Clayton Banks

Interview with changemaker Clayton Banks

Three million New York City residents do not have access to broadband internet at home. To close this gap, Clayton Banks founded Silicon Harlem, focusing primarily on his adopted home of Harlem. Banks is a digital literacy advocate who has – among other feats – co-launched “South Park” at Comedy Central, led the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications, and developed an app on African American history. We chatted with Banks about the inner-city opportunity, the requirements to close the digital divide, and his journey as a changemaker.

November 1, 2016

You’ve been working intently on building Silicon Harlem for the last three years. Tell us more about the initiative.

We’re about building economic opportunity for all through digital literacy.

At Silicon Harlem, we’re transforming Harlem into a technology and innovation hub. We establish co-working spaces, work to build gigabit infrastructure, secure investment capital, and convene entrepreneurs. We’re working to make sure Harlem and other urban markets have the same access to technology as anyone else.

We can lower, if not eradicate, crime in Harlem, increase jobs, and increase quality education. How? By closing the digital divide. We can become as successful as anyone in the world if we improve the digital infrastructure, increase STEM education, and attract high quality tech jobs.

What opportunity do you see that others may have missed?

75% of people who are not connected to the internet have a desire to be connected but cannot afford to be. So why don’t we address that gap?

Silicon Harlem is developing into a community broadband service provider. We know that we can sustain a business on low and middle class people that want that infrastructure – but don’t have connections now.

We’ll reach the low-income person who can’t pay more than fifteen dollars a month. We will reach the elderly person on a fixed income. The incumbents look at that market and say it is too expensive, but we see opportunity. We are happy to do it.

What in your personal life has led you to drive this mission forward?

I grew up on a military base because my father was a Marine. It was completely diverse – Samoans, Mexicans, African Americans, white people – and everyone had the same things. It wasn’t perfect, but everyone had a mother and father; went to the same schools, and had the same privilege. This gave me a personal compass towards fairness. I know what fairness looks like and feels like.

Then, traveling has been big for me. It’s made me realize I have 95% in common with people – even though we are different. Everyone loves their kids, wants safety, wants to enjoy life and go to school. When I do see differences, I celebrate them.

What drives you day in and day out?

There’s so much at stake when it comes to digital technology, so my passion is to level the playing field. I love innovation and technology. But I mind if it leaves people behind.

Imagine your life right now if you did not have a cell phone, email, or the internet. There are people like that in our country. This is wrong. There is so much information that is available only online, and there will soon be more, including health records and government records. You can’t manage your health, get a job, or get educated without the internet.

Are the efforts of Silicon Harlem working?

Yes. Cities are recognizing that, if they don’t get into the game of pushing tech and innovation and looking at inclusion and digital literacy, their city will fall behind. There is so much economic potential in the inner-city. With more access, innovation in this country will explode.

At our first meeting in Harlem in 2013, we pulled together 400-500 people. That’s a lot of people interested in geeky stuff. When we galvanized the community, we earned attention from the mayor, legislators, the private sector—like Microsoft— and the federal government.

Now, the Mayor of New York has put us on the Broadband Task Force to make sure that places like East Harlem – which is woefully unconnected – aren’t left behind. When the City rolled out the Link NYC Initiative, Harlem got in at the first stage. This only happened because we were at the table.

When did you see a need for Silicon Harlem?

It’s a question of leadership. Someone needs to stand up for the inner city and say “we are here too.” I’ve become a leader so that I can be a voice for people who cannot speak for themselves.

Broadband should be a utility – just like electricity or highways. In the US, you can no longer say that it’s impossible for every home to have electricity. If we get enough people behind us, broadband will be the same. This takes creating a constituency and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

To learn more about Silicon Harlem’s events and resources, visit www.SiliconHarlem.net.