“When students see people like them in the industry it makes them believe they can do this too."
Photo via Kevin Jacome.
A group of high school-aged kids gathered at the Tumblr headquarters in Manhattan on June 24 for Hip Hop Hacktivist, a hip-hop-themed social coding event (with VICE Impact as a media sponsor) that founder Bryan Bethea said was meant to turn students "from consumers to creators."
Participants were selected from underrepresented communities that had little-to-no previous coding experience. They worked alongside professionals from top-level tech companies like LinkedIn, Uber, and Tumblr who served as mentors to guide the students through the basics of coding. The main objective at the event was to create an original app that would provide social, economical, or medical assistance to New Yorkers.
The event attempted to combine hip-hop with coding to create an environment that was more inviting for young students. Coding isn't necessarily the easiest or most approachable topic; guest speaker and multimedia artist Jamel Mims stressed the importance of making the tech industry accessible to the students.
Mims, who runs a similar program that uses hip-hop to teach global and US History in New York City public schools, kicked off the event with a performance that urged the kids to go headfirst into the world and precipitate change. "Black and brown youth in particular, and queer voices, that have been marginalized and oppressed, need to be using these tools —which are extremely accessible— in order to transform the world," Mims told VICE Impact.
Franco Sabio Jr., whose nephew attended the event, works in tech and saw the event as the perfect way into potential careers for marginalized youth. "Hip-hop is a gateway for students to learn about coding and the tech industry. In school, they only learn about traditional jobs, but there's a lot of opportunities in coding," he said. "I want my nephew to be exposed to those. A lot of kids don't really know that there are alternatives to the traditional."
Sabio Jr. added that Hip-Hop Hacktivist would give the students the understanding that through the tech industry, they can "literally make something out of nothing, and it'll be useful."
Bethea stressed the importance of having mentors that looked like the students. He was adamant that in order to reach the youth, you need to "speak their language" and have mentors that the students can relate to.
Michelle Johnson, a 24-year-old engineer at Tumblr, worked as a mentor and echoed Bethea's sentiment. "When students see people like them in the industry," she said, "it makes them believe that 'Oh, I can do this too, this can be for me.'"
Additionally, Johnson said Hip-Hop Hacktivist could open doors for the kids, citing the contacts that students would make during the event and the experience learning under top-level tech mentors.
Stanisha Desamoure, a soon-to-be junior student from Queens, said she aspires to work in the tech industry, although she hadn't done any coding before the event. She was optimistic about her future in coding and as a media creator, saying that "learning how to code is going to help me if I want to make my own app or website."
The coding experience will be especially impactful given that, in addition to their lack of coding experience, most of the students don't have computer programs in their schools. Some don't even have computers in their homes. But when exposed to experience and mentorship through events like Hip-Hop Hacktivist, talented and motivated young students take the first step to become the next generation's tech industry innovators.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the event as the Hip-Hop Hackathon, when in fact the official name was Hip-Hop Hacktivist. Also, it previously stated VICE Impact was a co-sponsor, when in fact it was a media sponsor. Also, the article previously stated that the app created from the event was for New York City's homeless population, but in fact it attempts to provide New Yorkers with resources for social, economical, and medical assistance. We regret these errors.