “haves” and “have nots” continues to expand. I wanted to change that and decided that it was finally time for me to take a stand.

MN: How much of a difference do you feel your organization has made?

PB: For more than two decades, Urban Tech has created intensive education curricula that empower young people in urban communities with self-awareness and education on core life skills and has served over a million children across 50 states! That is something I am very proud of.

Our programs have been in more than 750 schools and community-based organizations–including more than 100 New York City public schools and afterschool programs. Our courses include personal finance, conflict resolution, healthy living, substance abuse and STD prevention, and bullying prevention.

Through our Youth Leadership Academy courses, students develop fundamental skills for life effectiveness through coaching and mentoring.

MN: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced with the org?

PB: The biggest challenge we have faced is funding, which happens to be very common with all non-profits. Urban Tech cannot run without the donations of those who believe in our mission. As a result, a majority of my daily time must go to marketing and fundraising.

MN: What are some of your goals for 2018?

PB: This year, we are focusing on rolling our Dignity For All (DFA), a three-part curriculum aimed at preventing bullying and discrimination in schools by increasing knowledge, changing attitudes and transforming the behavior of school communities, parents, and students.

The standards-based curriculum is aligned with a school’s daily instructional program to provide a comprehensive, turnkey educational program rooted in neuroscience, attachment theory, and mentalization. Using storytelling, discussion groups, journaling, role-playing and games, DFA students develop skills in empathy, mindfulness, and critical reflection to reevaluate their values and beliefs, set goals for a kinder, empathic society, and create and sustain a positive school climate. DFA is based on 15 years of research and demonstrated results in middle and high schools in social and emotional learning, improved school attendance and performance, and life management.

My ultimate goal of 2018 is to see this program implemented in schools across the nation!

MN: Why did you start the anti-bullying program?

PB: Bullying and cyberbullying are the most prevalent forms of violence in schools today, with detrimental and long-lasting effects. Results from national surveys indicate that as many as 70 percent of secondary students have witnessed bullying in their school. Among middle and high school students, 25 percent report having been the victim of cyberbullying, and 16 percent report that they have cyberbullied others, according to Cyberbullying Research Center, 2015.

Students who are bullied are more likely than their peers to experience social isolation, health problems, anxiety and depression, and to face academic challenges, such as school avoidance and lower academic achievement, studies have found.

MN: With so much bullying happening online it seems very necessary.

PB: I couldn’t agree more!

We need to educate students about what bullying is and how we can prevent it. What if students who are victims of bullying were given the chance to tell their stories in classrooms across the country? What if teachers were capable of teaching students what the issue of bullying is while providing guidance to help students gain control over distress and fear caused by bullying? What if more children and teens were willing to speak out to support their peers who feel less powerful? What if education was focused on creating safe and supportive communities?

MN: How does the anti-bullying program work?

PB: Urban Tech’s Bully Prevention Module is a whole-school approach. It emphasizes the creation of safe and reflective school climates and school-based norms that involve all students. It focuses on developing bystander and upstander interventions, empathic understanding of the triadic roles of bullies, targets, and bystanders, and learner-centered communities. It is centered on the theory that through empowering bystanders to become upstanders, 60 percent of bullying incidents can be prevented.

The module provides the activity plans, materials, and resources needed for successful implementation. Urban Tech’s design is user-friendly, with step-by-step guidance and support provided to the educator.

Students learn how bullying incidents differ from mere conflicts using Urban Tech’s patented ACID test, which identifies the four descriptors of bullying behavior: aggression, continuity, an imbalance in power, and deliberation. Students acquire skills in reflection, empathy, and self-regulation, and apply their theories to test their new learning in role-playing, group discussions, and workbook writing. They practice their critical thinking and inquiry skills by using scripts to form restorative circles and repair harm from bullying, harassment, or discrimination and improve relationships within their community.

MN: What advice would you give other women who want to start a non-profit?

PB: I would give them the same advice that I give to the kids in our program. If you have the correct tools, education, and guidance, there is no limit and no obstacle that cannot be overcome in pursuing your dreams.

MN: What would you say are the main misconceptions about working in the not-for-profit arena?

PB: That one individual person doesn’t have the power to make a big impact on other people’s lives. Anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or professional background can be a catalyst for extraordinary change.

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