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Re-Writing the Code: Local Initiatives to Support Youth of Color in STEM

News & Features | April 23, 2018

The future is now. Technology is being incorporated into almost every industry, and its relevance and presence is growing in modern society. According to USA Today, there are currently over 7.3 million jobs in the technology industry, and that number is rapidly increasing. Major tech companies are expanding into areas in which they did not have presences before. A large number of tech startups are now based in Cambridge, and in 2014, Google opened an office in Kendall Square. The economic and physical expansion of the tech industry has led to a demand for coders. There is, however, a flaw in this tech-infused future—the large number of people who are left in the dark. Despite the industry growth, there is minimal representation for non-White, low-income communities. Only a quarter of high tech jobs are filled by people of color, according to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, and the physical expansion of tech companies is actually adding to the gentrification of low-income areas, thereby further restricting opportunities available to these communities. The current monochrome state of the technological world creates an visible imbalance and furthers systems of inequity in terms of economic status, employment, and housing.

“Disrupted stabilization,” as Carolle Nau, co-founder of [G]Code House, states, is the result of this industry growth. “Young people are most vulnerable to getting pushed out of opportunities,” she said, which is why she and co-founder Bridgette Wallace created [G]Code House, a space where women of color can live, learn to code, and spur change in “communities that have fallen through the cracks.” The two founders met at a meeting regarding community issues focused on gentrification, housing, and equitable community development. They knew industry growth was taking “the basic need of housing to pursue your life goals” from women of color. “Housing is one of those things that serve as a roadblock,” Nau said. “Women of color are always at a disadvantage and are further stigmatized for not having property.” The inaccessibility of affordable housing for communities of color adds to “a community that is fragmented, structurally and politically.”   This is why [G]Code House offers housing to “opportunity youth,” as Wallace says. “People of color are not seen as a population that people would offer resources to equip them, thereby putting them at a disadvantage in this knowledge-based economy.” Women engaging in the initiative are housed in the center while taking coding classes at both the house and partner universities in the area. The idea is that they can then use both the technical skills and network from their two years at the house to pursue internships and then full-time employment. The hope is that by offering opportunities to low-income youth of color, a pipeline will be created to funnel underrepresented students into the world of technology.

But given the multi-faceted nature of the issue facing low-income youth of color in the tech industry, there needs to be more than one approach to this problem. [G]Code House, along with a handful of other initiatives in Boston, aim to combat this issue with not only education, but also community building. [G]Code House places emphasis on their “co-living, co-learning” model, to initiate community building amongst the women. “It is really important to work through problems in a safe environment without being judged by others or your own thoughts. Progress is stifled by a lack of comfort and confidence, especially when [the opportunity youth] are not acculturated to think that their ideas are good,” stated Wallace. The South End Technology Center, a multi-year student-teacher coding education network, also utilizes a “Learn-to-Teach, Teach-to-Learn” mantra. Based on their model, low-income students gain computer skills from experienced students and then grow to be teachers themselves to pass on the support and continue the cycle. By cycling through multiple different approaches before landing on this one, the center found that, in its experience, children are more receptive to fellow students as teachers than they are to adults. The community and trust built through this model shows kids that “they are not incapable because they look different from their classmates,” as stated by Program Coordinator Susan Klimczak. “Structural racism makes it so that youth of color are blamed for their own underrepresentation in STEM,” she states. “But through this community, we can show we don’t want equity in a dehumanized world. We want a new humanized one.”

According to fellow director Natan Kibret at Enza Academy, the Technology Center is not the only place with this idea. “Enza teaches a lot more than just technology,” he says. “[It is about] reaching a high level of excellence in a familial setting.” A New York-based technology education platform, Enza is a large-reaching pipeline for “low-opportunity, high-potential” youth of color to access both high-profile technology jobs as well as a supportive community and network of peers. Youth of color are encouraged to join local Enza hackathons to interact with other passionate youth as well as professionals in the technology industry. These hackathons also serve as an application for students to enter official Enza programming, ranging from boot camps to summer intensives to internships at big-name technology companies. Most importantly, it provides students with an inspiring and encouraging community of tech-minded peers and leaders, many of whom were Enza students as well. “Being accepted into Enza is being accepted into a family,” says Kibret. The comradery and validation offered by programs like Enza push students to design projects that solve problems they are interested in. And it is with this support that students continue to return to the program in order to help it grow.

Many organizations recognize that youth of color may lack confidence due to the inaccessibility of resources, and they aim to create cultural change by providing them opportunities. Another way they strive for change is through empowering the students. These technology-education initiatives believe that students have the motivation and intellect to succeed from a young age, and that it is more a matter of the students recognizing that in themselves. And it is through this realization of their own strength that they are able to reach their full potential. Due to societal representations of low-income students of color, many students believe they truly do not deserve opportunities White and/or wealthy individuals do. In fact, about 50 percent of students of color drop science and technology-related disciplines in high school and college. That is why groups like the Boston College Coding group aim to encourage these students to continue pursuing those fields. This year, the BC group received a $1.2 Million grant to offer classes from middle school to college to show students they are allowed to learn and belong in these spaces.

Today, there are many structural and economic barriers restraining promising talent. Yet there are initiatives that are combating this ideology through education and empowerment. They are helping these students realize they are capable of technological creation, and that they can possibly shift the cultural norm of the tech industry. [G]Code House’s Nau shares that she believes initiatives like her own can create “an ecosystem of communities supporting youth.” The structure, desire, and interest are there, she says, it is only a matter of “continuing the momentum.”