'Our history matters': Stories of iconic black women brought to the forefront thanks to groundbreaking technology

Movers and Shakers NYC is an AR nonprofit comprised of artists, activists, educators and technologists working to tell the stories of forgotten historical icons. (Photo: Verizon Media)

When Glenn Cantave sees a gap in knowledge, he doesn’t simply talk about it — he uses technology to fill it. For the activist, performance artist and social entrepreneur, this means harnessing the power of augmented reality (AR) to tell the stories of people who have been left out of the history books.

His organization, Movers and Shakers NYC, is a nonprofit comprised of artists, activists, educators and technologists who create revolutionary AR experiences to educate Americans about forgotten historical icons. Integral to the nonprofit’s success — aside from Cantave — are his two co-founders: Idris Brewster, a creative technologist, and Micah Milner, a world-renowned XR artist.

In the spirit of Cantave’s personal activism — like running the 2017 New York City Marathon in chains to raise awareness about “black and brown suffering” — Movers and Shakers’ activations are bold. Their AR monuments project, for example, created digital statues of people like Jackie Robinson and Colin Kaepernick that could be placed in public spaces, a response to the more than 1,500 confederate statues and symbols currently on display in the U.S.

Movers and Shakers NYC has been focused on education from day one. So, when the team saw that the Verizon Foundation (in partnership with Verizon 5G Labs and NYC Media Lab) was hosting a 5G EdTech Challenge, they immediately got involved. Ten teams, including Movers and Shakers, were chosen to execute their idea — which centers on how to make 5G technology “solve for student engagement, teacher preparedness and special needs support.”

Cantave’s team is made up of Brewster, who serves as chief technology officer, and Milner, who serves as chief creative officer. Their project, which will be ready to launch in 6th- to 8th-grade classrooms by Sept. 2020, is called “Unsung.” It centers on a new, multiplayer AR experience that teaches students about iconic women of color through a storytelling device called a “story box.”

A student tries out "Unsung" a multiplayer AR experience that will allow kids to learn about four female icons of color through a "digital dollhouse." (Photo: Verizon Media).

“It’s kind of like a digital dollhouse,” Cantave tells Yahoo Lifestyle of the project, which Verizon (Yahoo Lifestyle’s parent company) showcased at an event with public school kids in October. “It focuses on four female singers of color who've used their voices to fight for social change.” The multiplayer game provides passages for students to read and then prompts them to answer multiple-choice questions about the story. By selecting the correct answer, the students can then “unlock” a new room in the AR space — which includes details like the singer’s home or an iconic theater where they performed.

The list of women featured spans decades, and includes Beyoncé, Odetta Holmes, Ella Sheppard and Nina Simone. “We were very intentional in our selection of these women because there are elements of their story that align,” says Cantave. “But then there are also aspects in the unique historical times that we can branch out and write curriculum around so... it gives a fuller context of the climate of the time.”

This fuller context is something that both Cantave and Brewster say they were missing in school. “I distinctly remember in first grade that I colored Christopher Columbus’s boats the Niña, the Pinta, the Santa María, and we never talked about the Taíno slaves that were at the bottom of them,” Cantave tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “My co-founder has the same experience. As young black kids, we simply did not see ourselves represented in a positive light... so when we're shedding light on these stories we're telling not only black kids, not only Latinx kids, we're telling everybody that our history matters.”

For Brewster, who was the focus of the documentary American Promise, it’s a way to use technology to expand students’ view of the world. “Communities of color are always top-tier technology users and content producers; we are at the heart of the use of the internet. However, we are not building these technologies and platforms that we are using, generating revenue for,” says Brewster. “The first step to mitigating this gap is what we are doing right here, introducing fun and engaging ways for kids to experience learning and emerging technology. Just by having the kids interact with our Augmented Reality learning experience, it is widening their perspective on what went on in the past, as well as their outlook on what they can be in the future.”

He hopes that the story box technology will allow students to engage and learn in a similar way as they do with friends. “We take that extremely visual and interactive process and the educational and historical content that the kids need to learn, and blend them together,” says Brewster.

Cantave, who elaborated Movers and Shakers’ mission in a Ted Talk in August, is hopeful that the program will start to, as he says, “elevate the collective consciousness” of the public. “I'm talking about re-imagining a world where everyone's history matters,” he says. “A world where there's a nuanced context of everyone's history.”

The 5G EdTech Challenge was a nationwide open call to find innovative, cutting-edge, education technologies that will transform middle school education. Ten winners were awarded resources to develop their ideas to be implemented into classrooms. The first classroom pilots are arriving in Cleveland, OH and will arrive in 100 5G schools by the end of 2021.

Verizon Media is Yahoo’s parent company.

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