Community Is Critical Too

Leveraging community to broaden the faces, places, and interlaces of computing.

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Computing is very personal for me: It is the field that allows me to integrate my passion for math, teaching, and algorithmic thinking. My computing degrees set me on a career path to a job I look forward to every morning. However, my journey in computer science (CS) has also included deeply personal challenges and barriers all too common in the experience of Black women like myself pursuing computing degrees. In fact, recent research has brought a critical light to gendered racism experienced specifically by Black women in CS, inequitable and oppressive cultures in many CS degree programs and work environments, and less direct but equally oppressive issues of class and socioeconomic status (SES) inequities that disproportionately affect Black students.1,46

In this Communications Education column, I reflect on my own experiences as a Black woman who has and continues to navigate the field of CS from CS undergraduate and Ph.D. programs to my current position as an associate professor in Information Sciences at an R1 (very high research activity) institution. I specifically highlight a critical factor in helping students of color navigate the field of computing in light of systemic barriers that have persisted in computing. Throughout my experiences, my community outside of computing has held (and continues to hold) me up in critical ways when I needed strength, mentorship, and support I did not always receive within computing. My message to the CS community is one that many CS faculty are not attuned to: Community is critical too. Beyond content learning, we must nurture the community needed to support all learners in CS. My early experiences in CS and STEM shape my research, which is focused on designing community-based technologies and learning experiences to help young people from minoritized, resource-constrained communities see STEM learning and engagement as relevant to their everyday lives. My personal experiences have revealed to me the ways supportive communities can be fostered for learners through broadening the faces (what computing is construed to look like for young learners), places (where computing is thought to happen), and interlaces (connections between faces and places) of computing.

The Faces of Computing

My first exposure to computing was as a middle school student participating in a four-week summer camp at Bennett College, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Greensboro, NC. The first face I encountered in CS at Bennett was in a lecture hall with a good-hearted, but monotoned, Black female professor. I found this initial face of computing to be somewhat boring. I slept through the class and did not end up passing the class. The second year I attended the camp, I took the same class with the same professor, but something clicked for me. The professor showed us how to do if-then statements. I thought, “If I can program an if-then statement, then I could write programs for my friends!” All of a sudden, computing had a new, much more engaging face for me. I took my friends to the computer lab after dinner and had them try my programs. That year, I passed the class.

I have seen the power of broadening the face of computing in my own research. For example, in our BodyVis project3 we designed e-textiles, large display systems, and wearable sensors to sense and visualize elementary school children’s heart and breathing rates in real time. Learners then used these tools in classrooms to ask their own investigative questions about their body and organ functions. Children as young as first grade asked questions about how everyday activities such as exercising, watching scary movies, and eating candy affect their heart and breathing rates. These broadened faces of computing help youth find and create their own images of computing. Such community experiences that facilitate novel faces of computing are imperative for enabling learners to bring in their own forms and contexts for computing. Learners’ engagement may not look like traditional computing experiences, but we must identify, support, and build on these new faces of computing.

The Places of Computing

When I entered NC State University as a freshman applied math major, everyone talked about the infamously difficult introduction to programming class required for the major. Even though I had some programming experience from my time at Bennett, I was scared when I signed up for the course. I quickly observed the warnings were not an exaggeration. Late one night, I was in the computer lab of a neighboring residence hall, worried about my programming assignment that was not working properly, but I was determined to fix the bugs that night. All of a sudden, I saw a little piece of paper whiz by on the desk. I looked up and my roommate, a sociology major, had ventured to the computer lab with a handmade card, saying, “When you get carpal tunnel syndrome, and your fingers freeze up, and you can’t see straight … ” and opening the inside, the sentence completed with, “COME HOME” with signatures from all eight of my suitemates! I cried at that moment. I ended up fixing those bugs the next day and getting an A in the class. I decided I liked the adventure of programming and changed my major to CS after that.

I share that story to note where computing learning was happening and what type of support was required in that space. This pivotal moment happened in a residence hall, not the classroom. At that time, and in many others throughout my undergraduate experience, the support I needed was not around the content; I had the algorithm. I needed emotional support and encouragement to press through (and take a break from) identifying those minute syntax errors that were driving me crazy against a tight deadline. There were many more times like this in the computer lab, our residence hall, the dining hall, and the gym where my core group of friends provided this type of support, which was so critical to my CS education. Yet, many times when we think of computing education, our emphasis focuses solely on formal classrooms or lecture halls.

In my research, I am currently exploring the ways that athletics—one community not often associated with computing—involves a complex set of data science practices deeply integrated in the relationships and experiences of athletes, coaches, and staff. Our findings echo the potential of expanding traditional notions of where computing happens to recognize and leverage community contexts (including residence halls and sports) that can support students of color in computing. Broadening the places in which computing education happens and the spaces that serve as the backdrop for such learning is thus a critical component of community approaches to supporting students of color in CS. Beyond the classroom, we must develop restorative spaces and help students build relationships with faculty, industry professionals, and especially one another. They need consistent positive interactions, conversations, and community builders. This is especially critical for students from underrepresented groups, though such places can help all students in CS.

