Code For Progress Programming A More Diverse Tech World (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Code For Progress Programming A More Diverse Tech World

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We move now audio technology to the more nuts and boltsy computer stuff. Computer programming, in fact. If we look at Silicon Valley, which pretty much dominates the world in all things tech, last year more than 90 percent of start-up founders were men, 82 percent were white. And that's pretty representative of technology as a whole.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:22
But the new D.C.-based nonprofit called Code for Progress is trying to change that. Folks there are working with a rich cross section of people traditionally left out of the tech world, like women, minorities and people with disabilities, and teaching them how to code. Lauren Ober sat in on a class to see how the new face of tech looks.

MS. LAUREN OBER

00:00:42
If the world is divided into two distinct camps -- digital natives and digital immigrants -- Terri Acker is most definitely a member of the latter. The grandmother of seven came of age when the only phones available had cords and a finger wheel. High tech meant a television that had color or a radio that could fit in your pocket. So it's kind of a big deal that at 51, Acker is learning to code. Every day, from 9:00 to 5:00.

MS. TERRI ACKER

00:01:08
Classes have been going pretty good. It's not as easy as I thought, but it's good.

OBER

00:01:13
Acker, who lives in Anacostia, is a fellow at Code for Progress, which is teaching people who have traditionally been overlooked by the tech community how to write computer code. And basically the folks who have been excluded are everyone but white men -- Latinos, people of color, disabled people, seniors, LGBT people. The list goes on.

OBER

00:01:34
Michelle Fox is the managing director at Code for Progress. This is the first year for the initiative, which is the brainchild of activist Dirk Wiggins. With his flat cap and waxed handlebar mustache, Wiggins looks the part of tech geek. But, Fox says, Wiggins recognized that everyone else in the field pretty much looked like him as well.

MS. MICHELLE FOX

00:01:54
We're leaving a lot of talent on the table. We're leaving a lot of possibilities on the table because we're not bringing in people from different backgrounds, different life experiences who might be able to inform the work in a really different way.

OBER

00:02:07
And that's kind of a problem becauseā€¦

ACKER

00:02:09
What we've heard from a lot of the folks who applied to the program is that they never thought that they could be coder.

OBER

00:02:18
So by recruiting diverse participants, Code for Progress is trying to introduce new ideas to the tech sector. It's a subtle form of activism, which makes sense since social justice is a huge part of the organization's mission. The program works like this, for three months, a dozen fellows take intensive coding classes and then get paired up with community nonprofits to help create technology for them. After their residency, the learning continues with mentorships and career counseling. Bobby Joe Smith III is one of the fellows.

MR. BOBBY JOE SMITH III

00:02:48
I really get excited every day to come into the program because I know that I'm going to come away with one more piece to being able to build the app that I want to build.

OBER

00:02:58
Smith is Lakota and a member of the Cheyenne Sioux River tribe. He spent part of his childhood on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Before arriving in D.C., his tech experience was limited.

SMITH III

00:03:09
I took a computer science course at Middlebury College, which did not go well, to be honest.

OBER

00:03:18
But that didn't put him off tech. He had bigger ambitions than just getting a good grade.

SMITH III

00:03:22
Part of what interested me in this program is I started seeing Native communities using tech to help organize around issues that they care about, whether that's bringing our culture online to be able to share across the country no matter where Native people are, to movements like the Idle No More movement in Canada, and gaining support online through organizing in that manner.

SHEIR

00:03:44
Smith and his classmate Terri Acker are both full of ideas about apps they want to develop. But first they have to get through coding class.

MS. ALIYA RAHMAN

00:03:51
First things first, you all.

OBER

00:03:53
Aliya Rahman is the lead instructor for the program. She's a coder, an organizer, and the kind of teacher any adult learner would love to have. She's patient, funny and perhaps most importantly, she's respectful of her students' differences.

RAHMAN

00:04:08
All right. Quick review and the way that I typed that with upper and lower case (unintelligible) is called what? Camel case. We get in there. We had camelback earlier. We had camel cat, camel case. We're getting there. Dromedary.

OBER

00:04:21
The fellows are in the beginning stages of learning the programming language, Python. Rahman starts the lesson with an analogy.

RAHMAN

00:04:28
Here's a question for you, in a movie, in TV, in a play, what is a script? Who's ever been in a play? That includes if you were like seven, it's fine. Me, too. I was in Mary Poppins. I was a nanny, which is kind of weird. So what did you use scripts for?

SHEIR

00:04:48
They go on to discuss how a script in Python acts just like a script in a movie. It provides a set of directions. Everyone in the class gets it. Rahman's techniques win high praise from students like Terri Acker.

ACKER

00:05:01
She makes it plain for us. I mean, we even had a lesson where she was like, "Okay, this is like we're putting together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich." You know, because that's coding is like, you fit the pieces together. And it made it all come home.

OBER

00:05:17
And knowing how to fit all the pieces together in tech, makes all the difference. I'm Lauren Ober.

SHEIR

00:05:39
After the break we'll go from mold breaking to ground breaking, as we visit a project that could transform the Anacostia River.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN

00:05:47
In total length, the tunnel will be 13 miles long.

SHEIR

00:05:51
Stick around, that and more is coming your way on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

ANNOUNCER

00:05:56
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