Renaissance woman, multipotentialite, polymath––however you prefer to say it, Shamika Klassen is the type of person you’ll never find doing just one thing.
A collector of insights and experiences, Klassen's real specialty is bringing people and ideas together.
Growing up in San Antonio, she spent her middle and high school years attending math and engineering camps. Then, she headed to Stanford, where she majored in African and African-American Studies. After graduation, she completed a year of service with AmeriCorps, which led her to earn a master of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Today, Klassen is earning her PhD in CMCI’s Department of Information Science, with a focus on technology, social justice and ethics. She is also interested in techno-spiritual practices, and hopes to work with the Center for Media, Religion and Culture to collaborate on technology and spirituality projects.
“People are out there on VR getting baptized and using drones to deliver the Eucharist down the aisle of their church,” she says. “Genevive Bell’s article, ‘No More SMS for Jesus,’ in 2006 was a wonderful snapshot of what folks were doing with techno-spirituality but it came out before the iPhone and social media became what it is today. I would love to revisit her research and pick up where she left off.”
And this summer, Klassen took on yet another project: entrepreneurship.
Commemorating both Juneteenth and her grandmother’s 71st birthday, she launched the Tech Chaplaincy Institute on June 19, 2020. Currently a team of three, the institute provides one-on-one and group technology training sessions.
“We use the best practices of pastoral care and chaplaincy to usher people through technological crises with dignity and grace,” she says.
Currently in the process of hiring two more tech chaplains, Klassen aspires to one day train an entire network of them. She also hopes to reach more people by creating a series of online courses and webinars on frequently discussed topics.
We caught up with Klassen virtually to discuss her new business, her many passions, and how she’s blending them all together to create unique avenues for positive change.
What gave you the idea to create a Tech Chaplaincy Institute?
After my year of service with AmeriCorps, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to serving other people. I just did not know who or exactly how. A pastor of mine at the time recommended seminary as a good place to discern answers to those questions.
In my first semester of seminary, I started helping people set up their email, new devices and answer general tech questions. After a while, so many people were coming to me that I went to the IT department to find out if they could do drop-in hours. They said the best thing they could have, which was, “No. But it looks like you are doing that well now. How about we support you to continue?”
Later, I was having a conversation with a pastor and instructor who said that the work I was doing sounded like chaplaincy––I was helping people find dignity in their technological crisis. At that moment, tech chaplaincy was born. I eventually went from helping students to supporting staff, faculty and even faith communities outside of the seminary.
A lot of people are relying on technology to practice their faith during this pandemic. Do you see this as an especially critical moment for the type of work that you’re doing?
Yes. While digital ministry has been a thing for a decade or more, it is now getting its time in the sun. Both the eFormation learning center at Virginia Theological Seminary and Rev. Jim Keats have advocated for the ability to incorporate technology theologically into a faith community. In fact, Rev. Keats has often––and famously––said that virtual is not the opposite of real, it is the opposite of physical.
The Tech Chaplaincy Institute helps people incorporate technology into what they are doing, or better utilize the technology they already have. With the global pandemic forcing the hand of some faith communities and mission-driven organizations to lean into technology, we offer a grounded and informed presence with which to navigate the shift.
How can teaching technology skills be a form of social justice?
Social justice can be defined as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, privilege and opportunities in society. Literacy of any kind is a skill that empowers people, organizations, communities and societies. By learning how to better use technology, organizations can better achieve the missions they have in place.
What or who is usually missing, when it comes to a technology/STEM education?
Ethics is usually missing from technology/STEM education. When it is present, it is usually a stand-alone, one-time course as opposed to being woven throughout the degree or program.
The people often missing when it comes to a technology/STEM education are women and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). The tech industry has well-documented missteps when it comes to diversity, and those numbers are indicative of a larger problem. There is not just a pipeline problem, because there are women and BIPOC identified people graduating from STEM programs all over the country each year, but there are deeper systemic issues preventing people from getting into the door––or staying once they do.
I know you started the business on Juneteenth and your grandmother’s birthday. How do those landmarks play into your mission with this business?
This year’s Juneteenth was a year of jubilee since it marked the 155th year since slaves in Texas found out about their freedom two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect on January 1, 1863. My grandmother also ties me to this holiday because she was born as a triplet on Juneteenth (and Father’s Day) in 1949. So, for her 71st birthday, I dedicated the launch of my business to her.
She is such a special person to me. When I was in the fifth grade, I discovered that she could not read very well and later on found out that, as one of nine children, she had to drop out of school in order to support her family. I want my life to honor the legacy of people who came before me and who surround me now, and to use my freedom to help lift up others. The confluence of Juneteenth, my grandmother and my business all point toward my desire to see a positive change in the world and to work hard and make sacrifices to get there.