Grammy-award winner will.i.am is no stranger to success. But the multi-faceted rapper still remembers all his childhood teachers’ names.
First grade, Ms. Walker. Second grade, Ms. Holland. Third grade, Ms. Taylor — these are the names he credits with motivating him and changing his life. Their encouragement was the “big force” needed to make him believe in himself.
One of the keynote speakers for InstructureCon 2021, will.i.am said every kid needs that “big bang moment” — encouragement and support from a teacher. Masterfully interviewed by Jakobi Davis, an engineering student at Cornell University, will.i.am described his work supporting disadvantaged youth in their in-class and after-class STEAM pursuits through his i.am.angel foundation.
From the Projects to the Grammys
Founded in 2009, the foundation transforms underserved students’ lives through college scholarships, college preparation, and opportunities in STEAM education.
“The reason why I do philanthropy, or try my best to solve problems for kids that are left behind or underserved, is because I was a recipient from somebody’s do-gooding,” he said.
Growing up in the projects of Boyle Heights in East LA, will.i.am was bussed to a magnet school in Brentwood, an affluent neighborhood in West LA. He said this opportunity and the teachers who mentored him set him on a trajectory for success.
Jakobi could relate to the “it takes a village” theme — “Through my own journey in life, getting to Cornell, I've realized that you can't do anything alone. It's always a team of people that make those dreams a reality.”
The Tsunami of No Opportunity
will.i.am spent his birthday in 2005 in Indonesia helping with tsunami relief, but realized relief was also needed closer to home.
“There's this tsunami every single day in my neighborhood,” he said. “The tsunami of no opportunities. I was like, I'm really ignoring my neighborhood.”
Over the last 11 years, the i.am.angel foundation has served 1,500 K-12 students in Boyle Heights through its STEM magnet high school, after-school tutoring program, and college scholarships. Their new partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District to create 400 robotics clubs will bring that number to 15,000 students.
“Society is at a crossroads,” will.i.am said. “We can have a beautiful tomorrow or we can have a concerning tomorrow.” A beautiful tomorrow, he said, starts with teachers and parents encouraging kids in ways they never have before to compete.
“There are trillions of dollars of investment to make machines smarter, from Google, Facebook, Amazon, and private companies. Where’s the effort to make our kids smarter? We are going to have a super lopsided tomorrow where the machine is dominant to the communities and the people that live there.”
Hey Siri, Directions from Poverty to Wealth
“What does school look like in five years?” Jakobi asked.
School isn’t limited to the Kindergarten through college years, will.i.am responded. We will never stop learning. Part of what influences that is the world of information in our pockets — the smartphone.
Tongue-in-cheek, will.i.am then pulled out his iPhone and asked Siri directions from “poverty to wealth.” He said although we have Alexa, Siri, and Cortana, we don't have Cornell, Mr. Stanford, or Señor Dartmouth.
“How do we have a whole bunch of Jakobis?” he said, referring to the successful 18-year-old interviewing him.
Part of the answer is training underserved students for jobs of the future. “If you’re an Uber driver or a cashier, that’s not a job in 2030. How can people from these underserved communities create these technologies?”
A Campus-less Education
The conversation then shifted from the future of education to the present. How can educators incorporate STEAM into their classrooms and better serve disadvantaged students?
will.i.am recalled the disruption of iOS in 2010. A single advancement birthed a whole generation of computer scientists. Engineers who couldn’t get jobs at IBM were now able to build an iPhone app to reach millions. But with that disruption did not come preparation, he said.
“It's super important to prepare kids for the super beyond disruptive, he said. “We need to encourage and nurture a whole new type of workforce, one that’s remote from the jump.”
Office-less companies, branchless-banks — it’s going to be the norm, he said. Education will be campus-less education.
“We’ve got to prepare kids for this world. We think ‘futurism is right around the corner’ but it’s happening right now.”