The future of platforms designed for Black audiences with Lauren Ruffin
Henry Childs II, Founder and CEO of the Minority Wealth Commission, talks with Lauren Ruffin, co-founder of Crux, the first platform focused solely on amplifying narrative virtual reality content from Black creators, on why she co-founded Crux and what the future of platforms designed for Black audiences look like.
Henry: Hi. I’m Henry Charles II, founder and CEO of the Minority Wealth Commission, and you are tuned into Pass the Mic by the Rosie Report Podcast. In each episode, the guests from last week, me, talks to another rebel for good, change makers who bravely opted out of traditional employment and turn their life’s work towards a mission that is also changing the paradigm of work. Last week, I talked to Walton Smith about the future of minority wealth. And this week I’m so excited to chat with Lauren Ruffin, co-founder of Crux, the first platform focused solely on amplifying narrative virtual reality content from black creators. Welcome to the Rosie Report Podcast, Lauren.
Lauren: Thanks. Thanks. How are you doing today, Henry?
Henry: I am good. It’s just a great joy talking to another, I guess, rebel for good.
Lauren: Yeah. I never thought about myself that way, I guess.
Henry: Yes, it’s good to be in good company. So my first question is, how would you best describe what you do?
Lauren: Yeah, so I think I do a couple of different things. Right now, one is, and in particular, I think this is what we’ve been doing at Crux for the last three years. But in particular, right now, it’s taking on a sort of a higher sense of urgency and just need is being translators, being really approachable. People of color, black folks who are working in tech spaces and translating that for folks who aren’t technologically driven. I think the tech companies and working in tech can be really hard for folks. It’s exclusionary, it requires a certain language. And so we translate both the passion that we bring to it and the need for why. And also the how, because there is still this gap in knowledge between how folks still think tech is really expensive and really hard to do.
And now we’ve had a rise of really inexpensive, lower, no-code platforms that you can use to do really cool things online. So, the big thing is translation. And the second thing, on that Rebel for Good piece, would be I’ve always joked around and said that I felt like Robin hood. I’ve raised a bunch of money in my career, taking money from rich people and giving it to poor folks. And so, yeah, maybe I’ve been a rebel for good longer than I thought I was.
Henry: That is awesome. I always love people who are mission oriented, especially helping the less fortunate, so that is awesome. But you were doing this, as you just mentioned. Before 2020, what did you see that others couldn’t?
Lauren: I think the big thing that I saw was how we were just allowing the virtual reality, the augmented reality space to develop the same way the film industry developed 120 years ago-ish. And then also the way that that games have evolved, which is you have people who are in here early making stories, telling stories, black and brown folks doing brilliant work, and we’re still not getting credit for it. So, Crux came into my head around the same time that Oscar So White was happening. And there’s not really been a discussion around, or there hasn’t been a huge discussion. People like Melissa Sinclair are doing the work, but it’s a nascent industry that we’re just going to allow white folks to just take over. And tell their stories and marginalize our stories and suck up all the funding.
And we see that happening time and time again and industries, but this one’s so very new. To me, it felt like somebody had to do something and I kept looking around being like, who’s going to do it? And then I was like, Oh, all good ideas. Oh, you mean I’m going to have to do it too? So, that’s what I saw, just this new industry that’s going to have all this money pouring into it and we’re going to have our intellectual property stolen. It’s going to happen the same way it’s been happening for decades. And I was like, this is the point where we can make a difference. This is when we can center communities of color in storytelling. This is when we consider models that are extractive. So thinking about worker ownership and cooperativism and wages, right, because black and brown creatives get paid so much less. So, at Crux, we pay people who work with us $125 an hour, because I want to take control over how we value labor. And create a space in how can we possibly create an economic system where black and brown folks command a high wage? Because our value is brilliant.
Henry: That’s awesome. I love when you just mentioned where there’s that moment where you see a hole that needs to be filled. And you just logically think, okay, someone’s going to come into this space, but then you realize that that someone is you. So, what made you feel compelled that you needed to take action?
Lauren: I read a report, and this is cheesy because I do think Crux is both optimistic and it has arisen from fear. I read a report that more than 50% of young black and brown kids play video games as white male avatars, because they’ve already experienced sexual harassment or racial harassment in virtual spaces. And I think that was from 2012 or 2013. And my background is working in ed reform and with kids and in homeless shelters with homeless families. And these kids are seeing things that your average adult doesn’t know and isn’t paying attention to.
There’s not one major newspaper in the country right now that covers video games, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. So, I felt like somebody had to at least try to build brush hole spaces that are safe for kids. And I know that sounds really cliche, but it’s actually a really big problem that I think adults and people who are thinking about kids all the time, just aren’t really paying attention to, but the kids know. So, that was the moment where I was like, I have to do this thing.