The Interlaces of Computing

While learning happened everywhere for me, when learning in these places across my communities began to connect, my potential was really drawn out. For example, one summer during my middle school years, my neighbor, a Black CS Ph.D. student at the time, tutored my friend and I in math every week. I looked forward to socializing in these sessions, but my neighbor also managed to get us focused on math. That next school year, he confidently advised our parents that my friend and I needed to be moved to the more advanced Algebra class. I was upset at first—my other friends were in the original class. But I was appeased once I realized my friend from the tutoring sessions would be attending the class too. In hindsight, that move set me up to be in the advanced classes I would need to take in high school on the way to my CS degree. For this to happen, however, my neighborhood needed to connect with the classroom, and my peer group. The adults—our parents, neighbor, and teachers—all played pivotal roles in supporting and enabling these connections.

My current research suggests experiences that connect the home, school, and community STEM-based assets in resource-constrained communities can promote community-driven STEM initiatives that engage entire neighborhoods in STEM. In the Science Everywhere project,2 we designed sociotechnical systems to help learners broaden the places in which they see STEM as relevant and important: To connect STEM learning across home, school, and community contexts. We found adult dispositions and orientations toward STEM play a pivotal role in the types of community-based experiences young people engage in. When STEM is connected to real-world, everyday concerns, such as environmental sustainability and cooking, adults throughout the community find ways they can be involved. Some with more traditional orientations to STEM expect STEM engagement to be tightly aligned with classroom norms, goals, and practices. These adults often must broaden their ideals of what STEM looks like in more playful, informal contexts driven by learners’ interests and social experiences. Others, who have traditionally been distanced from STEM,a often have challenges identifying STEM opportunities in their own everyday practices and skill sets. Through life-relevant STEM experiences (such as cooking, baking, gaming, gardening) they begin to see ways their everyday experiences and expertise can be leveraged for STEM engagement in the community.

Effective computing education takes more than one place or type of educator. Different and often unexpected people and places have important roles to play. These roles of supportive community adults, friends, neighbors, coaches, and others must be recognized and supported too.4 Computer lab support staff, strength and conditioning coaches, Inter Residence Council members, and librarians may need to see the important roles they play in supporting CS education and STEM. They may also need support recognizing and seizing new opportunities to leverage their interests, roles, and professions to support learning. Additionally, we must consider the interlaces between these people and places that can draw out learners’ potential—the librarian who observes a child’s interest in CS in a robotics club and refers them to a CS elective or the computer lab attendant who connects a struggling student with a group of lab regulars who happen to be in her class. These community members play powerful roles in spurring and sustaining learners’ CS pursuits. The early access and exposure to other successful Blacks in CS (for example, my middle school summer program teacher and my neighbor who provided tutoring) was pivotal for shaping my perspective of my own ability to succeed in CS. These seemingly small connectors can have lifelong impacts. Similar to the documented experiences of other Black women in computing,5 many of the community members who supported me were from outside of computing. This observation suggests there may be different types of community supports needed for learners from diverse backgrounds—hence a range of approaches to community building must be supported.

Concluding If-Then Statement

I would like to close with a final if-then statement. I posit from my experience and from my work, that if we start with relationships and interests in community, and let those contexts drive computing—their needs, their empowerment, their strengths and capacities, and the problems of interest—then we can facilitate sustained community-driven computing that serves and welcomes all learners. Imagine for example, students partnering with their local church for a CS class project to develop an app for managing church members or a group of high school students partnering with their athletics department to manage, analyze, and visualize team statistics for a data science project at their school. I invite the CS professionals, professors, teachers, and hobbyists to join me in this community-based approach.


    • 1. Braswell, K., Smarr, S., and Payton, J. Mirror mentoring: Black women’s experiences serving as mentors for Black girls during a virtual computer science camp. ACM Trans. on Computing Education (2023).
    • 2. Clegg, T. et al. Changing lanes: Relational dispositions that fuel community science learning. American Educational Research J. 60, 3 (2023).
    • 3. Clegg, T. et al. Live physiological sensing and visualization ecosystems: An activity theory analysis. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conf. on Human Factors in Computing Systems (May 2017).
    • 4. Erete, S. et al. Applying a transformative justice approach to encourage the participation of Black and Latina girls in computing. ACM Trans. on Computing Education (TOCE) 21, 4 (2021).
    • 5. Rankin, Y.A., Thomas, J.O., and Erete, S.  Real talk: Saturated sites of violence in CS education. In Proceedings of the 52nd ACM Technical Symp. on Computer Science Education (Mar. 2021).
    • 6. Solomon, A. et al. Not just Black and not just a woman: Black women belonging in computing. In 2018 Research on Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology (RESPECT). IEEE (Feb. 2018).
    • This has been found to often be due to dominant narratives of STEM fields that pose barriers to entry for minoritized, resource constrained communities.

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