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High schooler Joshua Carter didn’t learn about Black historical figures like Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm or Denmark Vesey from his high school social studies textbooks. He learned about them through an app on his phone.

The app, called Kinfolk, transports students like Carter to an augmented reality space where they can walk up to virtual “monuments” of 10 famous Black historical figures and learn their stories. Students can hear a narration about these individuals, read their biographies, look at artifacts from their lives, and learn about the time period in which they lived and what they accomplished.

Carter, a rising senior at Teaneck High School in New Jersey, said the app allows him to see people that look like him in a “good light.” That kids can download the material on their phones makes it “really accessible,” he added.

Kinfolk was launched in February by the ed tech nonprofit, Movers & Shakers NYC. The group, headed by CEO Glenn Cantave, was originally founded as an artist/activist collective that used immersive technology to host teach-ins and demonstrations about “problematic monuments” across New York City, such as the statue of Christopher Columbus at the center of Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

Cantave said he and his co-founders realized that while there was a lot of red tape surrounding the removal of monuments, creating monuments could provide an opportunity to “uplift underrepresented narratives using augmented reality.” The group developed the Kinfolk app to build a catalog of AR monuments of people of color, women and the LGBTIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual and/or Ally) community.

When Covid hit, Cantave said his team saw an opportunity to launch the app and engage students at home while they were in remote learning.

“We want these stories to be accessible to everyone,” said Cantave.

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According to Idris Brewster, the organization’s chief creative officer, there aren’t a lot of ed tech tools aimed at Black and Brown people. And while social studies curricula differ vastly across the U.S., lessons on the history of Black people often focus on “trauma and tribulation,” said Erica Buddington, founder and CEO of Langston League, a firm that specializes in creating culturally responsive instructional materials.

Early on in the design process, Movers & Shakers NYC partnered with the Langston League to get educators and students involved. Buddington’s team wrote the curriculum and helped with the archive research that accompanies the Kinfolk app.

The mobile app and the curriculum serve as a “jumping off point” for teachers and students, Brewster said, allowing them to delve into topics that span “the whole canon of Black history.” The idea, he said, is that students will be inspired “to go on a scavenger hunt through the primary source archives to learn more.”

While the app is open to the public through the Google and Apple app store, Kinfolk is targeted to middle school students and teachers. The Movers & Shakers team is working with a handful of schools in New York City and with the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program in Texas to bring the AR app to students, said Cantave.

When Kinfolk launched monuments of Black historical figures such as Denmark Vesey, Fannie Lou Hammer, Harry Belafonte and Zora Neale Hurston in honor of Juneteenth, 100 teachers signed up so they could use the accompanying curriculum in their classrooms, Cantave said. The team will launch another app, Unsung, a multiplayer AR learning experience that will highlight four Black women singers. The app will be released by Verizon to 100 Title I middle schools nationwide later this fall.

Carter, the student from Teaneck, was a Langston League intern this past spring. He provided Movers & Shakers input on the Juneteenth monuments and curriculum.

It was the first time Carter had heard of or learned about most of the Black historical figures currently highlighted by the app, including Bayard Rustin, a civil rights leader, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, who helped lead the enslaved people of Haiti to freedom in the late 18th century. The experience has been really empowering, Carter said. “It’s really important that kids learn about this so that they know that in the future they can really build something for themselves.”

This story about Black historical figures was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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