In Oakland, It’s Either Code or Be Coded

At the first-ever hackathon for Black Male Achievement in Oakland, Van Jones invited the young participants to join him at the front of the room. Jones—a former policy advisor to President Obama, frequent CNN commentator and founder of #YesWeCode—pointed at the kids, mostly teenagers, and turned to the crowd: “This,” he said, “is history.” Before the hackathon began, Jones gave the young men what might be called an old-fashioned “talking-to,” although it was definitively 21st century:
Somebody out there, somewhere, is building a future. They didn’t ask your permission. They didn’t ask my permission. They took a computer or laptop and said ‘I’m gonna build Twitter, I’m gonna build Instagram…(and) every click is going to be cash for me.’
He explained it this way: “Every time you move your thumbs, you’re making cash for someone you never met.” He likened it to picking cotton. “It’s code, brothers, or be coded.” The situation does seem to call for such straight talk: Only 2 percent of Silicon Valley’s current tech workforce is African American. This eye-opening fact came to light last year when tech companies shared their workforce demographics for the first time. All promised to improve their diversity but a year later and black tech hires remained stagnant. Van launched #YesWeCode with the goal of training 100,000 young people of color to become some of the best computer programmers in the world. They are doing this through a variety of partnerships, bootcamps and hackathons. But his vision is bigger than that. As Van sees it:
Every ethnic group succeeds the most when it conquers some part of the economy. Right now, African Americans dominate in sports and entertainment. But the next generation of African Americans should aim at becoming the best computer coders and graphic interface designers in the world. That feat alone would solve many, many of our community's problems.
The demand is certainly there; representing the fastest-growing job sector in the U.S., the tech industry is adding some 9,600 new jobs to the economy every month. Today’s black youth seem more than ready to accept and prepare for that challenge. This, it seems, could make history.
Kelly Amis founded Loudspeaker Films in 2009 to combine her passion for social justice and education equality with her love of art and belief in the power of film.
Photo of Van Jones talking to hackathon participants, courtesy of Kwame Anku.