Student activists enable new Amazon Alexa skill


Nancy Cambria

Jaiden Smith, Zoe Yudovich, and Merrick Hoel are interviewed for KMOV. The trio worked over the summer on a new Black Lives Matter Alexa skill, which was released in August, 2020.

Ian Feld, Editor

Especially in today’s climate, activism is a daily practice for many people. Now, thanks to the efforts of students Merrick Hoel, Jaiden Smith and Zoe Yudovich, seniors, it’s a practice that’s even more accessible to everyone who wants to learn about or support Black Lives Matter, as well as any local efforts. Over the summer, the trio, along with students from Jennings and Webster Groves, among others, worked on a project through Voice XP, a partner with Amazon’s “Alexa” service, to create a new skill that informs users about racism. One of the major aspects of the new skill is the ability to find local, Black-owned businesses, which Yudovich feels is an overlooked part of modern activism.

“As consumers, [most of us] really have no idea of the importance of our purchases,” Yudovich said on supporting Black enterprise. “It was important for me to try and educate people about their buying power.”

Though the students didn’t program “Alexa” personally—that effort was left to Voice XP founder Bob Stolberg—they were tasked with the responsibility of figuring out what the skill should accomplish. In the end, the team came up with multiple elements for their service, such as bios on black people killed by police, answers to questions about the Black Lives Matter movement and, of course, the black-owned business feature. 

“It was super surreal to work on something that could potentially help millions of people,” Yudovich said. “It really showed me that we have the power to affect change with our actions.”

Fellow participant Jaiden Smith echoes that sentiment. Like Yudovich, she finds that the experience was a valuable eye-opener.

“It feels really empowering because it really doesn’t take much,” Smith said. “Usually you might think that you’d need a big platform to create change, but this makes me realize that there is so much you can do personally.”

Smith worked on snapshot biographies for Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, and Sandra Bland, as well as on the answers to frequently asked questions, such as, “What is the difference between protesting, looting, and rioting?” Her goal for her work was simple: use the opportunity to change the perspective of modern day civil rights activism. 

“I just wanted to get the unpopular opinion out there,” Smith said of her work, particularly about her view of violent reactions as a form of protest and the strong negative views surrounding looting and rioting. “It’s important to change the narrative because media has a big impact on how people view things.”

With a goal of one million downloads in the first month, the service has the ability to impact a far greater crowd than the local population—and that’s not all. The group plans to continue to add more to the service, such as a hub for petitions, voter registration and more bios—both out of a desire to expand their activism and necessity. The recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin is a prime example.

Said Yudovich, “It’s sad to say, there will definitely be more.”

To download the skill, just say: “Alexa, enable Black Lives Matter.”