A few months ago, I was offered an opportunity to teach software development with D.C. Youth Corps. DC’s Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) partnered with a local nonprofit, FutureFirst to offer a dual-track youth empowerment and capacity building initiative for marginalized D.C. youth.
I took the job because I saw myself in the students I would be teaching. I grew up in Egypt as part of a minority, which meant that many career paths, political offices, social privileges and financial resources were closed off to me. My students are facing the same thing. Because they are minorities, and because they don’t have adequate access to resources, their opportunities in life are limited. No one has helped them develop the skills, the connections, and the confidence that would allow them to succeed in business. But the tech industry offers a path to financial stability and professional achievement, and a coding school can open the gate.
D.C. has the highest per-capita income among the U.S. states and territories, but the wealth gap between residents of the city is extreme. A recent study showed that D.C. has the highest homeless rate of 32 U.S. cities. People may live only a few miles apart, but they lead completely different lives. The rising cost of living in D.C. has pushed many out of the city. Enabling locals to make more money is one way to push back..
When I met the students for the first time last June, it became clear that it wasn’t going to be a normal teaching job. My students, aged between 15 and 24, told horrifying stories. At least 10% had experienced the murder of a friend or a family member within the last year. Some of the students had been arrested before, or have incarcerated family members. Some had seen family members assaulted by the police. And others endure hateful and racist insults on a regular basis.
FutureFirst’s student with Darius Baxter, CEO and co-founder of GOODProjects
Bootcamp for the Disadvantaged
Since software has been eating the world for decades, and tech companies have been complaining about shortage of qualified workers, many organizations have built intensive programs to teach young people how to code. These programs change the lives of thousands of Americans every year, and increase their incomes significantly. Yet people of color who go through these programs often don’t get the same outcomes as their white peers. This isn’t only because of the tech industry’s lack of diversity and its bias against Black and Latino professionals, but also because people from underserved communities haven’t been given the social support, haven’t been taught the interviewing skills, or haven’t been able to tap into the personal networks that are necessary for success. As one student put it, “In school, I wasn’t a good student, but I wasn’t a stupid student. I just never attended, because I feel like they focus on the wrong things. The curriculum is out of date. They don’t teach you the essentials to be a successful adult in life like: home ownership, good credit, being your own boss, and how to write a resume.”
‘’I was homeless. Now, I’m a businessman.’’
D.C. Youth Corps’s approach to this dilemma is unique. Students don’t have to pay anything to join the program. In fact, they are paid minimum wage while they attend classes. They are taught the same technical skills taught in other boot camps. Students also intern at local tech companies several days a week during the course of the program. They get direct exposure to the environment in tech companies, but more importantly they get to build connections and professional reputations with local companies that see value in diversity. The program also teaches students how to start their own businesses, and DSLBD guides them through the process. I believe this model is replicable, and that the tech industry is full of opportunities for people of color. FutureFirst hopes to inspire others to create similar programs in different cities across the United States.
During the couple of months I’ve been teaching in this program, I’ve seen several students who are challenging the odds, and turning their lives around for the good.
One of our students (I’ll call him “Jack”) [DO4] used to be a political science student at Howard University. Two years ago, due to financial problems, he fell into homelessness and depression. “It’s very easy to resort to a dark space when you don’t have nothing stable,” Jack told me. He used to sleep in university buildings and transportation vehicles.
Then Jack found out about the coding program through My Brother’s Keeper DC. Once he enrolled, FutureFirst assisted him to get housing, food stamps, and health insurance. In the program he learned how to start his own business. Now, Jack is starting his own business, and the DSLBD team is helping him to complete and file the paperwork.
When I spoke to Jack few weeks ago, this depressed, homeless youth was full of hope, and had a clear vision of what he wants to do with his life. At the end of our conversation, he told me, “If I wasn’t in the program, I’d have starved by now, like literally. I’d still be super-homeless. I wouldn’t have understood what I need to do, and where I need to go. Not only this program has helped me work-wise, but also helped me get wrap-around services like food stamps and health care, and help me get back to school. I’m gonna be the mayor of DC at some point. This is just the beginning of my story.”