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Oakland hackathon seeks to develop local talent

on February 23, 2015

This weekend, 10 teams of young people—predominately African American and Latino students between the ages of 7 and 20—worked alongside designers and developers in Oakland to build innovative apps and websites to “hack” their communities.

Organized by Qeyno Labs, the My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon is related to a call-to-action initiative from the White House to improve the life outcome of young men of color. Last September, President Obama asked communities around the United States to accept the challenge to “implement a coherent cradle-to-college-and-career strategy for improving the life outcomes of all young people.”

Qeyno co-founder Kalimah Priforce said he started off as a software developer at Qeyno Labs, focused on creating career-developing software for high schoolers, around the time that a jury returned a not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager. Priforce said that a conversation about the value of young black men’s lives wasn’t happening in Silicon Valley. “The best way to have that conversation in Silicon Valley isn’t in a conference or forum, but a hackathon” that will “allow techies to build something that may change the world,” he said. Priforce said tech companies need to stop thinking about importing talent from overseas, and instead develop the talent that’s right in the backyard of Silicon Valley, people in cities like Oakland or East Palo Alto.

On Friday, the participants, called “trailblazers,” pitched their ideas and were divided into teams with mentors from all over the Bay Area. On Saturday, the teams were separated into different workspaces on the fourth floor of the Kaiser Center adjacent to Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland. Colorful sticky notes were taped to the walls as the teams brainstormed their ideas until 10 p.m. They came back at 7 a.m. Sunday morning with a proposal and prototype for the project they hoped to build.

The trailblazers, all wearing long-sleeved, blue MBK Hackathon t-shirts, stood on the stage to present their final pitches during Sunday’s presentations. The teams’ proposals included an app focused on spreading awareness about suspension rates in schools; an app to prepare minority youth when confronted with police officers or gang members; a computer funding website for minority students; and a social awareness app to empower young women.

Tech experts from around the Bay Area, questioned the participants on their business models and the social impact their project might have before choosing the winner.

Although the initiative was aimed at young men, young woman also participated in the hackathon. Storm White, 19, a student from Berkeley City College and a graphic designer intern at Youth Radio, won her first hackathon along with her “My Study Buddy” team. Over the weekend, White and her team members created a location-based app for students of color in the Peralta Community College District to easily form study groups.

“It was a lot of hard work and a lot of long hours, but the group that I was with was awesome,” White said. “I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I might be coming into it.”

Lauren “Lo” Benichou, an interactive news developer at Youth Radio and a mentor for the “My Study Buddy” team, said she volunteered because she wanted to get involved in the community. She said she’s been to hackathons before where the participants were mainly white and male, and where a sense of community and family was missing. “It was amazing to see so many folks of color and women and diversity in the tech world,” Benichou said.

“I believe that the life outcome of young men of color can be improved simply by working along side a very brilliant, smart, sophisticated young woman who also wants to take the lead in building apps,” Priforce agreed.

Along with first, second and third place, the teams were also awarded for best design, best impact and outstanding trailblazer who wins a technology internship with Mayor Libby Schaaf, who also spoke at the ceremony. “The prize goes to me, that I get one of you in my office this summer. I can’t wait to hear from you and learn from you and to connect you with all the people of your dreams,” Schaaf said. “I have to say that one amazing thing about being the mayor of Oakland is everybody wants to talk to you. So I can hook you up.”

The mayor also spoke about her reactions to the ideas the participants proposed. “There’s some stuff that was pretty deep here, for somebody in government. The idea that our young people need an app to navigate interactions with the police,” Schaaf said. “The fact that young people feel like we need an app to look at the disparities of suspension rates—that says something to me, that we in government are not doing our job at maintaining the trust of the people, of all the people that we serve.”

The hackathon ended with a “rite of passage” ceremony at which the trailblazers were invited up to the stage as “Baba” Gregory Hodge, District 3 representative on the Oakland School Board and social change activist, performed a beat with his drum. “It’s three beats and I need everybody to help out,” Hodge said.

The trailblazers and audience members clapped in sync with the beat as Hodge sang. Afterwards, Hodge slowed down his beat as everyone stopped clapping and Priforce described the purpose of the ceremony: “This rite of passage is that there is nothing in the world that is outside of your reaches,” he said. “It’s not just a line in your Linkedin profile. It is something where you know that you can walk into any technology office and know that you belong there.”

The next MBK Hackathon will be in June in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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