LA Tech Week: Technology and Storytelling for Social Good

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

LA Tech Week: Technology and Storytelling for Social Good
Photo taken by Decerry Donato

On Monday, Los Angeles-based philanthropic organization Goldhirsh Foundation hosted the Technology and Storytelling For Social Good panel at Creative Visions studio to kick off LA Tech week.

Tara Roth, president of the foundation, moderated the panel and gathered nonprofit and tech leaders including Paul Lanctot, web developer of The Debt Collective; Alexis Cabrera, executive director of 9 Dots; Sabra Williams, co-founder of Creative Acts; and Laura Gonzalez, senior program manager of Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI).

Each of the panelists are grantees of Goldhirsh Foundation’s LA2050, an initiative launched in 2011 that is continuously trying to drive and track progress toward a shared vision for the future of Los Angeles. Goldhirsh’s vision is to make Los Angeles better for all and in order to achieve their goal, the foundation makes investments into organizations, creates partnerships and utilizes social capital through community events.

The panelists shared how the work they are doing in each of their respective sectors uses technology to solve some of society's most pressing challenges and highlight the importance of tech literacy across every community.

Using technology to solve societal challenges

The Debt Collective, a debtors’ union, helps people find easier ways to get their debts forgiven, specifically students who may find it difficult to navigate the often complicated process.

“ [The court system] is a very archaic process,” said web developer Paul Lanctot. “People with doctorate degrees would struggle to fill out some of these papers.”

By using its online toolkit platform, the company has made the process simpler, giving tenants facing eviction a chance to “update their rights and assert their defenses.” The Debt Collective has collaborated with The LA Tenants Union and The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to develop The Tenant Power Toolkit, which “allows tenants facing eviction to fill out simple yes and no questions about their situation, the eviction they're facing and it will generate the court documents for you without you having to go through that complicated process,” he said.

If you're in L.A. County, the toolkit can electronically file the documents for you. “The next step for you is just to wait to receive a mail notice of when your court date is,” Lanctot said.

Alexis Cabrera, executive director of 9 Dots, echoed Lanctot’s thoughts on the societal impact of technology. Since 2011, the South Pasadena-based nonprofit organization has dedicated itself to providing computer science education to underserved communities in Los Angeles.

“We believe that everybody can and should learn how to code,” Cabrera said. “I don't really have to tell this room but you know, technology is everywhere in our lives today.”

As millions of jobs around the world face the risk of being replaced by generative AI, Cabrera believes that an education in computer science is necessary to prepare children for the future.

“So we're doing the work to bring kids into the computer science education pipeline from a really early age while identities are being formed and before these youths are opting out of STEM or pushed out of STEM,” Cabrera said.

Creating equity through tech literacy and access

Sabra Williams, a firm believer in the right to technological access, co-founded Los Angeles-based nonprofit Creative Acts to transform urgent social justice issues through art and technology, especially by giving voice to those who are or have been incarcerated.

Through a partnership with Meta, the nonprofit has access to 20 Oculus headsets which are loaded with content from travel experiences to daily activities like pumping gas or going to a grocery store. This program aims to help incarcerated people prepare for life outside of prison.

“We got very tired of people coming home after 20 to 30 years inside and not being able to operate in a fully computerized world versus those of us on the outside who had a gradual ramp up to full computerization,” Williams said. “Without the internet, it's sometimes very difficult when you're trying to have people who are in a metal cage wearing headsets all together in a very small room, but we're doing it.”

Lanctot said he is involved with The Debt Collective for similar reasons: because he believes every student and renter should be informed about their rights.

“Even though we've made this toolkit and it’s really simple, it's still very difficult for a lot of people to fill out and a lot of people call our hotline. A lot of people need step by step support to fill out some of the questions,” he said.

While their toolkit is currently only available in English and Spanish, the team aims to soon translate their materials to 14 languages to become more accessible to tenants with less resources.

Diversity brings innovation

For Laura Gonzalez, senior program manager at LACI, it is important to have a wide range of diversity among founders within the tech ecosystem.

“We see the gender gap, the income gap in financial services,” Gonzalez said. “So, we needed a way to help entrepreneurs that come from historically marginalized communities, to help them level up a bit.”

LACI does this by giving women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color access to business resources like its Innovations & Incubation programs that help startups develop their technologies, secure funding, and receive financing as well as coaching by experienced mentors. “It is really transformative because the coaches that we have are mentors who are really good at scaling and building businesses,” she said.

Cabrera agreed and added that in order to close the gaps in equity, young people need to play a more active part in the future of technology.

“We'd like to see more kids really be the creators of these technologies instead of just the consumers,” Cabrera said. “When we get more folks with lived experiences in the decision-making room, this is what happens and these are the kind of beautiful solutions that we see.”

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