The streets of South Los Angeles have long had a reputation for violence. That's why the region dropped the "Central" part of its moniker in 2003, hoping to rebrand and change public perception. But the sprawling region still has a long way to go. Its more than half a million residents lack many of the basic public services and opportunities the rest of the city takes for granted. The median household income in Watts, one part of South L.A., is $25,000 a year.
On these streets, 34-year-old Oscar Menjivar cruises in his 2003 blue Toyota Celica, looking for new recruits. Menjivar, originally from Watts, wants local youth to join UrbanTxT, the non-profit he founded three years ago to help teach inner city teens the value of technology and the skills to be entrepreneurs.
"With coding we're able to give kids the hope and confidence to potentially get a very good paying job in the future. There's a hunger to learn web development and app development in the inner city," says Menjivar, who was inspired, he says, by former University of Southern California football coach Pete Carroll, who would travel through the inner city and attract talent by word-of-mouth.
UrbanTxt operates on a shoestring budget of about $10,000 from an Edison International grant. Menjivar, who spent more than 10 years as an IT consultant, says he's put about $45,000 of his own money into the program. "Funding has been our biggest challenge," he says.
More money could mean the flexibility to transport and feed students, expand staff, and actually pay them. Menjivar's 25-year-old right-hand man, Juan Vasquez, the program's communications coordinator, works pro-bono and sleeps on Menjivar's couch.
Menjivar says more than 10 local high schools want UrbanTxt to teach their students. But the program can't scale without funding. He's applied for a $100,000 grant from LA2050, which supports community projects, but hundreds of others are competing for only 10 spots.
"We need about $200,000. We're not sure if we're going to have the program if we don't have the funding. That's the reality," Menjivar told Mashable.
Still, results are promising. One hundred percent of graduating seniors end up in four-year universities, according to Vasquez. And more and more students are trying to get involved. Last year, 42 applied; 25 were accepted. This year, 150 applied for 30 spots. Currently, the students are in the 15-week summer coding program, creating apps that address community problems.
Jesus Vargas, 17, had a 2.8 GPA before entering UrbanTxt. Now he has a 3.8. "It opened up my eyes to entrepreneurship," he says. "Suddenly, everything seems possible."
Sixteen-year-old Xavier Clark calls the program a "judgment free zone."
Marco Solis is a program alumnus and now a second year student at Stanford. He never thought he could afford to enroll in a school like that, but Menjivar showed him how to fill out a financial aid application and he was accepted. Now he's studying mechanical engineering. "Without him, I don't think I would be here," he said.
Menjivar says these students, most of which have never left South L.A., are unpolished gems. All they need is encouragement and direction. And, he finds, their challenging upbringing helps foster a sense of ownership and maturity that an outsider might not expect. "They don't give up. That's part of the culture in South L.A. The attitude is, 'I'm going to make it no matter what happens.'"