Henry: That’s interesting. So where does this come from? Because just traveling the world, I really just separate people mainly into two categories, and both are okay, mission people and money people. I mean, the work that you’re doing, there’s not a lot of glory in it, right? You’re not going to be on the cover of Time Magazine. So, why this mission? What is it inside of you that feels like dedicating your life’s work to this?
Lauren: Well, I mean, I haven’t ruled Time Magazine out. I’m like, damn, Henry, you just took my dreams and snapped them. No. I think capitalism demands that we don’t ask what’s enough for us. Capitalism necessarily makes you look at what everybody else has and figure out if that’s what you want. And I think that’s why so many of us are unhappy. But I think that I’m a money person. I appreciate the value of money as power. And I’ve always been someone who appreciated the blacklist, being the person behind the scenes. So, when I ran political campaigns, I never wanted to be a candidate. I always wanted to be the persons who were behind the scenes. And this is the same thing. I think my talents are really in helping other people bring their dreams to fruition, and doing so in a way that provides a springboard for an entire industry.
So, to me, it’s thinking about, what does it take to have a cooperative of black artists working together transparently and collaboratively to do projects that shift an industry and change the sands of an industry? To me, that’s what gets me up in the morning. And I think a lot about BET. Bob Johnson was, what, the first black billionaire. But if BET had been cooperative, we would have had thousands of black millionaires out here infusing the creative economy and creative ecosystems and charting the path for the next generation. And instead, he’s buying hotels. To me, it just seems like a waste. So, why not take the collective energy and do things that are going to outlive you? And I think that’s what jazzes me on that mission and money piece.
Henry: Wow. Yeah, I totally get that. And so, you’ve been around this a long time, and we see what’s happening at 2020 with … everybody feels like, and by everybody, I mean, corporations and some other people, pledging to do all kinds of fantastic things, and to repair all kinds of injustices. We’ve both been around this long time. So I guess the question I want to ask you is, number one, do you think that this time is the real time? Is this for real? And number two, what do you see now that you didn’t see before?
Lauren: Oh, yeah, good questions. What do I see now? well, I’ll start with the other one. I think what’s different now is, and this is me being very, very, very cautiously optimistic, having the weight of my ancestors on my shoulders from Dinwiddie County, Virginia. The beauty of the internet is you have all this information at your fingertips. And yet, we all read the same things, and listen to the same things or whatever. And I keep telling people, I do a fair amount of talking about anti-racism. And we’ve got 60, 70 years, and that’s not going all the way back, but of scholarly, academic research in black studies departments. Anybody can Google and find a syllabus, educate themselves on what’s happened to black and brown people. So, taking that and thinking about what happened over the summer with protests, because there’s always been this thought in the back of white folks’ minds in particular that black communities are over policed because we’ve done something to deserve it, right?
Lauren: And now you’ve got your white moms pushing their strollers down to a peaceful protest, and they’re getting tear gassed with their kids this summer … unnecessarily as they’re trying to get their kids home on the subway, or put them in the car, pour milk on their face. They’re sitting there thinking, I didn’t do anything. And that’s the moment when you realize that state-sanctioned violence can happen to you, whether you do anything or not. We’re seeing it in Nigeria. This is a problem all over the world. But then they get home, and once they’re sort of calm, they open up Twitter and see if anybody else, if it happened to anyone else or whatever. And then Twitter’s got people who are putting bite-size histories, people worrying about the MOVE bombing for the first time in Philadelphia in 1986, where Philadelphia dropped a bomb on a residential neighborhood, just crushed a whole block of people. Or COINTELPRO murdering Fred Hampton in his bed, which there’s a movie coming out next year about that.
But you have these white folks who, coupled with their trauma they’re experiencing right now, in addition to being able to access information, to me, that seems like a shift that wasn’t there even five or 10 years ago. So, that’s why I’m cautiously optimistic. And then what did I see? I’m not into virtual reality and augmented reality because I’m into storytelling. I’m there because we’re on the cusp of the new wave of computing, which is it’s spatial computing. And being able to interact with computers and with large data sets is actually something that I think black people should be at the forefront of. We’ve been interacting with tons of information since we’ve been around. And I think our breadth and creativity and understanding what’s just on the other side, positions us to be really, really great in the spatial computing field.
And that’s what I saw three years ago, I see it now. And I see us, the folks that I work with, the artists and the black arts organizations in particular, who are able to take technologies built by predominantly white firms, and use it in ways that are so much more connected, and so much more intentional than the platforms themselves were built for. So, we’re actually pushing these companies to build better products. And then, my next thing is ensuring that we get compensated for our thoughts. Yeah, so that’s what I saw.
