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How Silicon Harlem is leveling the playing field in education


Learning is one of life’s neverending pursuits. Whether we realize it or not, there is something learned every day. Learning has several mediums, two of which we are aware of: education and curiosity.

Our education is a process of facilitating learning through an organized process. It is fostered by a standardized schooling system where we interact with other learners and have lessons taught by a teacher. What we learn in school comes from a curriculum that is designed by teachers to meet certain targets. These targets are conceptualized in an exam that all learners must pass in order to move on to the next level of learning.

Our curiosity is developed through our urges to discover and investigate the universe. It is a natural feeling to explore where there is an attraction. Curiosity is how we learn without even realizing we are learning. It is the great feeder for education.

Balancing education and curiosity is no essay feat. But one venture seems to have cracked the code.

Silicon Harlem is a for-profit social venture that is committed to transforming Harlem into a technology and innovations hub. Founded by Clayton Banks and Bruce Lincoln in 2013, Silicon Harlem has set out on a mission to provide digital literacy and equity for all, starting in their own backyard.

Clayton Banks further explained to me why this is the mission,

You do need everyone, no matter what their educational levels are, no matter what job they have, no matter what entrepreneurialism efforts you’re putting out there. Everyone needs a level of data and digital literacy in order to be functioning in our economy.

Clayton is connecting education with the economy as a way to provide equity to everyone. His organization is attempting to bring to light and solve one of the larger, looming issues in today’s society: the widening gap in quality education based on socioeconomic status.

The best case study for this issue is looking at the NYC school system.

New York City is home to the largest school district in the US. It is also one of the most racially diverse places in the world. The graphic below shows the ethnic distribution of NYC.



Compiled in 2011 by the New York Times, this graphic is truly a mosaic of all cultures in the New York City (It’s based on the 2010 Census…with that being said be a great member of society and fill out the 2020 Census), The city is not only a melting pot of cultures but of various incomes as well. The graphic below (from Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York) shows the 2018 median income of families with children in each community district.


by CCC New York


When comparing the ethnic composition graphic and the median income graphic, we can see that the areas that have a low median income are upper Manhattan, the majority of the Bronx, and the middle of Brooklyn and Queens. These areas are predominantly Black, Hispanic, Caribbean, and Central/South American.

Now, how do ethnically concentrated areas with low income relate to NYC’s education system?

The answer is the lowest proficiency rates in Math and English Language Art subjects.

The charts below, provided by the NYC Department of Education, show that Black and Hispanic 3rd to 8th-grade students have an overwhelmingly low proficiency rate compared to their White and Asian peers.

2019 New York State Test Results: New York City Grades 3-8 by NYCDOE
2019 New York State Test Results: New York City Grades 3-8 by NYCDOE


A lack of income and education is a recipe for flatline mobility. This is when putting food on the table and keeping the lights on outweighs attaining good grades in school and investing in equity. How can anyone move up in society if they do not have access to higher education and economic opportunities?

Silicon Harlem is attempting to solve this very issue from the ground up. Through education and community engagement can economic opportunities present themselves. Clayton Banks believes that by tapping into the youth’s curiosity, this issue can be resolved. He states,

Education is the great equalizer. But if you don’t have that access and exposure, and a lot of schools don’t, how can you pursue your potential?

He expands off this profound question by saying

Curiosity is a crazy thing, it could be obviously filled with nothing but greatness, but it can also be fed with an option that can make you go another way. So yes, education is the great equalizer. If you give those people the assets and I suppose it was at the core of what I do, then, we are putting people in the place where they’re supposed to be to reach their potential that will solve the systemic issues that we’ve been living with all of our lives.

Silicon Harlem is the first company to establish a “Community as a Platform” (CaaP), starting in Harlem. The key to CaaP is to ensure the community can be involved in the technology and innovation planning and deployment throughout the process.

There is a growing digital divide in society. It’s the “haves and have nots”. The “haves” are up to date with current tech trends, have access to current technology and are digitally literate. The “have nots” lack digital literacy, are not up to date with current technological trends, and have little to no access to fast, reliable internet.

Silicon Harlem has partnered with several companies, non-profits, and academia to bridge this divide. One partnership that stands out centers around a first of its kind project in Harlem.

The COSMOS Project is focused on the design, development, and deployment of a next-generation wireless infrastructure to support rising technologies and applications. Clayton proudly explained the significance of such a project in Harlem,

We wanted to put up a testbed in Harlem to test 5G, small cells and other ways to have connectivity to see how it’s going to impact our city. It’s done in Harlem. This would normally happen in Midtown or Downtown. It’s never happened in Upper Manhattan so I know we’re making the difference when we can get that kind of exposure. The very first 5G resource testbed in the country is in Harlem.

5G is the latest iteration of the wireless networks and is steadily entering the mainstream market. Silicon Harlem has essentially made Harlem into a technological hub through this partnership. Companies, such as IBM, are currently running trials of their technologies on this testbed. Researchers from esteemed colleges, such as Columbia University, Rutgers, NYU, City College, and the University of Arizona, are experimenting and developing on this testbed.

The part of this is that Silicon Harlem is able to provide access not only to the testbed for the local community but the education that comes with it, too. Students and teachers that are in the square-mile testbed are given access to an educational platform and complimentary toolkit. This combination will allow students and teachers to learn basic to advanced STEM concepts and run experiments locally or on the COSMOS testbed.

Clayton expanded on what this partnership means to the community,

We have the great opportunity of our lifetime to make an infrastructure that’s going to be embedded with all of this smart technology and be equitable to everyone.

At the end of the day, Silicon Harlem is building a platform where members of the local community can access educational and economic opportunities. When there are more opportunities, there is less stress on surviving and more focus on growing. And it all starts in the classroom.

We bring young people in and we show them how to code, how to build websites how to be aware of content and creative, and I tell you… we’ve had some kids in there and they all realized, ‘Wow! You mean there’s something else besides just banging, something else besides this hollering and running around?’ “

Silicon Harlem is doing something more than supporting curiosity and providing education. They are giving hope. Hope in the form of community engagement. Hope in the form of solving problems. Hope in the form of a chance to break molds.

And they have over 400 young people in college to show for it.