From #NoTeenShame to Tech Leadership: An Interview with Natasha Vianna

Natasha

We probably don’t have to tell you that women are marginalized in tech, but in case you’re not aware of how gender plays a role in these outcomes, women only hold 25% jobs in IT, make up just 28% of those who hold a BS degree in Computer Science, and most disparaging of all, are only 5% of tech startup owners. However, there has been a large movement in the last few years addressing this issue, with organizations like Black Girls Code and Goldieblox empowering young girls to embrace roles in tech that have been traditionally male dominated.

One such prominent activist and role model is Natasha Vianna, a founding member of the award-winning social media movement #NoTeenShame, an advisor on the Think Psychiatry Adolescence Committee, and a leader at Honor, a tech startup that works to bring high-quality home healthcare to families in need.

Natasha is an example of a young leader who has used the power of tech to create social justice innovation, despite the obvious roadblocks to access that young women of color face. In honor of Women’s History Month, we spoke with her about empowering women and girls in tech, how to use tech tools for social good, and her role models who have paved the way for girls today.

YTH: You’re one of the women behind the highly successful #NoTeenShame campaign, which uses social media and tech to empower teen parents. Why do you think social justice campaigns on these platforms seem to resonate with youth?

NATASHA: Like many young people across the US, I was labeled a “hard-to-reach” and “at-risk” youth. The definitions for both labels vary but the commonality is that they don’t focus on a person’s asset. They create a false stereotype and provide many older people with an excuse. As a teenager, the only people who had a hard time reaching me were people who weren’t willing to meet me where I was. And the factors that put me “at risk” were created by systems and policies I had no part in shaping.

When I got pregnant at 17, I needed a lot of help and resources and support. I needed to feel like I was the productive member of society I was so desperately trying to be. And I wanted to feel like it was okay to ask questions or seek guidance with motherhood. But there weren’t spaces for me and the adults around me always put the burden on me to find, access and keep the help my child and I needed. When you’re a depressed teenager raising a child while balancing work, school and a negative environment, help shouldn’t make you feel worse or more overwhelmed.

So when my cofounders and I started the #NoTeenShame campaign, we sought to create a space where young parents could talk about what their lives are really like, name the things they really needed, while pushing back against the racist, sexist, and classist assumption that we are not equipped to be loving and amazing parents. We chose social media because, between the 7 of us, it was the space that helped us find each other and feel like our voices were heard without being filtered for an ulterior motive. We wanted to meet young people where they were, not where it would be most convenient for us.

YTH: It’s no secret that women and people of color are underrepresented in tech, with women of color being especially marginalized. What kinds of measures need to be implemented to create more diversity?

NATASHA: Measures are important, but they can also create a culture where people are dehumanized and reduced to numbers. And this isn’t much different that the entire destructive framing of teen pregnancy and young parenthood. When the US launched initiatives to decrease teen pregnancy, young people were reduced to numbers and young women of color were considered targets. Because the people making the decisions were not representative of the target audience and choices were made within a historically unjust system, we naturally saw negative long-term outcomes. Rarely were the voices of the community considered in the processes created by government and nonprofit agencies. There was just a promise to reduce health disparities in our communities. So we saw, and continue to see, quick fixes that can be reported as “successes!” but long-term negative outcomes, lack of trust, and feelings of manipulation. This isn’t the kind of strategy I want to see expanded into any other framework.

YTH: Do you think social media has helped women to bridge the gender gap in tech?

NATASHA: Social media has helped bridge a gap in communication, transparency, and connection but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the community did that – not the other way around. Marginalized groups adopted new technology and established innovative ways to use them to address and bridge the gaps they knew existed. As most of us know, facebook and twitter didn’t set out to create a platform for us – we reinvented its use and it continues to evolve based on how, when and why we need it.

And truthfully, my perspective is that many smaller tech companies and startups are using agencies to control their PR and social media. And because social media often gets reduced to and lumped into PR or communications, the women working in those fields aren’t often working in tech, they’re working in agencies that serve tech. There isn’t the same experience in growth and development when you’re providing a service externally, whereas being employed internally offers you the resources and growth opportunities.

YTH: How have you seen marginalized groups take matters of representation into their own hands by the power that social media and technology give them, as far as leverage? Do you think that this more universal access has “leveled the playing field” so to speak?

NATASHA: Social media offers a lot of marginalized people an opportunity to share their own powerful voices without restriction. This changes the playing field because we previously relied on public hearings, meetings, or gatherings to speak up. While important, those opportunities can often be restricting or inaccessible to people with disabilities, who feel unsafe, lack childcare, or have personal reasons for being unable to attend. And the opportunities to share your voice are often limited in time and don’t promise that every individual the chance to speak. We’ve been forced to chose leaders and representatives to speak for us, who can sometimes add their own filters and priorities into what gets said. We see this in advocacy and public policy, especially when the nonprofit industrial complex gets involved. But social media offers a space for public collaboration, organizing, movement-building, transparency, and ownership of your own thoughts and voice. It’s why I really love it!

YTH: Since March is Women’s History Month, what historical lady figure (or figures) who worked in tech do you find inspiring?

NATASHA: Truthfully, I never thought I would be in tech and struggled with imposter syndrome. I taught my daughter about women in science and encouraged her to pursue her passion for science, but I never considered the option for myself. I was disconnected from historical lady figures because of this. But today, I feel like there are so many incredible women of color in tech making history who I feel so inspired by. Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code, Melanie Araujo of Front & Center, and Laura Weidman Powers of Code2040 to name a few. I’m incredibly proud to be part of this generation, the one that will fundamentally change the future for girls like us.

YTH: If you could change one thing about inclusivity in social media or tech, what would it be and why?

NATASHA: Before I came into this space, I had many assumptions and misunderstandings about the state of inclusion in tech and I was very vocal about them. I’ll be the first to admit that my assumptions weren’t as nuanced as they needed to be and my suggestions for change were incredibly naive. What I’ve learned being inside the sector is that there are more strategic opportunities that could benefit inclusivity, but that simply creating a weekend coding class for youth wasn’t the end-all solution. Tech companies need people to do marketing, social, design, communications, finance, etc… so we should be nurturing the talent that young people already have and presenting tech as an option.

What I would change is the ways in which we talk about community. Tech companies are located in the hearts of communities that have the most incredibly talented and intelligent people and organizations. But the problem is that they’re not talking to each other enough. Tech hasn’t done a great job of being transparent and welcoming people into a room to ask questions and gain a better understanding. It’s definitely not the community’s responsibility to take part in this and the burden should never fall on community, but there’s the reality that tech has the resources and the community has the solutions, talent and creativity. So how can we do a better job of creating recurring and normalized collaborative processes for the community to be seen and treated as the experts that they are? And how can we create meaningful opportunities for young people of color who are incredibly talented?


Thanks to Natasha for sharing her inspiring words with us for Women’s History Month. Make sure to follow her on social media @NatashaVianna and to check out her work at #NoTeenShame and Honor to see even more examples of her excellence.


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