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Empowering Low-Income Youth to Code

For low-income teens in Oakland, California, success across the bay in Silicon Valley seems impossibly far when gang violence and tussles with the police are daily happenings at home.

Silicon Valley is home to the some of the world’s top coders and developers, whose apps—like ride-sharing and travel deal platforms—often aren’t relevant to low-opportunity teens from the inner city. How can these teens get a shot at participating in the ever-growing app economy?

Empower them to code on their own.

That’s what Van Jones, a former Obama adviser and founder of Rebuild the Dream, suggested to the audience at an event last week organized by The New Republic and GE’s #Pressing. Instead of being passive observers in the growing world of the app economy, low-income teens in the inner city need apps that work for them—and to learn to build those apps themselves, he said.

Van Jones, founder of the Rebuild the Dream Initiative, which has made Yes We Code possible.

Jones’ Yes We Code initiative, made possible by Rebuild the Dream, has already begun its ambitious goal of educating 100,000 inner-city youth across the U.S. to become highly competitive coders and developers, giving them a shot to participate in the rapidly growing tech sector of the economy.

Media messaging has traditionally lacked technology role models for low-income black youth, Jones said in February, telling them instead that they could succeed as rappers and basketball players. But to combat that narrative, he wants to point them toward other models of success.

“You can also be a coder. You can also be Mark Zuckerberg. You can also be somebody who creates the future with their own hands,” he said. “We have a chance to connect this incredible genius to an industry built on genius. Now that is a no-brainer if I ever heard one.”

STEM jobs are expected to grow twice as fast as non-STEM jobs by 2017—one of the fastest-growing sectors in the professional industry. But by that year, only 40,000 people will have the requisite skills to succeed in a STEM job. In addition, black Americans comprised 11 percent on the workplace in 2011, but only accounted for 6 percent of STEM-related jobs, according to the U.S. Census.

“An entry-level coder can make $70,000 to $90,000 a year,” Jones told teens at the first Yes We Code hack-a-thon this month in New Orleans. “Would you like to, in six months or nine months, be able to make $80,000 a year that the cops can’t take?”

Teens from all over the country participated in the Yes We Code kick-off event in New Orleans this month—an event sponsored by Essence Magazine, which drew the likes of Prince as the musical headliner. The industry’s most decorated developers were on site training hundreds to develop software, design an app, and code in multiple languages that employers find valuable.

Jones told the audience at The New Republic event last week that teens have already begun designing apps that are pertinent to their daily lives in places like inner-city Oakland: An app that reminds teens of upcoming court dates, and one that calls the police anonymously if gang violence is witnessed on the street.

And while the hack-a-thon jumpstarted interest among many inner-city teens eager to learn the intricacies of Web development, a college education may still be a far away dream for many. But the panel at the hack-a-thon emphasized skill over education when it comes to hiring the strongest teams.

“Any smart employer is serious about getting the best talent,” said Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global head of diversity, at the New Orleans kick-off. “There is not a wall for degrees, there is a wall for talent,” noting that Mark Zuckerberg himself doesn’t have a college degree.

“If we keep fishing in the same pond, we are either going to run out of fish or run out of talent,” she said of recruiting and training new talent from different socioeconomic backgrounds. “That pond is shrinking.”

Empowering Low-Income Youth to Code was originally published on Ideas Lab

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