Cultural Spotlight: Ethós Lab, a model for building inclusive futures

Photo courtesy of Ethós Labs

“Young people are communicating more as avatars than as real people, so we need to understand what that actually means,” says Anthonia Ogundele, the founder of Ethós Lab, an afterschool program for young people aged 13–18, centred around science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and creative entrepreneurship.

Ogundele used her experience and skills as a planner to create Ethós Lab, and according to their press release is the first Black-led organization in Canada to create a social VR space. It launched Feb. 28, 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Described as “Hogwarts meets Wakanda,” Ethós Lab is a centre of technological immersion that aids its members’ personal growth and development in a safe place.

“What I hear consistently is that Ethós Lab is a place I can do things I never thought I could,” says Ogundele, of the lab’s members.

One of the goals of the non-profit organization is to ensure underrepresented Black youth, as well as all youth, can enter the STEM fields with confidence. Ogundele emphasizes too, that the lab welcomes youth of all backgrounds and was built with a wholly inclusive design.

“It’s beyond STEM and technology, it’s a place for young people to be who they want to be and make the world a better place,” says Ogundele.

The new generation of the digital world

“We reached out to young people and asked them what a space like this would look like,” says Ogundele. “That really drove who we are and what we are today.”

Ogundele sees the growth of the internet as key to the increasingly digital and connected world. In addition to being a place to learn, youth at the lab say it is a place to make friends. The friendships, Ogundele has discovered, are not always conventional.

“They’re communicating with people all around the world,” she says. “Young people at Ethós Lab have best friends in Oakland and Boston.”

Ogundele sees this as evidence of how entrenched the internet is in an increasingly digitized world. Referring to the recent stock craze involving Gamestop and Reddit, she says she isn’t surprised at how technology is becoming more prevalent in daily life.

“Technology can be as simple as a fork and knife; we as humans adapt quickly to our environment,” says Ogundele, about the growth of modern technology.

She is more surprised adults believe they can hold off the growth of new digital realities. In her opinion, not keeping pace with new technology is not an option for older generations because young people are adapting at such a fast rate.

She sees this in the youth at EthósLab.

“We’re constantly building new systems of support to meet the participants where they’re at, and to further encourage their learning,” says Ogundele.

Workshops and digital avatars

As Ethós Labs’ founding anniversary approaches, COVID-19 safe, in-person workshops have become a core program. Called “The Lab,” the organization’s weekly learning workshops provide a space to learn new tech skills and explore the intersection of culture and innovation.

Another program is the “Avatar & Identity Series,” where members learn to make digital avatars for online interconnection. It is a creation process that begins by manually sketching concepts and ends with 3D modelling. Technology industry professionals are present while the lab’s members learn to make an online representation of themselves that is authentic and culturally sensitive.

“What I tell parents is that young people are communicating more as avatars than as real people, and we need to understand what that actually means,” says Ogundele.

She sees these avatars as what young people want to be when they go online and interact with others across the world. Gender and race are crucial to these online representations, and EthósLab helps participants understand the nuances of what that entails – while empowering the youth to create a representation that is the best expression of themselves.

“They’re interacting as avatars as extensions of their true selves; together, we’re trying to understand that means,” says Ogundele.

Part of EthósLabs’ mission is to find the answer to that question. In order to scale up their impact and enhance their programming, the organization has launched a fundraising campaign for Black Futures Month, which will go toward programming, operations, and a future flagship location.

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