THIS Is How Silicon Valley Is Going To Change

Photography by Carlos Chavarria.
In a neighborhood of yellow-lawned houses just off the perpetual traffic of Highway 101, high school students gather in a dim computer lab at the East Palo Alto Boys & Girls Club. It’s a typical cloud-free summer day in California. They could be outside playing basketball or burying their heads under pillows for an extra few hours of sleep. Instead, they’re building websites for local businesses through Hack The Hood, an organization that teaches underprivileged youth 21st century job skills.
Hack The Hood started out of Oakland in 2013. The program teaches a mixture of coding and marketing: basic programming and web design, personal branding and self empowerment, and effective interpersonal communication skills to students aged 14 to 21. The brainchild of Susan Mernit, Mary Fuller, and Zakiya Harris, the program won a $500,000 Bay Area Impact Challenge grant from Google last summer, which it used to expand its six-week, career-building “boot camp” to five locations this year, including East Palo Alto.

East Palo Alto is situated across the highway from its start-up-studded neighbor Palo Alto, but that highway may as well be a wall. Where Palo Alto touts Tesla-driving millionaires in fleece hoodies, East Palo Alto has housed low income households and high crime rates; in the early '90s, drug and gang wars resulted in it having the highest murder rate in the U.S. Today, while it lacks the housing polish and Stanford bragging rights of its counterpart, the primarily Black and Latino community is markedly safer.
Photography by Carlos Chavarria.

While some students bus in from neighboring communities like Redwood City, others, like 15-year-old Malia Langi, walk to the clubhouse. She's been living in EPA since she was 10. “I’ve never found it dangerous or scary,” Langi says. “I will not say it’s a place where everyone should live, but this place has culture and hope.”

But that hope didn't necessarily extend to the opportunities across the highway. Growing up, Langi, like many of the other 18 participants in her class, never really thought the Silicon Valley tech industry was somewhere she could end up — or something she would even be interested in. She felt like programming and technology weren't an option for her.

“I thought tech and coding was something that only 'smart' people could understand and actually make it into the tech industry,” Langi said. Langi is humble and soft-spoken; when lessons aren't being taught or students aren't playing the clubhouse's pool or foosball tables during breaks, she works quietly and diligently at her computer station. “I thought coding would be boring and would take forever to understand.”

However, after just a few weeks at Hack the Hood, the incoming high school junior learned otherwise.
Hack the Hood “feels kind of like school, but not really,” one student said as she showed me her in-progress website for a local restaurant. It’s part school and part part-time job: In the first week, attendees are in more of a traditional classroom environment. Lessons run the gamut: learning HTML, CSS, and PHP; discussing being a minority entrepreneur; as well as how to handle phone calls with clients.

The second week, those skills are put to the test with a design challenge where participants create websites for mock clients. In the last few weeks of the boot camp, students begin working with actual clients who’ve applied to be a part of the program. Sessions are punctuated with exciting visits from inspiring speakers and field trips. Students are paid $1,000 for their time and work, and local small businesses end up with a web presence.
Photography by Carlos Chavarria.
Over the past three years, Hack The Hood has taught 100 students these skills; this summer alone, the program will reach double that number thanks to its increased Bay Area presence.

“We want to use the boot camp as an appetizer to show participants their own power and how they can be involved in technology,” co-founder Harris says. “We talk about the tech industry in isolation, but the whole world is part of the tech industry.”

And since the whole world is a part of the tech industry, it's a huge problem that the ones building the products we use aren't actually representative of the people that use them. Take Twitter, for example: Where Twitter is more popular among young African-Americans than white users, only 2% of its overall workforce is Black.

Harris says programs like this are what’s going to inject diversity into the Silicon Valley talent pool.

“[Diversity] is going to come from the new generation of tech leaders from organizations like Hack the Hood and Black Girls Code. We’re creating a new generation of people that are going to become leaders pioneering diversity more than the big tech giants can do it. That’s going to change the whole field. That’s the ripple effect.”

And it looks like it’s working.

“Hack The Hood has opened my eyes to many other doors I didn't think I could open before,” Langi says. "If I push myself and take the classes I need to, get the internships I need to, network, and connect with those people, I can make it."
Photography by Carlos Chavarria.

While she thought coding would be boring, she's now fascinated by all the "amazing, creative, and cool things [you can do] with it.” While her high school doesn't offer computer science courses, she plans to continue participating in programs like Hack The Hood or CodeCamp outside of class to learn more and perhaps join the ranks of a company like Yahoo or Facebook.

But Hack The Hood is doing far more than just teaching a useful skill and a potential future profession. It wants to also encourage confidence, a positive outlook on life, and a strong work ethic.

"Hack the Hood is unique in that immediately after obtaining the skill necessary to create websites, the students work with the community and can see the impact of their knowledge nearly immediately," instructor and front-end developer Lyn Muldrow says. "They have complete control over their client relationships, and we facilitate the process. This model breeds a sort of pride and sense of accomplishment that I think is unique to our program."

Langi thinks the most important thing she's learned over the past six weeks is "to always try harder, because even when you think something is perfect, you can give it more.”

That's an outlook that will breed success in any profession. And with programs such as Hack the Hood, students like Langi are one step closer to making it happen.
Photography by Carlos Chavarria.

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