Victoria Pannell could have spent her Fourth of July weekend going to barbecues and hanging out with her friends, but the 15-year-old chose to stay indoors and learn how to code.
Pannell, who traveled 24 hours by car with her mom from New York to New Orleans, was one of dozens of teens from all over the country who participated in the Essence Festival’s first-ever hack-a-thon. The event was the official launch of #YesWeCode, an initiative spearheaded by Van Jones (and supported by Prince, who gave it a shout out during his headlining performance) that aims to get 100,000 “high potential, low opportunity” youth to interested and involved in coding.
The event presented the perfect opportunity for Pannell to marry her love for computers and her passion for helping to end child sex trafficking, which was the focus of the application she spent the weekend building. When Pannell was 13, she portrayed a girl forced into sex trafficking in a public service announcement for change.org. The issue has stuck with her ever since. “After I portrayed Monica, the victim, I couldn’t sleep thinking about how there were girls whose bodies were being ravaged by strangers every day,” Pannell said. “Sex trafficking is an operation, and we want to prevent that operation from happening.” Through her application, the Sex Trafficking Operations Prevention app or, STOP, she’d help connect potential and current victims of trafficking to support services like the Polaris Project’s Hotline.
The sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technology (STEM) are the fastest growing career fields in the United States. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates occupations in the STEM field will by 17% by 2018, while non-STEM jobs are expected to grow by 9%. Microsoft projects about 1.2 million jobs will open in computer sciences by 2020—but only about 40,000 Americans currently graduate with the necessary credentials to fill the positions. #YesWeCode is looking to increase the number of African-Americans in STEM.
“I aspire to become a software engineer,” said Zachary Dorcinville, a rising high school senior from the Bronx who crowd-funded $1,500 to purchase his plane ticket to get to the Festival. His team developed an application that uses music to make workout experiences more social. “Technology is always changing and always evolving. I love it.”
When you picture a successful tech CEO, what comes to mind? Probably a white man, maybe one wearing a hoodie.
Technology is a caucasian male-dominated industry, that's why getting more diversity in tech has never been more of a priority. In fact, in the last month, a handful of the most well-known tech companies have released data that illustrates this trend, with male employees far outnumbering females, and in the U.S., a white majority rules.
Though these numbers clearly show there’s not enough diversity in the tech workforce, part of the imbalance stems from a lack of diversity in technology education at a young age—many students are unable to access resources that can set them up for a career path in tech.
In 2013, of the 30,000 students that took U.S. high school Advanced Placement computer science exam, less than 20 percent were female, eight percent were Hispanic, and three percent were black. No female, black or Hispanic students took the exam in Mississippi or Montana.
The poorest communities, often the most diverse, have the most limited access to technology. According to a Pew Internet study, just three percent of teachers of the poorest classrooms feel that their students have access to the digital tools they need at home.
#YesWeCode, an ambitious initiative to encourage 100,000 minority and low-income students to learn skills in technology, aims to change that, and provide a resource for students, parents and teachers to find out how best to teach the next generation of entrepreneurs, builders, and makers.
Officially launching July 4 at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, the largest festival celebrating African-American culture and music in the U.S., #YesWeCode will host a hackathon and a “technology village,” making technology a central part of the event for the first time ever.
Prince is headlining the event this year, and the music megastar was partially responsible for the creation of #YesWeCode.
“#YesWeCode came out of a conversation I was having with Prince about Trayvon Martin,” Van Jones, president of Rebuild The Dream Innovation Fund and one of the creators of #YesWeCode, told me in an interview. Martin, a teenager, was shot in a Florida neighborhood in 2012. “Prince said, ‘When an African-American kid is wearing a hoodie, people think he’s a thug, but when a white kid is wearing a hoodie people think he’s the next Mark Zuckerberg.’”
Jones mentioned something about racism to which Prince replied: “No, it’s because we haven’t produced any Mark Zuckerbergs yet.”
A recent spate of workforce diversity reports from Google, Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn revealed what everybody already kind of knew: The makeup of the tech industry is thoroughly out of whack with the demographics of the Bay Area, the nation and its collective user base. So what now?
For Facebook, the answer starts with getting to the root of the problem, which it defines as unequal access to the skills and training that put a career in tech within reach. To address it, Facebook is partnering with #YesWeCode, a nonprofit whose aim is to teach coding to 100,000 youth from low-opportunity backgrounds.
