At age 40, Akilah Monifa stopped practicing law to do what her younger self had wanted to do: become a full-time writer. She received an Amazon Echo as a gift and made another pivot at age 60. This time, she decided she would learn to build for voice. Her motivation: give voice to a subject dear to her heart and build an Alexa skill called Black History Everyday.
Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m so, so, so excited about our next speaker, Akilah Monifa. She is the SVP at ARISE Global Media, which is a digital media platform for LGBTQ folks of color and their allies. And she made an Alexa skill called Black Media–or Black History Everyday, which I really want to just make it Black History Errryday. But not everybody’s gonna put all the Rs in it.
Gretchen DeKnikker: I’m very, very excited for this talk and you guys are gonna love it. Please, welcome Akilah. All right.
Akilah Monifa: Thank you, Gretchen.
Gretchen DeKnikker: All right, thanks.
Akilah Monifa: Welcome, everyone. It kind of reminds me, the start kind of reminds me of in eighth grade watching a science film and the film broke, but it is 2019, so we did get it together. I am Akilah. I’m gonna talk today about my Alexa Skill Black History Everyday.
Akilah Monifa: Even though you can see me, just wanted to share a little about me and the skills. This is me. This is my wonderful headshot. One of my favorite shots of myself. This is me and my children. my son Benjamin who is 15 and my daughter Izzie who turned 18. This is Raya Ross who is my intern and is a high school student, and helps me work on the skill. I just wanted to show a picture of her. This is my friend Elan and myself. We are in our Black History is Golden tshirts from the Golden State Warriors, because, obviously, black history is near and dear to my heart. Elan also helps a lot on the site, too.
Akilah Monifa: Okay. Now, this is just a brief little video that I wanted to share with you that Alexa made about my app.
Akilah Monifa: My first skill is pretty simple. It’s called Black History Everyday.
Alexa: Patricia Bath, that first black woman to serve on staff as-
Akilah Monifa: It started to work at 5:00 AM, on April 3rd, 2017, which happened to be my 60th birthday. And I cried when it worked. I cried tears of joy. I want people to know that you don’t have to know the coding to do it. I didn’t know the coding, and I actually now have three skills. I think it’s very exciting. I mean, I don’t think that I can adequately describe just the thrill that all of these skills have, but particularly the first one. And to know that so many people can hear the skill and be as enlightened through sound and knowledge, as I was, it is, I think, very, very profound.
Akilah Monifa: My children jokingly say that that’s my commercial for Alexa.
Akilah Monifa: Why did I start the skill? The first thing was that, as we all know, Black History Month in the United States is in February, and it’s the shortest month of the year, lot of people have complained about that. 28 days, 29 in leap year.
Akilah Monifa: My other big issue was that I really wasn’t learning much in Black History Month. The same facts were being regurgitated over and over. So, what do you remember about Black History Month in general? I mean, we heard facts about Martin Luther King, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, and that was really the extent of it. That certainly was not sufficient for me.
Akilah Monifa: The first thing that I did was to develop a website which is BlackHistoryEveryday.com. I was actually amazed that the URL was available, but it was, so I developed the website. My thought was that every day I was going to put a different black history fact on this website.
Akilah Monifa: Here are a couple of examples. The website exists. A few examples of the facts that I put on the website, and they’re very short. I wanted them to be diverse. This is Isis King who is the first transgender model to compete on America’s Next Top Model in 2011. This is the Mobile Edition. This is what it looks like. Mashama Bailey, the first black woman nominated for Best Chef at the James Beard Foundation awards 2018. Glory Edim, she’s the founder of Well-Read Black Girl, an online book club and community.
Akilah Monifa: The other thing that I wanted was the oh wow factor, “Oh wow. I didn’t know that,” or, “I was unaware of that.” So, I really tried to have really interesting things. Since today is International Women’s Day, starting today through the rest of the month all of my facts are going to be about women, about black women.
Akilah Monifa: Now we go from, I have this website. Two years ago, someone gave me an Alexa, and I had heard about it, but I had not experienced it. I got it. I saw that there were all sorts of skills on Alexa, so I thought I should be able to have my website into an Alexa skill. That was my thought. I thought how difficult can it be. Actually, I thought I don’t know anything about coding, so maybe I can’t do it. But I googled how to do an Alexa skill, and found out there was something called the Alexa skills kit, and that was online.
