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Coders face challenges recruiting students of color




It's not novel information that the field of computers and technology is only marginally populated by black coders. Even Google — in an attempt to diversify the company — has recently rolled out a program called Howard West, which will train black coders from Howard University (a historically black college) in hopes of diversifying the techie population in Silicon Valley. This disparity in representation lies in our city too. The question is why?

Thomas Russell, the Information Technology teacher at District 49's Falcon High School and director/founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring), has been privileged during his career to be a part of the military team that developed the internet and GPS before they were released to the public. Currently, he is working to increase the number of black coders in our community and says: "For my own school, which is between 10 percent to 12 percent African-American, I have a very difficult time recruiting and retaining those students that look like me into my cybersecurity club."

Russell, who writes on this and other techie topics for the Indy's online column, Technicalities, relates the lack of black presence in cybersecurity to the differences in cultural experiences of the black American. "It's not aptitude," he says. "Where blacks have low test scores, in those same areas folks from Africa and the Caribbean come here and test just as high as whites and Asians." Russell also believes that during this digital age when everyone is a celebrity (via Facebook or YouTube), being a coder is an "in the background" type of field. He says, "there's no Carnegie Hall for algorithms."

Russell boasts that his district provides him with the resources needed to recruit black students, while across the city, STEM-driven school programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are popping up everywhere. If Falcon, a more affluent area than southeast Colorado Springs, struggles to recruit black coders, then maybe the problem isn't just resources.

Our society becomes more technologically advanced every day. However our view of who and what a computer programmer is or looks like remains relatively the same. As our lives become more automated and coding becomes the universal language spoken among decision-makers, black representation in the field of cybersecurity should increase drastically. As long as our society continues to envision coders as a "nerd only" club open exclusively to the ghostly white, lanky Leonards and Sheldons of the world (as portrayed on The Big Bang Theory), coding will be a hard sell for black folks.

Russell states: "It's known that blacks use technology just as anyone else. But a peek behind the numbers can reveal much. For instance, black and Hispanic households access the net by cellphone much more than desktop or laptop computers. I don't think it's a leap to say that those cellphone-dependent users are not running any engineering, design or database application analysis software on their phones." Maybe they should be.

How do we make coding an attractive and accessible career option for kids of color? Invest in hosting coding clubs at Hillside and in southeast Colorado Springs? Teach a program through YouTube videos? Connect coding with hip-hop and urban artists? Where does responsibility lie? The individual or the community?

Imagine the fruit of such investments. Bringing blacks into the pool of programmers (a field for which the starting salary is $71,000 locally) could increase job security in black communities and instill an interest that could put our kids in positions of great influence.

My sons, ages 16 and 13, recently attended The African American Youth Leadership conference at Colorado College. For days all they talked about was Mr. Baynes, a math and science major, who drove from North Carolina to attend the AAYLC. One of the first things they noticed is that he didn't "look like a science teacher; he had dreads." They also noticed that his humor was on point and he was hip to what's going on in hip-hop. His experiments were interactive, exciting and engaging. They were inspired by his life. My oldest son told his little brother, "man, seriously, we need to learn computers" (that's code for becoming more technologically advanced).

As labor continues to become more automated, it will be outsourced if there is no one available to develop it. The chasm between the marginalized and the rest of society will grow exponentially if we don't jump on the STEM boat.

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