The Origins of Ethọ́s Lab
Ogundele was originally inspired by hackspaces* and creative spaces that are typically geared towards adults. As a mother of an 11-year-old daughter, Ogundele wanted to provide her child with early access to STEM fields and assessed the opportunities she had in terms of unique programming. Ogundele soon realized that there are many digital opportunities out there but there was unequal access to certain STEM fields.
“There wasn’t much for kids or teens in any cities. Some private schools are investing heavily in innovation spaces but most public schools are just barely making any progress,” explains Ogundele. “So I thought that it would be a great idea to create a space where kids can gain access to STEM exploration.”
According to Ogundele, there are deep systemic issues tied to the creation of products, policies, and services that prevent equal access to STEM fields. She says that systemic change isn’t merely about creating more programs. It’s more about providing a supportive community to make every child feel welcome and appreciated so they can take advantage of their opportunities.
Ogundele uses her 15 years of disaster planning experience and understanding of social systems to bring people together from her initiatives.
“As a mom of a Black child, creating programming or space for Black leadership would be very different. It is not simply putting it in the anti-racist policy. We have to do it because we have no choice,” says Ogundele, stressing how critical the issue is.
Launching of Ethọ́s Lab
Launched in February 2020, Vancouver-based Ethọ́s Lab is a Black-led organization and afterschool program for children between the ages of 13 to 18. Its goals are to empower Black youth, transform the community, and bring about a paradigm shift in culture by creating a more inclusive environment for Black youth to feel respected, reflected, protected, and connected. Ethọ́s Lab achieves this through project-based mentorship, programming, and events that enable participating youth to serve as creators and consumers. They also get access to:
(1) emerging technologies and access to an impassioned community of innovators
(2) skills, tools, and experiences to help them gain access to STEM fields.
Many startup tech firms are providing internships to these youth, some of whom end up applying to top-ranking universities. Ethọ́s Lab assists them in their education by teaching them how to write impressive resumes and interview successfully for various positions.
While Ethọ́s Lab’s primary objective is to increase the number of Black kids participating in STEM fields, the space is open to children from all backgrounds and ethnicities. Ogundele strongly believes that addressing racism requires going beyond the theoretical realm to a place where both non-Black and Black youth can operate in a diverse environment. A more inclusive environment can be created by addressing the issue of discrimination of Black youth in STEM fields and creating an environment around Black youth. Ethọ́s Lab is a space where kids can create their own experiences and gain enough confidence to explore their interests.
“Many young people express interest in STEM fields but don’t feel confident in their abilities, probably because they are expected to behave or act in a certain way,” reasons Ogundele. “We want to confront those social norms and provide young people with a safe space to be who they want to be, which is why Ethọ́s Lab is often described as a space with positive vibes.”
She argues that kids don’t have to feel pressured into believing that they’re passionate about STEM fields. Rather, they can choose their own path and not be judged for it Once they get to participate and do things, they can then make their mind up about pursuing something or not. Both outcomes are acceptable as long as the kids aren’t pressured into making their decisions.
Ogundele also addresses the lack of confidence among Black children. “I think most kids suffer from low confidence, but this is more pronounced in Black kids because anti-Black racism discourages advocating for oneself and encourages a lack of confidence in who they are and their abilities.” Ogundele believes that since launching Ethọ́s Lab a year ago, she’s seen a marked improvement in confidence among the kids.
Ogundele also recognizes that, although the Black experience is very different across the board, most Black people just want to feel valued and express themselves without fear of judgement. She views it as important for Black folks to see themselves as leaders so they can make a difference.
“I’m a Black person and I’m also a leader,” Ogundele states. “I want Black children to know that there are many more people like me and that Black people can also act as leaders.”
At the time of writing, Ethọ́s Lab conducts its programs over Zoom, Discord, and VR. Since Ethọ́s Lab is virtual, anyone can participate from around the world, which encourages cross-cultural interactions. As such, the kids participating in the program come from various locations. Ethọ́s Lab also has plans to scale up and connect with kids beyond Canada.
Nearly 100 households have registered, out of which 14 kids attend every week. There is a big uptick from girls as well. The current goal is to grow that number to 50 kids every week by the end of the year, and 100 kids regularly every week for next year. The kids are required to spend at least four and a half hours per week at the Lab.
Microsoft has partnered with Ethọ́s Lab, with more businesses coming on board to offer their support. Up until this point, Ethọ́s Lab has provided their service for free but there will be a membership fee going forward.
“One of the kids from our program got accepted into Harvard for computer science,” says Ogundele. “This was also very good news for another child who was doing illustrations with him at Ethọ́s Lab because he had never met a Harvard alumnus.” Many people perceive STEM fields as difficult, but according to Ogundele, that is the wrong way to approach it. She points to the case of a child who had never worked with a particular software but managed to build a 3D modelled cathedral on a flying turtle. His work was lauded by a design firm.
“What if he never had access to those tools and never learned of his interest in wanting to use this tool?” asks Ogundele.
According to testimonials from parents, the children have improved dramatically in terms of growth and interests. After the pandemic hit, Ethọ́s Lab continued to conduct its program every week, which parents appreciated.
Ethọ́s Lab’s initial challenge was to overcome society’s perception that what they offered was solely for Black youth, so getting non-Black kids and their parents to participate in the program, despite their well-intentioned support, was quite difficult.
The other challenge right now is for people to see each other’s humanity. “To them, supporting Black causes is about donating money and then hoping the problem goes away,” attests Ogundele. “In reality, anti-racism requires a collective effort from everyone and that’s why Ethọ́s Lab is doing what it can to build the community and understanding.”
Ethọ́s Lab is planning to launch a physical space sometime in September 2021. It is planned to be a hackspace with tools, a design studio, a video studio, an audio studio, 3D printers, a production space with woodworking materials and laser cutters. The firm also envisions branching out into more cities across Canada.
Ethọ́s Lab needs access to more funds to execute its plans. Ogundele suggests donating to the organization if you’re able to do so.
Ogundele also has this to say to kids, “Lean into your uniqueness because that is your superpower. Don't be afraid to be yourself, and specifically your Black self, because that is enough.”
Ogundele also believes parents have a big role to play in this. “Every parent wants their kid to be happy and healthy. At Ethọ́s Lab, the children are safe, they're learning, they're having fun, they're building confidence, and they're building leadership,” says Ogundele. “If you’re a parent or know a young person who wants to be a part of a creative community, Ethọ́s Lab provides a flexible space for your child to access great programming and support.”
And if your kid’s not that interested, that’s still okay with Ogundele.
“The most important thing is to give children the ability and tools to make their own choices.”