Who is coding for?

Published on Tuesday, January 3, 2017 - 13:01

We’re keeping the conversation going around South by South Lawn by featuring individual SXSL participants who can give a closer look at the work they’re doing to make a positive difference in their communities. Today, in honor of Computer Science Education Week, we're featuring Oscar Menjivar, founder of TXT (Teens Exploring Technology), a nonprofit organization that helps inner-city youth develop coding and technology-based entrepreneurial skills.
Read Oscar’s story, then join us for a live Twitter Q&A on @WhiteHouseOSTP with Oscar and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. Details on participation below.

On a typical Friday night, you will find the TXT: HackerSpace in South Los Angeles filled with dozens of excited students.
Some are taking TXT’s Python course, others are studying iOS development or JavaScript. Alongside tech mentors, teens are working on the startups they created during our Summer Coding Leadership Academy, a 12-week computer science and entrepreneurship bootcamp. Kids as young as nine are learning how to build web and phone applications. Sometimes, students are learning from and asking questions directly to Silicon Beach CEOs about what it takes to succeed in the tech sector.
TXT has created a fun and welcoming environment where people from low-income communities are learning and building using state-of-the-art technology. South LA is quickly becoming a hotbed for technological innovation and development -- a major change from when I was a student there. One of the great things about South by South Lawn was hearing and learning about other programs helping to create similar opportunities in communities around the country.
Growing up in Watts, I lost most of my friends to guns, gangs, and prison. Like many young men of color, I saw few options for escaping the streets. I liked technology, but I struggled to find anything engaging at my school, which was then the worst high school in Los Angeles.
My life changed when my mentor, Mr. Wonders, used technology to spark my love of learning. Under his mentorship and guidance, I finished high school and college before becoming a successful entrepreneur. He kept me from becoming a statistic. I knew I had to pay it forward.
Nearly 10 years ago, I visited schools across my community and quickly realized that little had changed for technology education in inner city schools since I was a young man. Something had to be done. So I founded Teens Exploring Technology (TXT), the first computer science organization for low-income young men of color in the nation.

To reach at-risk students of color, we use experiential, project-based learning that gets students excited about problem-solving with technology. Our students have gone on to build web and mobile applications that tackle big community issues like education, hunger, healthy food, and teen sexual health. Our alumni have graduated from prestigious colleges and returned to South LA to give back to their community using technology. Through TXT’s computer science education, our students are becoming inventors with lifelong skills like leadership, entrepreneurship, and collaboration.

Programs like ours are critically needed both here in South LA and in communities across the country. Nationwide, Black and Latino boys face shockingly poor outcomes in education, employment, health, incarceration, and life expectancy as compared with their white and female peers.

Young men of color need a chance to break the cycle of poverty and violence in low-income communities. Computer science presents a tremendous opportunity to engage them with culturally relevant, hands-on learning. And it works. I have seen firsthand how technology can transform lives and uplift families out of poverty.
Since I started this organization, I have met so many students whose experiences mirror my own.
Students like Raul who were struggling with school and slipping through the cracks before they joined our program. Raul had never heard of code and he didn't have a computer at home. TXT gave him a computer science education and took him on tours of tech companies like Yahoo and Google. After completing our programs, Raul was inspired to come back and mentor younger computer science students. Today, Raul is a freshman in college with dreams of becoming a software developer. 
Then there’s Sergio, a recent immigrant who gained drive and direction after building his app during our Summer Coding Leadership Academy. He credits TXT with helping him find a career path he loves and now, he's succeeding as a computer science major at Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges. One day, he hopes to work with the United Nations to spread computer science education around the world.
Jonathan grew up in the Nickerson Gardens, the largest housing project west of the Mississippi. After joining TXT, he helped build an app called SAT Blasters to prepare students for the SATs. He also inspired us to create the Hustle N' Code Hackathon, a biannual coding event in low-income neighborhoods that has already served more than 1,000 disadvantaged kids.
It’s always so amazing to see our students return and give back to their community.
You too can join the revolution to reach low-income young men of color with technology. If you work in computer science education, please remind your organization to reach out to low-income boys of color. In top tech companies right now, Black and Latino men make up less than 3 percent of the workforce.
These numbers are unacceptable. We can and should do better. Young men of color deserve the opportunity to be part of the 21st century economy and we all can work to make this happen. 

Join us for a live Twitter Q&A with Oscar and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith on Tuesday, December 13 at 1:15 PM ET on@WhiteHouseOSTP. You can tweet us your questions using the hashtag #CSForAll-- we'll be keeping an eye out over the weekend.
Got a topic you'd like to see discussed here? We'd love to hear about it. Drop us a line: South-by-South-Lawn-Team@who.eop.gov