Oakland agency addresses the Bay Area’s digital divide
on October 20, 2015
A lively smooth jazz band played at Oakland’s Impact Hub co-working space Thursday evening as guests filed in to celebrate the life of David Glover, a man who devoted his life to community work, including providing low-income students a technology education.
The fundraiser to raise money for a technology education center in Glover’s honor was hosted by The Oakland Citizens Committee for Urban Renewal (OCCUR), a watchdog agency in the city. During the event, the group presented awards to leaders who have made a difference in closing the digital divide, or the gap in technology education between socioeconomic classes.
In front of an audience of a few hundred people from Oakland’s African American community, Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and one of the award recipients, spoke about the vast difference in culture and lifestyle between Oakland and Silicon Valley. “Thirty-eight minutes from the most diverse city in the country … you see all kinds of stuff that you don’t see in Oakland,” Jones said, describing the Segways people ride and the fancy salads they like to eat. “But,” he said, “You don’t see us.” The audience hummed with agreement.
Jones, a former Obama White House advisor, was given the 2015 David E. Glover Vanguard Award during the ceremony for establishing Dream Corps, an incubator that supports national initiatives such as #YesWeCode, which is helping train 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level coders.
In his speech, he encouraged more African-American kids to pursue technology jobs, adding that Silicon Valley expects to add a million jobs in eight years. There are “a million black kids trying out for 15 jobs in the NBA,” said Jones. But only “15 black kids trying out for a million jobs in Silicon Valley.”
“And you have an organization like OCCUR trying to do something about it,” he continued.
In an effort to narrow that gap, OCCUR established the David E. Glover Education & Technology Center fifteen years ago. The center offers computer training and workshops for adults, but this year the center launched a program that aims to teach coding and app development skills to middle and high school students from low-income families.
OCCUR staff hopes some of them will become engineers in Silicon Valley, helping to make the tech industry more diverse. According to a report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, out of a combined 41,000 Twitter, Facebook and Google employees, in 2014 only 1.8 percent were African American. And according to the Computing Research Association, only 4.1 percent of computer science degrees in the U.S. were awarded to African Americans in 2013.
The second award recipient, DeVon Franklin, who runs his own production company, said he would not be where he is now if it weren’t for OCCUR’s influence on him when he was 16 years old. “The first time I even knew what Yahoo was, was in the office of OCCUR,” said Franklin in his speech. He recalled how Glover personally served as a father figure and role model.
Still, getting students to sign up for programs at the center has been a challenge. Students in the after-school program have to commit to attending class every day for three-years. William Hammons, the director of the center, said that many students fear technology. Even though he has capacity for twenty students, not all of the places have been taken. The vast majority of the participants are male. “They enjoy playing the games, working on video, going on sites, but not creating their own,” he said.
Williams said he hopes to attract more students by catering to their interest in “artsy” areas of technology such as wearable technology, a growing industry that includes watches and other digital items that can be worn.
Trelicia Okechukwu, a freshman at San Lorenzo High School who spoke at the event, didn’t initially have any interest in coding, but she learned how to make her own games on Weebly, a web site builder last summer. She used “coding blocks and angles” to move objects around on video games. “Ever since then I’ve been interested in learning how to code and using technology more,” said Okechukwu. “I really enjoyed the process.”
Williams said he hope eventually to attract more students by catering to their interest in “artsy” areas of technology such as wearable technology, a growing industry that includes watches and other digital items that can be worn. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve so they can develop the skills so they can do it themselves,” he said.
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