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Credit: Jordan K.

Ethọ́sLab founder Anthonia Ogundele with participants Marie (left) and Aida (right)

The Vancouver innovation academy, open to young people aged 13-18, has built a virtual community in the wake of the pandemic

When I planned to meet Anthonia Ogundele, I had no idea we’d end up flying over a place called Sushi Island. But here I am with the founder of Ethọ́s Lab, whose avatar is showing mine around Atlanthọ́s, a virtual space for youth aged 13-18 who are members of the local innovation academy.

Accessible via a portal hidden in a wall, Sushi Island is just one corner of the complex, which also includes an auditorium and an art gallery. Since the pandemic struck, Atlanthọ́s has become the main gathering place for Ethọ́s, a Vancouver nonprofit that aims to boost Black representation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) while giving all youth an opportunity to develop their talents in those fields.

“What we want to do is offer, very specifically, anti-racist space to education for the young people to be in,” says Ogundele, who describes the VR hub as Hogwarts meets Wakanda. “We are outcomes-driven in that we want to see more Black youth in STEM.” But other young people are welcome, she stresses. “We open it up because you are more likely to do things with your friends around you, and they may not necessarily be Black.”

That said, Ethọ́s is a Black-led organization. “It’s important that the Black community are leaders in what a just and inclusive future looks like, and so I think it’s important that the Black imagination is leveraged to rethink what that is,” Ogundele says. “We draw a lot from the Black speculative arts movement and Afrofuturism, in order to begin to draw out these new reimaginings of what our society can look like, as our ideas have value not just for the Black community but for reshaping the whole community.”

For Ogundele and her team, music is a key part of that cultural component. Tonight, Atlanthọ́s will host a youth celebration marking the end of Black History Month (also called Black Futures Month), featuring live performances by guests including Vancouver hip-hop artists Ndidi Cascade and Kia Kadiri.

A STEM emergency for Black youth

Ogundele founded Ethọ́s two years ago, after she became a new parent of a girl who is now 13. When she tried to find after-school programming for her daughter, it proved challenging. “I didn’t have access, in particular, to innovative STEM programs,” she recalls. “Those were reserved for enriched kids, gifted kids, or you had to be part of certain social networks, or even geographically it was really challenging to get to.”

When other parents told her that they also lacked access to convenient and flexible programming, “I said, OK, let’s see what it might look like to centralize youth activity into one particular space,” Ogundele remembers. “But when you start thinking about the endemic lack of Black youth within the STEM fields and spaces, it is what I would define as an emergency at this point in being able to get young people engaged in a meaningful way earlier on.”

Unable to find what she was looking for, Ogundele left her job as manager of business continuity, emergency preparedness and environmental sustainability with Vancouver City Savings Credit Union to start Ethọ́s. The lab, envisioned as a co-operative where youth are leaders as well as co-creators, was incubated out of Solid State Community Industries, a Surrey-based nonprofit that focuses on building youth co-ops. Through Solid State, Ethọ́s applied for Heritage Canada funding that has sustained it until now. Its other partners include Microsoft Corp., SFU, UBC, Vancity and smart cities–focused nonprofit Urbanarium.

Ethọ́s, which held what Ogundele calls an “aspirational launch” at Telus Garden in Vancouver last February, had to shelve plans for a spring break camp with 30 young people because of the pandemic. At Microsoft’s suggestion, it held a hackathon for them instead.

As it turned out, that event aligned with where Ethọ́s was headed, Ogundele says. “We asked [participants] what a digital community looks like, and what they described is doing a number of different activities in a space that is not too far off from what my path would be, but a place where they’re also able to collaborate, celebrate and create together.”

The result was Atlanthọ́s, built in partnership with local startup Active Replica, using an open-source platform for VR environments. Designs from the young people led to Sushi Island, which has a meditation space and gamer-themed room; youth also contributed the floor pattern, a watercolour painting on the gallery ceiling, and other art and design elements. “It wasn’t so much a pivot as it accelerated where we were already going to go,” Ogundele says of the digital hub.

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Credit: Anthonia Ogundele

Ethọ́s Lab participants learn about screenprinting at Blim Vancouver, an independent, family-run art and craft facility

Flipping the question around

Ethọ́s participants are mostly Black, but other groups are represented, she notes. “They’re all wanting a future that includes all kids, and are not afraid to have these uncomfortable conversations that a lot of adults and parents have around exclusion, racism, white supremacy and such.”

As for grownups, they’ve come around to Ethọ́s, with help from Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. “Before George Floyd, before the pandemic, when I told people what we were doing, there wasn’t a lot of buy-in,” Ogundele says. “I would often hear some parents say, Oh, I hear there will be a lot of Black people. Will my child be comfortable there?

“And I actually would flip that question around with, How might a Black youth feel in these current spaces that don’t include them, where they don’t see themselves in the leadership team, where they don’t see themselves as the facilitators, where there are not other peers around them?”

From May through December, Ethọ́s hosted 45 online sessions for 100 youth located everywhere from rural B.C. to California. Along the way, 77 families registered as members. Current programming includes a Tuesday virtual workshop that hosts collaborative projects where members learn technical skills and explore the intersection of culture and innovation in STEM, according to Ethọ́s. Those sessions could cover anything from artificial intelligence to video game design to social and environmental justice.

Ethọ́s, which is doing a feasibility study on opening its first flagship location in Vancouver, may also launch physical spaces in other Canadian cities. “As the pandemic restrictions loosen up, we might do a bit more in person,” Ogundele says. “But I think from an educational perspective and just the world and where we’re going, Ethọ́s Lab endeavours to be at the intersection of physical and digital realities.”

Ogundele will also soon start offering monthly subscriptions for $50 to $200, with options for low-income families. “Come June, it will be a membership that young people or families, and hopefully corporate sponsors, will be able to pay in order to ensure that we have a sustainable model to continue to deliver these programs.”

In the meantime, the nonprofit is wrapping up a February fundraising campaign that has raised $15,000 toward its $100,000 goal. That money will help “grow our community and engage different facilitators, engage different partners to continue to deliver really great programming, to not just the kids that we currently serve but to be able to scale our impact,” Ogundele says.

Time to put their money where their mouth is

What message does Ogundele have for businesses? First, she wants them to support Ethọ́s Lab after the community contributed in-kind services. “We are looking for matching grants and funds, so it’s time for businesses to put their money where their mouth is.”

Second, inclusion isn’t just about having one or two Black people in your organization or launching a couple of diversity training efforts, Ogundele observes. “What the research shows is that what really sustains and supports the Black community, whether young or old, is a supportive community that values their contributions,” she explains. “So you might have a Black individual come into an organization, and the tenure and retention isn’t the same as [with] other staff. And that oftentimes is because their voices aren’t necessarily valued and their ideas aren’t valued.”

In response, businesses should “foster that creative environment that values the voices of Black people and the Black community,” Ogundele argues. The same goes for young people from all backgrounds, who have a unique perspective on what the future will bring for the rest of us, she adds. “And so we’ve got to really start listening to them. Because they’re already there, and we’re just catching up.”