Niela Hampton of Afrikanections and Domonique Meeks of Hack the CD doing some innovating.
Niela Hampton of Afrikanections and Domonique Meeks of Hack the CD doing some innovating. Zithri Saleem

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Back in May, the Seattle Times published a story about the Central District with the following headline: “Historically black Central District could be less than 10% black in a decade.” For African Americans who have called the CD home for years, it’s a familiar story about the results of gentrification. “They redlined us in, now they’ve redlined us out,” as resident Rosalie Johnson put it more bluntly in the article.

This story bugged David Harris. Harris is a cofounder of Hack the CD, an organization that seeks to empower people who live in the CD through tech entrepreneurship. This weekend, the group is putting on a cultural innovation conference at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, complete with keynote speakers, workshops, presentations, and performances.

When I talked to Harris by phone about this weekend’s events, he told me why the story in the Times raised his eyebrow:

“Perpetuating this perspective of hopelessness doesn’t help folk like me. I have to work twice as hard to convince people that they have some agency and that they have the opportunity to create within a place that is a legacy and heritage to them.”

Harris says that he wants to be more self-determined about responding to the local tech boom and to gentrification, and Hack the CD is making great strides to that end.

Last year, Hack the CD partnered with Startup Weekend, a national organization that focuses on entrepreneurial education. Their goal was to create a space where people could network and share ideas in an effort to start and incubate new African-American-owned businesses in the area. Of the 10 that started up that weekend, two are still going strong. One is Afrikanections, a company that makes interactive, African-centered e-books for kids. One of their first stories is about Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

The other venture is the Africatown App, which will launch soon. It’s a portal to all the black-owned businesses in the CD, and it also overlays the history of the area with a calendar of current events.

The focus of this year’s Hack the CD conference programing is finding ways for residents of the CD to participate in Seattle’s tech boom and trying to connect entrepreneurs with advisors that have proximity to capital. “We want to recognize the value in our culture,” Harris says, “and blur the lines between the creative economy, the innovation economy, and the cooperative economy.”

He points to Apple’s recent purchase of Beats Electronics, a company founded by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, as an example of a black creative economy—hiphop and headphones—fusing in a productive way with the innovation economy of tech culture.

The music-based workshops and panels at the conference show how organizers intend to facilitate this line-blurring. DJs will illuminate the connections between spinning and programming code. Other presenters will take skills like storytelling and self-determination—intrinsic skills you find in a lot of musicians and people in hiphop—break them down, and teach people how to apply those skills in other industries.

Other activities include “Jam Sessions,” where attendees can network and get feedback on their business proposals from experts in the field. On the last day of the conference, people will present the ideas they’ve been working on all weekend. One proposed project that Harris is particularly excited about is an app that would connect black student unions from middle school up through college. That idea and prototype was developed by an eighth grader.

The goal of Hack the CD is to create a startup ecosystem in the community. Harris says that such an undertaking is easier said than done. It’s a 20-year commitment, at least, but he—along with local organizations like the Black Community Impact Alliance—is in it for the long haul.