By: Leonardo Castañeda, Reporter for The Mercury News / East Bay Times
Date: December 16, 2019
OAKLAND — When 11-year-old Ryan Travis got to Merritt College early Saturday morning, it was the Stockton student’s first time on the campus — a previous hoped-for visit was canceled because his class wasn’t able to raise enough money for the field trip.
He was one of roughly 200 black students — mostly boys from the Bay Area — who came to the campus for the seventh annual Brothers Code event. A combination workshop and career fair, it was intended to give them a taste of the technology and skills they will need in the future, regardless of their career path.
At the same time, panels and workshops for their parents helped answer questions about breaking into tech and provided an introduction to HTML, a coding language foundational to the internet.
The event was organized by Oakland nonprofit The Hidden Genius Project and the Kapor Center, which works to increase diversity in tech through research and by helping expand educational opportunities. The Hidden Genius Project also hosts a 15-month immersive computer science and entrepreneurship program for black male students in ninth through 11th grade.
Although students at the event and at The Hidden Genius Project’s immersive program work on specific skills and coding languages, the goal is broader, Brandon Nicholson, the nonprofit’s founding executive director, said.
“The best thing you can equip any young person with is an open mind and a dynamic approach to getting those skills,” he said.
African-American workers still face significant disparity in tech work, and Oakland can sometimes be overlooked in Silicon Valley despite a history of innovation in technology, as well as in arts, culture and music, Nicholson said. A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office found only 4.5 percent of tech workers are black men, and in 2016, the New York Times found only 1 percent of workers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter were African American, according to those companies’ diversity reports.
But Nicholson said their work goes beyond focusing on those disparities and is instead intended to encourage students’ self-confidence and help the rest of the world, and Silicon Valley, see what they are capable of.
“I think it’s really a manifestation of a very strong and fundamental belief in the capabilities of our young people,” he said.
For his part, Travis, who came accompanied by his grandmother, wants to be a lawyer — “They make good money,” he said. He and other students took part in workshops where they customized the character in a video game in which the blocky protagonist has to fend off hungry animals by feeding them digital slices of pizza. In other hands-on classes, students met in virtual reality worlds they could manipulate or scanned stuffed animals using a 3D scanner built into Samsung cellphones.
One workshop, led by legendary Oakland musician and producer D’wayne Wiggins of the group Tony! Toni! Toné — “I’m sure your grandma knows about us,” he told one group — students built simple beats using small rings connected to an iPad that play music based on whatever color they are put up against.
Wiggins said he has been intrigued by how music and technology can work together and has pushed bands he produces to develop music for things like apps. Brothers Code is an opportunity for young Oakland students to get a taste of that, he said.
“How dope it is to have that in your community,” he said.
After the hands-on time, students attended a career expo where they could talk to representatives from tech giants like Google, Entertainment Arts and Cisco, as well as more traditional employers and nonprofits such as Blue Shield of California, Nike and Youth Aid, an Oakland nonprofit.
Also attending and helping lead workshops were students in The Hidden Genius Project’s immersive program. Their career goals are ambitious, following the nonprofit’s sky-is-the-limit approach to education.
Sonny Buckner, a 10th-grader at Saint Mary’s College High School in North Berkeley, wants to become a music producer and have his own record label in the Bay Area — his backup plan is going into cybersecurity. He is currently learning Ruby on Rails, a popular web application framework, and building a website that will bring together disparate resources for aspiring musicians, “making it easier for producers and rappers to connect,” he said.
Joshua Wilson, a 10th-grader at Aspire College Preparatory Academy in Richmond, said he loves physics and is planning on a career in aerospace engineering. He said events like Brothers Code are a way of achieving the equity goals people have called for in tech.
“You don’t see a lot of people taking action,” he said. “This is people taking action.”
One of Brothers Code’s most important contributions, those attending the sessions and volunteers said, is in simply existing. Volunteer Alphonso Sensley said he first heard about The Hidden Genius Project when he was in the midst of a career change into tech. He said he loves seeing so many young black men coming together to talk about technology and their careers and ambitions.
“It’s something I knew I had to be part of,” he said.
Sensley eventually taught himself Swift, a coding language developed by Apple for its own operating system. He now works for Bank of America on its iOS app.
“I never saw myself as a software engineer, because I never saw software engineers that looked like me,” he said.
Maybe if he had, he said, he would not have needed a career change at all, he said. Travis, the young student from Stockton, said the experience opened his eyes to his career options. One of the highlights of the day, he said, was when a fellow student started freestyle rapping over Wiggins’ tech-enhanced beats.
“I have a few more ideas,” Travis said. Maybe the “music industry, or (a) computer major.”