TOPICS > Education

‘Hidden Genius’ helps disadvantaged teens learn code of the tech industry

March 4, 2014 at 6:48 PM EST
In Oakland, not far from Silicon Valley, a small group of teenagers are glued to their computer screens, learning a new language. The Hidden Genius Project is a small non-profit that’s working to teach computer coding to young African-American men and bring them into the high tech sector -- one of the few parts of the economy that’s booming and aching for diversity. Aarti Shahani of KQED reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Last week, President Obama announced a new initiative to help level the playing field for young men of color.

In Oakland California, one program is already under way.

Aarti Shahani of KQED in San Francisco reports.

OK, it didn’t say after the third element.

AARTI SHAHANI, KQED: These teenagers spend hours glued to their computer screens. But they’re not playing games or doing their homework, for that matter. They’re studying something they’re not taught at school: computer coding.

They’re picking up Python and HTML5 and Ruby on Rails.

Johnnel White is a sophomore at Vallejo High.

JOHNNEL WHITE: It’s a new language. It’s like you learn — like you’re learning Spanish, but you’re learning something else other than Spanish, letters and numbers and symbols.

AARTI SHAHANI: This is the Hidden Genius Project, a small nonprofit that’s working to recruit young black men into the high-tech sector. It’s one of the few parts of the economy that’s booming and aching for diversity.

The boys have to apply to the program. And, if accepted, they commit to classes twice a week in Oakland. Bryon Muccular is a sophomore at Salesian High School in Richmond. He had hoped for a football career. Then a knee injury put him on the sidelines.

BRYON MUCCULAR: I didn’t think I would be doing anything in life. And this comes along, Hidden Genius Project, and it just — it just opened — I just saw it open doors for me.

AARTI SHAHANI: Bryon lives with his grandparents, who really like what he’s doing, but don’t quite get it.

Delores Murray is his grandmother.

DELORES MURRAY: I don’t have any inkling what coding is.

(LAUGHTER)

AARTI SHAHANI: Murray does understand that it’s a promising step. Instead of just playing video games, her grandson could end up making them, for money.

DELORES MURRAY: It has been a real good thing for a teenage young man who is trying to do the right thing. He is trying to stay out of the streets, trying to get good grades. He has all this going for him. And then Hidden Genius comes along, and just kind of adds a little more gel to the pudding, so that it — you know, it kind of sets.

AARTI SHAHANI: A few weekends ago, the Hidden Genius students spent three days working nonstop to build games and mobile apps. It was their very first hackathon, one for black male achievement.

And behind it is Kalimah Priforce. Priforce, now a tech entrepreneur, started in a very different place. He grew up in foster care. And while he found a way out, his little brother didn’t.

KALIMAH PRIFORCE, Qeyno Labs: The system reduced a lot of his opportunities to pursue his own dreams. He actually wanted to be a computer scientist. So he stayed in the group home system until he was 18, and then he aged out and he was killed a couple of months later. So that was when I decided that I would focus on becoming an educator.

AARTI SHAHANI: Hackathons are about generating ideas and prototypes fast. The best ideas make it to market, but that’s later. Today, the focus is on mobile apps that help teens deal with everyday problems, like what to eat and whether to show up to school.

Bryon and his group are working on a do-it-yourself adventure game about decision-making. Johnnel’s team is creating a fitness app, with a cartoon bird that gets slimmer the more the user exercises.

STUDENT: How many should we do?  I mean, one jumping jack?

STUDENT: Five or 10?

AARTI SHAHANI: Each team has tech professionals coaching the students.

JOHNNEL WHITE: So, it was like, we need coders, we need designers, we need a lot of people.

AARTI SHAHANI: Oakland is a stone’s throw away from Silicon Valley, and companies like the music streaming site Pandora have set up shop here.

But, Priforce says, while the community is largely African-American, the startup work force is not.

KALIMAH PRIFORCE: Some of these kids, they could be considered misfits. They could be considered disadvantaged and all these different weird terms. But I like to prefer to see them as low-opportunity youth.

MAN: And we are trailblazers.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

AARTI SHAHANI: At the end of the weekend, each group pitches their ideas to each other…

STUDENT: Twelve-point-five million potential customers.

JOHNNEL WHITE: … and a panel of judges.

WOMAN: How did you reach out to folks to get more input on the game?

AARTI SHAHANI: Hackathon funder Mitch Kapor has invested over a million dollars in the Oakland startup scene this last year alone. He says the East Bay is full of untapped potential and maybe even the next billion-dollar company.

MITCH KAPOR, Kapor Capital: I have always been looking around corners. So, when I got started in personal computers in 1978, nobody took them seriously. And when I started working on and investing in Internet companies in 1993, nobody took it seriously, and so on. And so this really isn’t any different.

AARTI SHAHANI: Black and Latino kids spend plenty of time using technology, but the Hidden Genius Project wants to see consumers become producers, and see that diversity reflected in high-tech products. Take violence on the streets.

KALIMAH PRIFORCE: If we want to build an app that could have saved Trayvon Martin’s life, one of the best approaches is to make sure that Trayvon Martin is able to build that app for Trayvon Martin.

STUDENT: What potential.

AARTI SHAHANI: As exciting as it is, a hackathon is short-lived. It will take a lot of coding, and programs like the Hidden Genius Project, to really change the game.

JOHNNEL WHITE: I live in South Vallejo, so it’s ghetto every day. A lot of people stand outside. And I chose to code and come to Hidden Genius because I wanted to get away from it.

STUDENT: With this app, I think we can modify our choices, make better decisions, and maybe, in the future, I think we can change the world with this game.

(APPLAUSE)

STUDENT: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.