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“Trayvon” Meets Technology in Oakland

Courtesy: Kalimah Priforce

Facts facing Black teens in recent years: Though all teens have a dismal average of 20 percent unemployment, Black teens are unemployed at an average of 40 percent, and young Black male teenagers are unemployed at an average of 50 percent. This is largely because many employers are failing to hire Black males, and especially in tech fields.

A tipping point for future African-American entrepreneurs in technology is taking place this week, Feb. 7-9, during Black History Month in Oakland. Kalimah Priforce, Ayori Selassie and Rani Croager have organized the first Startup Weekend focusing on young Black males:

From Kalimah, Qeyno Labs co-founder, we learn that Startup Weekend Oakland innovates on the traditional hackathon community-building model to create an inclusive technology ecosystem that deeply engages the achievement of Black males and their surrounding communities.  This blend of “LinkedIn meets Kahn’s Academy for kids” works with local partners and schools to close the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) diversity gap in K-12 education by harnessing the interests of under-served youth into STEM career pathways using web and mobile-based technology.

JET: Kalimah, what have you realized while organizing the first startup weekend focusing on Black males?

Kalimah Priforce: Confronting Black male achievement this weekend is for many confronting what is most uncomfortable. While organizing this event, I received emails from people who are uncomfortable working with Black kids – Black boys specifically. They say they are more comfortable working with Black girls. So this whole idea of a hackathon is now also to help people change their way of thinking away from where they feel like they’re working alongside ‘these thugs.’ Many developers are telling me that this is the first time they ever worked with Black boys. The tech community will become enlightened through this positive experience with Black youth. Times need to change, and this event is creating that change. People are afraid of even the topic of Black male achievement. We are receiving pushback from several White tech feminists telling us that the conversation on diversity in the Bay Area should be about women and gender bias only. I agree that Black women and children are the most vulnerable group in our society, but we are addressing the issue of Black mothers’ sons here.

JET: Silicon Valley’s tech giants have failed to hire Black applicants, directly reflected by the Valley’s 1 and 4 percent income increase for Asians and Whites respectfully, compared to an 18 percent decrease in income for Blacks during recent years. Did these statistics affect your decision to focus on Black males in tech?

KP: I want to have a conversation about why the tech community is governed by bias, a real conversation about data, and of the under-representation of the status quo. This bias manifests itself not just in numbers, in recruitment and in commuter science enrollment, but deeper level engagement. Let’s talk about people who do not hire or educate people who do not look like them or do not come from where they come from.  Many folks believe that this hackathon is Martin Luther King Jr. meets Silicon Valley, but it’s really Trayvon meets Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley doesn’t want to have this conversation. Well, we are having the conversation.

JET: What is your goal beyond this weekend as it relates to diversity in technology?

KP: We have to change the tech game we play in every day by making it much more accessible to women and minorities. That starts by building more apps for the Trayvon Martins of the world than we do for the George Zimmermans. Teaching under-served, historically under-represented kids how to code takes more than just skills-building. It takes a community-driven effort that exposes them to how coding can transform their lives and the world around them. The word “hackathon” should be in their vocabulary and a dinner-time conversation in their homes. Those of us that call ourselves “innovators” have to meet them part-way by being in their lives as mentors, role models, and hiring them as our junior coders.

JET: After this week’s hackathon, what are your  future plans?

KP: I’m part of a team creating a hackathon at the San Francisco Music Festival with 200,000 people. We are working with YesWeCode.org and RebuildtheDream.com. I also want to make sure that the right education is provided to under-served populations. Education is the foundation. I’m working on raising a seed round this year for my startup, then eventually I’ll take a break and attend graduate school.

JET: What kind of company are you building?

KP: I want to build a tech company that is community driven, and this community wants to build amazing opportunities for under-served kids to unlock their own ascension code.

JET: Which professionals have inspired you?

KP: Two of my current mentors are Cedric Brown, managing partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, and Van Jones, founder of #YesWeCode. They helped me refine my tech leadership in the community. Two of my heroes are Dr. Lorraine Monroe and Dr. Geoffrey Canada.

About Lettie McGuire

Founding member of the first online African American community Netnoir, Lettie McGuire is a Bay Area artist and educator who enjoys building interactive Universal Design for Learning (UDL) applications. Send Lettie leads about pioneering Black professionals in technology via digitalpitches@ebony.com. You can follow her on Twitter @leadersintech.