Henry: That’s really powerful. I can tell that your mission has not changed, but it sounds like technology is allowing you to do your mission a little bit differently, right? We’re not in the sixties and seventies anymore, where you have to take to the streets, where you have to do sit ins. And no one else in the world knows unless you were physically there, right? Through technology, like some of the stuff you’re talking about, where we’re catching some of these injustices on camera. And it’s just shocking the world. The stories we tell in our neighborhoods that people never saw or didn’t want to believe, is seen now. So, how has technology enhanced your mission?
Lauren: Since the pandemic in particular, our work has shifted a little bit. I didn’t think we’d be doing events the way that we’re doing events, really large scale complex. Our folks know how to do that, but the need for staying connected and social and intimate while being distant, I think has really has changed how we work, and maybe changed our mission a little bit. But I think type platforms make that possible. And I think we do a good job of giving people baby steps to make them feel braver, to be able to get off Zoom. We’ve all defaulted to Zoom. And, as a car aficionado, I’m like, no offense to people who drive a Corolla, but Zoom is the Toyota Corolla of the internet connected space, social platform.
So, I’m like, okay, so take your little Toyota and put that over there, and let me get you into a Benz. That first time you drive it, you’re like, Oh, this is amazing, and you can do so much more than you can on Zoom. But I think, for me, it really is like that level of delight when people realize that … I hosted a couple of house parties at a spatial audio platform. And people who hadn’t bumped into each other in months were just like, Oh, my God, I just ran into you. It sounds like we’re out. And I ran into you, and I missed you so much. We didn’t go to this conference this year. But those moments of running into a friend online for the first time, that to me is the mission. It’s so much fun.
Henry: Wow, that is so awesome. So, my final question is, what does the ideal future platforms designed for black audiences look like?
Lauren: First, I’d say, black folks designed the first online platform. People forget that, blackplanet.com. Those of us who are a little older remember that. But everything that Facebook is now started with black … MySpace, Friendster, they all were started by blackplanet.com. So, I don’t want to lose that in the history of social platforms. So I’m saying we have been social since the beginning of the internet, and we’ll always be driving there. For me, as a world, we have to have a couple of conversations. One is about free speech online. I’m constantly having those conversations about … There are people who think violence can’t happen online and that violence can’t happen, that the free speech online can’t be violent and that’s patently wrong. So I think, as a society, we have to have a massive upscaling and leaning towards products online that can distinguish between appropriate free speech and hostile free speech.
And as someone with a law degree, I know that’s dangerous territory because we take that amendment, that part of the Bill of Rights really seriously. But we got to do some on free speech online, because it’s pretty horrific, and this was not what was intended. No one could have imagined this right now. So, platforms that prioritize safe spaces as opposed to prioritizing folks’ free speech rights. Let’s talk about duties and responsibilities with your free speech. And the second are platforms that really center the experiences of black and brown people, folks living with disabilities, demanding more from platform builders. There’s no reason why, Henry, you and I talking right now, that we shouldn’t have captions up live, prioritizing feature sets like that. If you’re doing networking with folks who are hard of hearing, deaf, or who might have vision impairments. Making sure those platforms are accessible to them, to me, is something that we must do as a society.
And those platforms, those aren’t problems that just affect black people. Those are problems that everybody’s experiencing regardless of where they are or anything else. And then the third thing I would say is as a diaspora, quick language translation is a dream for me. I’m doing events where we have speakers who are presenting in Spanish and Portuguese, who want to participate in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s the beauty of where we are right now, is being able to connect across time zones and across languages. And the platforms have to keep up with that use case, so that was a long list. I spend a lot of time thinking about platforms, as you can tell.
So, I probably gave you more than you wanted there, but yeah, this was really dope talking to you, Henry. And I’m shocked that we hadn’t met in real life. I feel like we should have at some point in DC.
Henry: Yeah. I’m shocked too, but we share a common mission now, which is to get you on the cover of Time, so we’re going to reunite behind that.
Lauren: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it.
Henry: Yeah, so I’m a believer. Thank you so much for talking with me about your journey. Where can people find your work online?
Lauren: Well, you can find us at www.crux.black. That’s our website. It’s being quickly updated because it hasn’t been a long time, but that’s the best place to find us. And then on Instagram, we’re CruxXR, and on Twitter, CruxXR. Probably, Instagram is the best place to keep up with us.
Henry: Perfect. Well, that’s it for this week’s episode of Pass the Mic by The Rosie Report. Tune in next week, when Lauren talks to Becky Morrison, owner of The Light Production Company. Until then, subscribe to the Rosie Report Podcast on Spotify and Anchor. And be sure to check out more stories on building a future of work for everyone. Bye, everyone at therosiereport.com. Thank you.