How “the hoodie” became a symbol to teach Young African American boys how to code
on November 15, 2016
An image of Trayvon Martin filled the projector screen at a crowded panel discussion in downtown Oakland last week. Martin, an African American teen shot and killed by George Zimmerman in February, 2012, was wearing a hoodie. The garment covered his hair and almost half of his forehead.
The crowd of about 40 people fell silent as their eyes fixated on the screen in front of them. Kelley Nayo Jahi, the operations chief of Oakland-based hackathon incubator Qeyno Labs, addressed the crowd, her voice filling the room.
“He was wearing a hoodie and was perceived as a threat by the person who shot and killed him,” said Jahi. She clicked the remote in her hands to change the slide.
This time, a photo of Mark Zuckerberg popped up on the projector, showing the CEO of Facebook walking down a street wearing his signature hoodie. It was gray, baggy and strikingly similar to the one Martin was wearing.
“If you see a white kid in a hoodie in Silicon Valley, you think he’s smart,” Jahi said. “If you see a black kid in a hoodie, people perceive them as a threat.”
Jahi was speaking at an Equity in Tech panel discussion to raise awareness about her work in the downtown Oakland offices of SPUR, a non-profit focused on planning and governance in the Bay Area.
As an executive for Qeyno, Jahi has devoted herself to breaking down racial barriers in the tech industry by organizing hackathons and events to educate African American teens on technology. The company began as an education software startup in 2010, but it has since shifted its focus to ending the technology industry’s disparities in access and education. Through hackathons, subsidized by local sponsors and organizations, Jahi and her coworkers at Qeyno are giving African-American teens from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to learn how to code, create content and come up with solutions to problems in their communities.
“We are inviting youth to a conversation that says, ‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to create an app,’” said Jahi. “We’re removing the mystery from it all.”
Jahi’s decision to join Qeyno’s leadership team was a personal one. After earning her bachelor’s degree in economics from Spelman College in Atlanta and an MBA in finance from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, she spent 14 years working in the commercial insurance industry. She decided to leave the corporate world behind to focus on entrepreneurship so she had more flexibility to raise her three kids.
She first encountered Qeyno on a Friday night in February, 2014. Jahi stumbled upon an announcement for one of its hackathons while she was browsing a local news website. She was sitting at home with her kids, and remembers asking her teenage son to sign up.
“My kids aren’t really interested in technology as a career, but I insisted that my son go to the hackathon because technology is a very big part of things,” Jahi said.
Even though Oakland was ranked as one of the top cities for startups, she felt that her kids hadn’t been exposed to enough opportunities to get involved in the technology sector. According to Qeyno, only about 2 percent of Silicon Valley employees identify as African American.
“Black boys in Oakland have a really hard time right now, because the school system is under-serving them,” Jahi said. “My son and his peers deserve to have more, to have a better life, and so do future generations.”
When she and her son arrived at Impact Hub Oakland for the hackathon, she was stunned to see hundreds of African American boys in hoodies developing apps. The theme of the first hackathon was “Could an app have saved Treyvon Martin?”
A few months earlier, George Zimmerman had been acquitted of second-degree murder in the death of Martin. Prosecutors argued that Zimmerman shot the teen in self-defense after confronting him on a dark street in Stanford, Florida. The decision sparked conversation about whether the hoodie Martin was wearing could have played a role in his death.
The teens at the hackathon were wearing hoodies as a symbol against racial bias.
“They said ‘People haven’t seen enough black people in hoodies who are talented,’” Jahi said. “They were changing the paradigm, shifting it and creating more positive images of African-American boys in hoodies.” Jahi was buoyed by Qeyno’s attempt to change the status quo in Silicon Valley, but was disappointed with the way hackathons were organized, so she approached its founder, Kalimah Priforce. “I said, ‘I just wanted to talk to you about these things that could get better,’” Jahi said.
Priforce offered her a full-time position on his team. With the help of Jahi, Qeyno has taken their hackathons across the country, from Brooklyn, to Washington D.C. and even South by Southwest, a technology conference in Austin.
At its next hackathon in February, 2017, Jahi said Qeyno will be bringing together police officers and children of color from Oakland to talk about police brutality against African Americans.
Next April, Qeyno Labs will also be putting together its annual 10-day event called Tech Equity Week. Local companies will be invited to talk about efforts in creating opportunities for marginalized groups in the community.
“If we are all in the same room talking about the same problem and hearing other perceptions we might possibly come up with some solutions that can create some breathing room,” Jahi said. “It’s not as much about the technology as it is about the humane aspect of it and what happens in the room when you bring together people to solve a problem together.”
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