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Code For Progress Programming A More Diverse Tech World

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Code for Progress fellows get a 16-week residency in D.C., where they are taught the coding skills in languages like Python.
Lauren Ober
Code for Progress fellows get a 16-week residency in D.C., where they are taught the coding skills in languages like Python.
Aliya Rahman, left, is a teacher, coder and organizer for Code For Progress Lauren Ober/WAMU

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 weekday, from nine to five.

“Classes have been going pretty good. It’s not as easy as I thought, but it’s good,” Acker said.

Bridging the digital divide

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.

“What we've heard from a lot of the folks who applied to the program is that they never thought they could be a coder,” said Michelle Fox, 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.

“You know, straight white guys. In that time, he has also recognized that there’s a lack of diversity of ideas in the movement because everyone looks the same and has very similar life experience,” she said.

Fox says that’s a problem because of the talent that being left out.

“We’re leaving a lot of possibilities on the table because we're not bringing in people from different backgrounds and different life experiences who might be able to inform the work in a really different way,” Fox said.

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.

“I really get excited every day to come into the program because I know I'm going to come away with one more piece to be able to build the app I want to build,” Smith said.

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. He took a computer science course at Middlebury College, but it didn’t go well, he said.

That didn't put him off tech. He had bigger ambitions than just getting a good grade.

“Part of what interested me in this program was 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,” Smith said.

One step at a time

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.

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, respectful of her students’ differences.

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

“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 when you were like seven, it’s fine. I was in Mary Poppins. I was a nanny, which is kind of weird,” she said, laughing.

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.

“She makes it plain for us. I mean, we even had a lesson where she was like, ok this is like we’re putting together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Acker said. “You know, cuz that’s what coding is like. You fit the pieces together. And it made it all come home.”

Music: "Computerlove" by Kraftwerk from The Mix

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