“There’s this kind of disconnect where everyone in the industry is saying, ‘We have the jobs, we want to employ people,’ but, as you can see with the numbers, everyone’s struggling,” says Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global head of diversity. “We can’t get to the level of diversity we want despite putting lots of effort behind it.”
The first fruit of the new partnership is a search tool, built in part by volunteers at Facebook, that anyone can use to look up local programs that are already offering coding lessons free or at low cost. Right now, the tool only points to about 70 organizations nationwide, but the hope is lots more will join in after #YesWeCode officially launches it tomorrow at the Essence Festival in New Orleans.
“In its most simple form, a mother in South Carolina, for instance, could go to one place and put in ‘I have a boy, he’s 13, and we want to learn how to code this summer,’ and find a program nearby,” says Williams, who joined Facebook last September. “It’s a really basic thing, but as we did the research, we heard people saying, ‘I don’t even know where to put him.’”
The Facebook employees who worked on the tool all volunteered through an internal group called Pipeline Builders, started by the diversity team. “There’s a real hunger to solve this problem,” says Williams. “We constantly reinforce that diversity is everyone’s challenge, because we honestly believe that, with more diversity, we’ll build better products and you’ll have more dynamic experiences within the building.”
By Maxine Williams, Global Head of Diversity
Today we’re making Facebook’s current diversity figures available publicly for the first time.
At Facebook, diversity is essential to achieving our mission. We build products to connect the world, and this means we need a team that understands and reflects many different communities, backgrounds and cultures. Research also shows that diverse teams are better at solving complex problems and enjoy more dynamic workplaces. So at Facebook we’re serious about building a workplace that reflects a broad range of experience, thought, geography, age, background, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture and many other characteristics.
Below is the current demographic data for the company:
#YesWeCode looks to close the coding inequality gap
Shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, liberal activist Van Jones was talking with his friend Prince—yes, that Prince—about the circumstances of the shooting.
“I think he made the observation,” Jones told TIME, “that when African-American young people wear hoodies people think they’re thugs, but when white kids wear hoodies you assume that they’re going to be dot-com billionaires,” a reference to the outerwear favored by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. “We just started thinking: ‘Well, how do we turn that around?’”
Out of that spark was born Yes We Code, an ambitious initiative of Jones’ Rebuild the Dream organization aimed at preparing 100,000 low-income children for careers writing computer code. While good-paying blue-collar jobs continue to disappear in the U.S., computer science is a rare bright spot of opportunity for people without a college education. “This is another opportunity for people to make a really serious, solid middle-class income,” said Jones, a former environmental aide in the Obama Administration.
It’s an old yarn by now that computer science is one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying career paths in America. By 2020, half of all jobs in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) fields will be in computing, according to the Association for Computer Machinery. The latest salary survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers says the average starting salary for computer science majors in 2014 is more than $61,000—just about $1,000 shy of the top earners, engineering grads.
Contrast that with the fact that computer science education in STEM has seen a decrease in enrollment in the last 20 years, with a particularly precipitous drop in the past decade as school districts have reconfigured curriculums to meet standards set by the No Child Left Behind initiative. Those students who do enroll in computer science are overwhelmingly white and male. In 11 states last year, not a single black student took the Computer Science Advanced Placement exam for college credit. That may not mean much in a place like Maine, but in Mississippi, where more than 37 percent of the population is black, the statistic takes on a whole new significance.
Put simply, many parts of the country have systematically reduced educational opportunities in the growing field of computer science for students who depend on the public school system. “It has become privileged knowledge,” said Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teacher’s Association. “The haves have continued to get access and the have-nots, however you want to define that, have not.”
A Black Mark Zuckerberg? Hackathon empowers youth to transform NOLA into their own Silicon Valley
Tired of waiting for Silicon Valley tech companies to design solutions for their neighborhoods, New Orleans youth will unite with technologists and innovators to create their own during #YesWeCode Hackathon.
What is #YesWeCode? #YesWeCode is recruiting hundreds of grassroots training programs and teaming up with major technology partners, celebrities and political leaders to promote the goal of training 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level computer programmers.
Watch founder Van Jones explain his vision for this groundbreaking initiative.