Akilah Monifa: So, I went to the Alexa skills kit and got information that alleged that one could build a skill in minutes with no coding required. I said, okay, I’ll develop the skill. Basically, when I went to the Alexa skills kit, there were five different entries that I could make to help develop the skill. I suppose theoretically, it could have been done in minutes…skipping ahead. It did not take me minutes. And when I tried to fill out the form or I did fill out the form and I developed my skill, it got rejected. I lost count the number of times that it got rejected. After you submit it, you submit it for certification, and it was not successful. I think I submitted it between 75 and a hundred times. I joined Alexa developers groups to try to figure out what was wrong and talked to people and tweeted…. The shorter version of it is that finally, after all of this, it did start to work. And I just wanted to show you this is just the first page. It was almost fill in the blanks. But the key thing that was missing for me in developing the skill is that I thought that simply by having the website that I could feed the website into Alexa, and Alexa would be able to read out my website, and that in fact was not the case.
Akilah Monifa: It was finally when I, through a lot of research and trial and effort, realized that one thing that I needed was to get Alexa to talk to the website. It was pretty simple. I just had to find a device, and the device that I found is called Feedburner, Feedburner.com. Once I plugged my website into that, then Alexa could understand what my website said and read out the information, which was just wonderful.
Akilah Monifa: As I described in the video, it actually started working on my 60th birthday, which was two years ago, which will be coming up two years ago, so I was very ecstatic. I can also really, if you’re trying to build an Alexa skill, really recommend Feedburner. After that, it was very simple.
Akilah Monifa: I just wanted to show–The skill, I did a definition of the skill. The skill basically says that it is Black History Everyday in about a minute from Arise 2.0. Black history is no longer relegated to the shortest month of the year. A different black history fact presented daily, seven days a week, 365 days a year, 366 in a leap year. It’s prepared. I say, “Invented by the team at Arise 2.0,” which is mainly consisting of me and Raya with some help from a few other friends who give me information. Our mission is to tell our diverse stories.
Akilah Monifa: If you have an Alexa and you go to Alexa, you can enable the skill in the app. And there it is, Black History Everyday, actually with an old logo. Or you can actually just ask it to enable it. I just wanted to at least show you–and hopefully, Alexa will work–how it works.
Akilah Monifa: Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?
Alexa: Here’s your flash briefing. From Arise 2.0 Black History Everyday, Zarifa Roberson, CEO/ Founder/ Publisher of I-D-E-A-L magazine for urban young people with disabilities 2004 to 2015.
Alexa: Toni Harris is the first woman football player at a skill position, non-kicker, to sign a letter of intent accepting a scholarship to Central Methodist University in Missouri in 2019.
Alexa: Akilah Bolden-Monifa, Alexa pioneer, developed Black History Everyday Skill for Amazon’s Alexa in the website BlackHistoryEveryday.com.
Alexa: Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps is the first black woman to serve as President of the American Medical Women’s Association in 2002.
Akilah Monifa: The only glitch was that it was my intent to have one black history fact every day. What I found out with Alexa is that through my website Alexa would read out five facts a day. I had to basically then shift gears and make sure that I had five different facts a day instead of one. That’s my skill. Thank you.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Thanks. Looks like I was still muted. Thanks, Akilah.
Akilah Monifa: You’re welcome
Gretchen DeKnikker: That is so awesome. There’s other people. It’s the same. People [inaudible 00:11:48]. That’s making their Alexas go off just listening to you.
Akilah Monifa: Yes.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Which is awesome, because that’s what happened when we did the dry run for her speaker talk too. And so, we had one question come in. She keeps getting rejected, she’s saying with Google not Alexa. Because I think they don’t want to give me the name I want. It’s frustrating for an indie developer. How many times did you say you had to keep applying?
Akilah Monifa: I lost track, but I believe that I applied for certification between 75 and a hundred times before it was accepted. And I would say that the one thing–that it passed certification, basically.
Akilah Monifa: The one thing that I didn’t do was you can test it before you submit it for certification, and I didn’t do that. I foolishly just kept certifying it and submitting it through certification thinking that it would work, and it didn’t. If I’d tested it, I would have seen that it didn’t work, so I probably wouldn’t have submitted it for certification
Gretchen DeKnikker: Another question. What was the thing that surprised you most about developing a skill?
Akilah Monifa: I think that the thing that surprised me, what most, was how easy it was that I just had the idea. Before people told me that you needed coding to do it or you needed to pay someone to code you, so I thought I can’t do it. The surprising thing was that when I googled how to build an Alexa skill, yes, if you know coding you can build it, but you can build it without knowing coding.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Amazing. I think this is great. What I’m really hoping, this will be my request to you, is that next year you can come back and tell us about building it for Apple and for Google, so that we can all have it, because I do think that American school systems don’t do a great job of giving that information out. It’s amazing that you took the time to just share it with everybody.
Akilah Monifa: Well, and the good thing is that it is available to everyone because even if you don’t have the skill, if you don’t have Alexa, you can get the information through the website. Just go to BlackHistoryEveryday.com, and all the information is on the website, which is good.
Gretchen DeKnikker: Awesome. All right, Akilah, this was great. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Akilah Monifa: Thank you.
Gretchen DeKnikker: All right.