Black Girls Code teaches girls digital technology skills

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The light of the monitor reflected on Janelle’s face. She seemed absorbed by the screen. She typed: <h1>Design That Locker!</h1>

Then she paused, giggled and wrote: <p> How to survive Junior high and High School in Style! </p>.

Then she typed “background” and inserted a flowery vintage wallpaper. Finally she added two pictures of decorated lockers she found on Google.

Janelle is 11 years old, and she was learning how to code her first website thanks to the Black Girls CODE workshop “How to build a webpage in a day.” At the event held on Saturday at DeVry University in downtown Oakland, 100 girls between the ages of 7 and 17, their parents, and 50 volunteers listened carefully as Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, addressed the crowd.

“Are you happy to be here?” asked Bryant.

“Yeahhh!” the girls answered in unison.

Black Girls Code (BGC) is a non-profit organization that teaches girls of color computer programming and digital technology skills. Bryant, 47, an electrical engineer who worked in the biotech field, founded the organization in 2011. She was inspired by her 12-year-old daughter’s eagerness to learn videogame-developing skills. Bryant noticed there was a lack of programs for young women to learn computer science skills and decided to create BGC.

Bryant said that many times, especially in communities like Oakland, children of color feel dispossessed and powerless. She believes that bringing together girls who are using technology and building websites will give them a sense of empowerment. “It’s about teaching the girls to imagine what their future could be, beyond the constrains of what society tells them that it must be,” said Bryant.

Benjamin Elias, a dean at DeVry University, also addressed the crowd and said that careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are projected to grow faster than all but healthcare occupations through 2020, but yet women comprise only 24 percent of that STEM workforce. Bryant told the girls that she hoped they would one day work in those fields. After this introduction, the girls were divided into five groups by age, and off they went to their classes. Here they would learn how to code using HTML, how to change the look and formatting of their webpages using CSS and how to design basic web structure.

In the “yellow room,” a name they gave one room for the day, around 20 girls between the ages of 8 to 10 played an icebreaker game led by instructor Tanya Williams.

“I hate pizza, tacos, and I’m afraid of ghosts,” said one of the girls.

“I’m obsessed with math, and most people hate math,” said another.

After the sharing session, the girls watched three inspirational videos. In one of them, girls talked about what you could do if you learned coding. “When you learn to code, you can assemble anything, and in so doing, you will fix something, or change something, or invent something or run something,” said one of the girls in the video, while the girls in the classroom watched in awe. Williams asked the watchers to share their opinions about the video and one of the girls in the back said: “I heard the word ‘can’ a lot.”

In the “purple room,” the girls between ages 10 and 12 were already learning how to code. Janelle worked on her “Design that locker!” web site. “I thought it was fun buying all the gear to decorate my locker, and I thought it would be fun to do a website about it,” said Janelle. She had already learned about HTML, background colors and how to use a color picker website to get the code colors for her text.

Jonathan Xia, a software developer and volunteer, taught the class how to embed a video on their webpage. Janelle tried a couple of times to embed a “Back to School Locker Organization & DIY Decorations!” video she just found on YouTube, but had no luck. She called Xia over, and he helped her embed the video.

Xia said he enjoys watching the kids experience the power of making the computer do what they want. “I’ve been pretty successful in my software career, and I feel like I want to give something back to people who are just getting started,” he said.

Black Girls Code hosts 10 to 12 events like this each year in Oakland. They also run after-school programs where they teach programming and game design. They recently moved their offices from San Francisco to uptown Oakland. Bryant feels the city is a strong home base for the organization, since the members feel connected to the community. “Here there is such a vibrant energy around innovation and around social change,” said Bryant. “And we really feel we want to be a part of that.”

Bryant feels it is important to reach out to young women of color to provide them with the skills necessary to compete for high-paying STEM jobs in the future. “Many of the girls that are coming to our class have never programmed before. They’ve never been able to seat behind a computer or device and be creative with it and not just be a consumer,” said Bryant. “Empowering them with that skill even in one day has a lot to do with changing their whole self-concept and creates a strong sense of self-advocacy that will help them in whatever they do.”

“I would love to see one of the girls from here in 15, 20 years from now develop something or invent something,” said Elias. “Then we can say ‘Wow, this is somebody that went through this program and we were a part of it.’”

At 3:30 in the afternoon, the girls started wrapping up their webpages before the final presentation. Timia, 10, and Laila, 9, proudly showed Williams the website they built: “Puppies and iPads.” On the website, the girls showed pictures and videos of two puppies, Marshmallow and Cookie, interacting with iPads. Timia said she enjoyed the day because she got to try things that she never tried before, and because she met new people. Will she build another website? “Yeah, I will do my favorite clothing website,” she said.

Then the girls, their families and the volunteers gathered in the conference room to showcase some of the websites they built during the day. Some of them were “The glorious life of YouTube,” a tribute page that had fun facts and popular videos; “Nice to meet you, my name is music!” a page about the importance of music in self-expression; and “The Beginning of Something Beautiful,” a page about surfing with photos, videos and a link to a surfing magazine. The parents proudly clapped as each of the girls did their presentation.

As they formed a line to receive a goodie bag and a certificate, the girls talked animatedly with their parents, telling as much detail about the day as they could. In one corner of the room, a group of three girls around 10 years old discussed their future plans. “Guys, I think we should start thinking about what we want our new webpage to be about,” said one of the girls.

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