Liberating Ourselves Locally encourages diversity in tech force through Hack Night

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Every Monday, Carlos Mendoza, a high school student, comes to Liberating Ourselves Locally for Hack Night. Sitting in the back of the room next to his mentor, Mendoza takes out his laptop and starts typing. At 18, he is one of the group’s youngest members. He also has a big project underway: Mendoza is creating his own video game.

“I am using Hack Night as a platform to both learn and use what I learned to a medium that I love,” said Mendoza. “It is very refreshing to me.”

His mentor, Praveen Sinha, a software engineer by day, has been teaching him and others coding language at the hacker and maker space in East Oakland for the past few years. “I had the privilege of meeting a lot of people that aren’t your cookie-cutter Silicon Valley types,” said Sinha. “It’s been really powerful.”

During Hack Night, artists, designers, engineers, students and others of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds come to Liberating Ourselves Locally to work on their projects, learn some coding and share skills. “We started the space because there wasn’t really a place that we thought people of color, women, and queer people could come and be comfortable and learn making stuff, share their skills and share resources,” said Jen-Mei Wu, co-founder of the group.

Many tech companies have been moving to Oakland in the last couple of years, alienating long-time residents who have not felt welcomed to participate in the industry. Though minorities only comprise a small fraction of the overall tech force, Wu and her team want to change that by training them for employment and helping them set up their own businesses.

Wu had been advocating for diversity in technology for the last 10 years, but as a woman, she had a hard time identifying with the white men at the hacker spaces she and the other co-founders went to. “We tried a bunch of different spaces and they weren’t very diverse, there weren’t many women, there weren’t many queer people,” Wu said. “It was pretty much a monoculture.”

In 2011, Wu and her partners decided to create a hacker and maker space, which she defines as a space where people can teach and learn technology and crafting skills. Not all of its members are interested in technology. Some are there to start small businesses.

Located in an open space resembling a local storefront on 23rd Avenue, Liberating Ourselves Locally is 20 minutes away walking from the Fruitvale BART station. Wu said being far from public transportation gives them cheap rent and keeps the space exclusively for Oakland community members. The street is home to other non-profits that share the mission of serving under-represented communities.

Since the beginning, the group emphasized entrepreneurship. Wu believes in being financially independent and encourages members to have their own business.

Keeping the space alive has not always been easy. The hacker and maker space relies entirely on donations. After launching in 2011, last year the group had to start a campaign on the fundraising site Indiegogo so they could stay open.

Still, its members say they owe much of their success to the group. Herbalist Elokin Orton-Cheung, who is both Asian-American and gay, said she didn’t have enough money to start her own business, but the time she spent at the space allowed her to build a client list while saving money. She now has a store called Shooting Star Botanical. “I think it was very exciting actually to get to have my practice out of a community space, and introduce other people who came through to what I was doing,” said Orton-Cheung.

In the future, Wu hopes to build out her offerings further by creating low-budget programming classes for people who cannot afford to go to an expensive school. “One of the biggest things you get out from these schools is being with the other students and having goals together,” Wu said.

For more information on Hack Night and other events, visit Liberating Ourselves Locally’s Meetup page and website.

 

Correction: This story was updated on November 8th to correct the spelling of Jen-Mei Wu’s name.

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