Hollywood Journal: Prince, hoodies and #YesWeCode

Hollywood Journal Van Jones YesWeCodePeople always ask me how Prince got involved with#YesWeCode, an initiative I helped to found. #YesWeCode aims to help train 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level computer programmers.

The truth is, it was Prince who sparked the idea.

It was right around the time last year when the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict came out. Martin was an unarmed, black teenager whom was shot and killed in a Florida neighborhood in 2012. My immediate reaction to the verdict was “racism won.”

But Prince had an interesting perspective. He 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.”

Prince said, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: why aren’t we producing more African-Americans and Latinos who are excelling in technology and helping to run Silicon Valley? If we focused on changing that number, then we could change that stereotype — and empower a whole generation.

That was the moment that the seed was planted for #YesWeCode.

We want to flip the script and give our hoodie-wearing youth the same tools, training and technology that the kids have who are taking over Silicon Valley.

yeswecode-essence-hollywoodjournalSince we officially launched in July at Essence Festival in New Orleans, #YesWeCode has been working with grassroots training programs, educators, politicians and big companies in Silicon Valley, including Facebook and Google. Our goal is to align as many players as possible, to forge a job-training pipeline that will get more high-potential young people into high-paying tech jobs or high-powered incubators/accelerators.

It’s an ambitious project. African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women of all colors are sorely under-represented in the tech fields. But our efforts are strengthened by the endorsement and support of many VIPs, including Chris Tucker,Michael Bearden and of course, Prince.

What is exciting to see is how closely tied this work is to their own lives. A few months ago, Chris participated in a panel about diversity in technology, relating his own experiences as a black actor breaking into the mainstream as similar to those trying to break into tech.

Other celebs have encouraged us, too — including MLK’s sonDexter King. And the legendary Lauryn Hill told me that she is very inspired by the work of #YesWeCode. Not many people know this, but Hill’s father actually worked in computer technology, back in the day. So the issue has always been close to her heart.

That’s part of the magic of #YesWeCode. It’s a movement that brings together people from every background — from the hood to Hollywood.

So much is possible, if we stop wasting the genius. Youth of color transformed music and sports in the last century. In this new century, that same creative energy must be unleashed to transform the technology sector — creating new work, new wealth and new solutions for communities that desperately need all three.

Out of such an initiative, we could support hundreds or even thousands of Mark Zuckerbergs — with a whole lot of them looking like Trayvon Martin.

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"Diversity brings so much more to the table - and by focusing outside of the usual and rewarding all sorts of people in tech - we can only make it better. #YesWeCode is doing exactly that."
- Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple