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'Code Can Save Lives:' Inside One Techie's Mission to Bring Programming Skills to Kids in Watts

Some 70 kids from the Nickerson Gardens housing project spent a recent Saturday afternoon developing apps.

Dawn Chmielewski

In recent years, former USC head football coach Pete Carroll would stop by the Nickerson Recreation Center gymnasium to recruit players. He offered young men a way out of the Nickerson Gardens housing complex in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles, where the names of those who have died are written in Old English script on the walls.

Fast-forward five years later to this sweltering Saturday in late July, and Oscar Menjivar is scouting for talent of a different sort.

A Watts native himself, Menjivar is hoping to find kids with a knack for coding. On July 25, his nonprofit organization, Teens Exploring Technology, hosted what is believed to be the first youth hackathon to be held at a public housing development. He and volunteers went door to door to drum up interest in the event among the project’s young residents and their parents.

“We hope to inspire the community, to help them understand these types of jobs exist,” says Menjivar. “A lot of the kids here today didn’t know what ‘code’ is. They thought it was a code on a phone.”

Olatunde Sobomehin

The windowless, beige gymnasium is festooned with banners celebrating the local Project SAVE Basketball Champions and offering uplifting slogans like “It Takes Work to Make Our Dreams Work.” About 70 students are gathered in small groups around makeshift computer workstations created with folding tables and chairs. Their objective: Write an application that addresses one of the community’s most pressing problems.

A handful of parents sit quietly on the sidelines, observing the six-hour long proceedings from wooden bleachers.

The “Hustle & Code” hackathon has drawn support from beyond the community’s borders. One Google executive drove all night from Silicon Valley to deliver 40 Apple laptops and a mobile modem aggregator to provide Internet access.

Among the volunteers coaching the kids are peers like 17-year-old Jonathan Marcelino, who has lived with his family in Nickerson Gardens for six years. He participates in Teens Exploring Technology’s 15-week summer coding academy, where aspiring coders work with one another and the coaching staff to create Web and mobile apps that tackle community problems. At the conclusion of the course, he and others will compete in a Demo Day in which they pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, who choose a winner based on viability, potential speed to market and how well it addresses the situation.

Olatunde Sobomehin

About five years ago, Marcelino, then 12, began “messing with” computers as a student at Edwin Markham Middle School, while attending an after-school program sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club. He eventually bought a second-hand computer and began teaching himself programming. He convinced his family to pay for Internet access — a pricey expense, he admits, for a family that is supported by his father’s wages as a landscaper who tends yards on the side.

Sometimes, Marcelino will be forced to “work offline” when the Internet service gets cut off for weeks at a time. Nonetheless, the high school senior is proficient in six programming languages, and plans to apply to Stanford, MIT and other top universities to study computer science.

“It definitely changed my life,” says Marcelino.

“Code Can Save Lives”

Compact and relentlessly upbeat, Menjivar’s belief that technology can provide a path out of poverty is rooted in his own experience. He grew up in South Los Angeles and lost friends to drugs, crime and prison. A mentor encouraged him to pursue another course, and Menjivar received an undergraduate degree in computer science from Cal Poly Pomona and a master’s degree in educational technology from Pepperdine University.

A decade after graduating, Menjivar returned to speak at his alma mater, Jordan High School, and was chagrined to learn that little had changed since his time as a student, when computer programming courses amounted to little more than a typing class.

“I had 60 kids in front of me, and only five knew what an actual website was. It was sad to see my community still had the same issues I had in the ’90s,” says Menjivar. “The high school … still doesn’t teach 21st century skills.”

Menjivar set out to bridge the technology gap by setting up a organization that draws from his experience working as an educational technology consultant. It targets young black and Latino males, who, he says, are at greater risk in this community of dropping out of school and getting into trouble.

“For a lot of people, code is just a job. For us in South LA, we say code can save lives,” says Menjivar. “That laptop, that code can keep a kid from going outside and hanging out.”

 Teens Exploring Technology Founder Oscar Menjivar
Teens Exploring Technology Founder Oscar Menjivar
Olatunde Sobomehin

It’s hot even for July in Los Angeles, and the floor fans in the gym achieve little more than circulating the hot, stale air. Undaunted, teams of students remain focused on developing their apps, huddled together as they crouch over laptops to put the finishing touches on their projects. One, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, seeks to correct stereotypes about young African American youth.

“Just because I live here doesn’t mean I’m ghetto,” says Angel Lopez, 15, whose mother and young sister accompanied her to the hackathon and remained by her side throughout the day.

Another tool, called Bettering Our Tremendous Community, or BOTs, would allow users to report piles of trash, street potholes or damaged lights using a smartphone’s video. With the press of a button, a report would be sent to the appropriate agency — with the location automatically plotted by geolocation technology that had been donated by Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging company headquartered in Venice, Calif.

The winning entry, Feed Watts, envisions creating a clearing house where organizations serving food in the community could connect with the hungry. The website would identify the times and locations for planned distributions.

“Often organizations give out food and people don’t know about it, so they can’t take advantage of the opportunities they have,” says Juan Castro, 17, whose presentation of the winning project is briefly interrupted when the projector overheats and a volunteer positions a fan to cool it.

One of the teen volunteers, Sergio Berez, came to say goodbye to Menjivar, still wearing the royal-blue T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Hustle & Code” in bold yellow letters. The program founder casually asks, do you have another shirt? He suggests taking off the hackathon uniform before leaving the gym.

After Berez departs, Menjivar explained. Something as seemingly trivial as the color of a T-shirt can land a young man in trouble in this part of town. He grew up here. He knows.

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