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Youth Tech Programs in Harlem Build Opportunity Pipeline

In a small meeting room at the Harlem Business Alliance on Lenox Avenue, students are learning to code. Tablets, tangled cords and coffee cups crowd the tabletop.

Camera Ford, 22, one of two girls in the group of 11, has just finished her first live web page, complete with a lavender background and GIFs. She graduated in May from Brown University with a degree in geology, but after hearing about the program from a friend, she decided to enroll.

While the instructor explains how to make resumes “sexier,” Matthew Boyd, 23, stays focused. “This is more serious to me than a lot of other things in my life,” he said. Before starting classes at Disrupt Harlem Code Squad, he taught himself HTML and CSS coding online. Now, he wants to move on to more advanced languages, like Python and Ruby.

The Harlem Business Alliance created Disrupt Harlem Code Squad last year. “There was a need for more students to learn how to code, to help businesses big and small,” said director Christina Celuzza. The free coding and entrepreneurial training program welcomed its third cohort of 18- to 24-year-old Harlem residents this month.

“They might have the technology” – probably a smartphone, maybe a laptop – but not “the idea of being a producer rather than a consumer,” said Tunisia Mitchell, programs director at the Knowledge House, the Bronx nonprofit that provides Disrupt Harlem’s curriculum.

Other uptown tech programs target younger students. Silicon Harlem, a private company that seeks to transform Harlem into a tech hub, hosts a free apps academy each summer for high schoolers; this year, 20 students attended. “One hundred percent of our kids are on track for college,” or already enrolled, said founder Clayton Banks.

HYPOTHEkids in West Harlem offers after-school and summer programs for kindergarten through high school students. “I am fundraising all the time,” said director Christine Kovich. The program’s annual budget is nearly $500,000.

The programs rely on a combination of foundation and grant funding to keep training free to students. HYPOTHEkids receives funding from national donors, such as National Institutes of Health, as well as local ones.

Silicon Harlem’s summer program costs roughly $3,800 per student, covered by the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in Harlem and the Pinkerton Foundation.

Likewise, grants fund much of the Knowledge House’s $300,000 annual budget. Last year, nearly 400 students attended its programs, 20 percent of whom moved on to employment or internships.

Disrupt Harlem Code Squad’s annual budget, about $44,000, also comes from foundation grants.

Each program aims to create a pipeline, connecting local youth to a booming tech industry, known for its lack of diversity.

A report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this year found that the industry employs more whites, Asian-Americans and men – and fewer African-Americans, Hispanics and women – than the private sector over all.

“It’s not a pipeline issue; it’s a hiring issue,” said Brandi Collins of Color of Change, an online civil rights advocacy group.

Job opportunities exist. By 2024, the tech industry will create nearly half a million new jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports – nearly twice the rate of non-STEM industries (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Today, the average entry-level tech salary in New York is $51,180, according to surveys by the state Department of Labor; in New York City, it rises to $57,230.

Those with a degree in a STEM subject go on to earn 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts, but half of all STEM jobs are available to workers without college degrees, according to the Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank.

The industry is quite accessible, said Mitchell. “All you need is the time, access to a computer and maybe a mentor.”

All these programs combine technical and entrepreneurial training, so that students “not only have an idea but also know how to monetize it,” said Mitchell.

Tyler Newton, 23, attended Disrupt Harlem last summer after graduating from St. John’s University, where he studied homeland security. His class took field trips to Airbnb in SoHo and Rap Genius in Brooklyn, where he was impressed by how much employees seemed to love their work. “After I went through the program, it just changed my whole career path,” he said. He now attends an intensive, 10-month program in Queens to become a developer for Apple’s operating system, iOS.

Such programs face significant challenges, however. Sometimes students have never considered tech jobs.

At the HYPOTHEkids Maker Lab summer program in West Harlem, most high school-aged participants have “not been exposed to any engineering at that point in their academic careers,” said director Christine Kovich. Regardless, each cohort spends the summer developing biomedical products and business models that tackle a global health issue. Every student who has completed the program has gone on to a four-year college, many to pursue STEM degrees.

Spotty attendance presents another challenge. Disrupt Harlem typically graduates only about 10 of its 15 students each session. Celuzza said some contend with “social issues,” like caring for a child or younger sibling.

The Knowledge House aims to reach disconnected youth, said Mitchell, but “it’s hard to reach them because they’re not in school, they’re not at work.” The program has placed about 20 percent of students in jobs or internships; it recently added a job readiness program.

Introducing students to STEM fields from an early age matters when tech literacy is all but assumed. “We’ve hit a point where someone applying for a job at a gas station has to do it online,” said Collins.

HYPOTHEkids’ after-school programs at two local schools, the Teachers College Community School and P.S. 36 in Harlem, focus specifically on the math achievement gap. Students as young as four learn about molecules, a concept they might not normally encounter until fourth or fifth grade.

This early intervention is key, said Kovich. At both schools, only about 20 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders score “proficient” or higher on the state math exam, far below the citywide average of 39 percent.

Despite such disparities, more Harlemites are entering STEM fields and the tech industry because of these programs. “There’s more need than there are programs,” said Banks.

Color of Change’s media justice campaigns go a step farther, aiming not only to diversify the tech industry but also to encourage people of color to create and control their own tech infrastructure, said Collins.

“We need to speak for ourselves,” she said, and make space for “the next black, female Mark Zuckerberg.”

Oct 13, 2016

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