Black Girls Code invites young women into the tech world

Tamerra Griffin | 1/2/2014, 12:56 p.m.

On Saturday, Dec. 14, as snow flurried around the city, Jamie Landeau diligently scribbled down notes, her pink-flowered pen bobbing above the page. The 7-year-old Bronx native then turned to whisper to a nearby friend, causing an eruption of giggles. She eventually turned back to the laptop in front of her and began to type.

This could be a scene extracted from a typical school day anywhere in the country, but what Landeau was participating in that Saturday was once only considered ordinary in California’s Silicon Valley. She was learning how to code.

On Dec. 14, Black Girls Code, an organization aimed at exposing young Black girls to computer science and technology, teamed up with Google to host a day-long mobile app training course. While tourists wound their way through shops on the first floor of Chelsea Market in pursuit of gourmet waffles, about 60 girls of color between 7 and 17 years of age hunched over keyboards and cellphones on the second floor of Google’s Chelsea headquarters, stringing together sequences of commands to create a game.

Throughout the day, the coders-in-training mirrored the instructions given by 29-year-old Donna Knutt, who owns a web development and marketing consulting business. Volunteers from Black Girls Code and Google were also on hand to answer the girls’ questions.

The proliferation of web-based businesses and the ease with which those who are not descendants of the late Steve Jobs can learn computer science have made coding and programming less intimidating and highly covetable skills. Like most areas in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, however, women and racial minorities are severely underrepresented. Black Girls Code is one response to this disparity.

Although Landeau aspires to become a writer, she enjoys coding because it requires her to type out her thoughts. She sees creative writing and coding as one in the same, not a far cry from those who equate coding to learning a new language.

Jessenia Diaz, Landeau’s mother, decided to introduce her daughter to coding after seeing a video online that featured “Mark Zuckerberg and a whole bunch of stars” talking about how they learned to code. The video piqued her curiosity, and after some Google-driven research, she came across Black Girls Code. Diaz enrolled Landeau in her first course in October and said that her daughter “couldn’t stop talking about it.”

Even though the age requirement for the Black Girls Code mobile app event begins at 10, Diaz was able to register her daughter anyway. Landeau and the other youngsters may have required a bit more assistance in this seminar, but for Diaz, experience and exposure are the primary goals in an unwelcoming economy and job market.

“I went to a traditional school, so everything was pretty much ‘Learn this, know that,’ and you didn’t know why,” said Diaz, who is currently working toward a degree in business. “Now that the job market is so hard, I’m struggling to find ways to reinvent myself and be creative, and I want her to have that. I want her to be able to—if there’s not a job for her—I want her to be able to invent one and do what makes her happy.”

Another 7-year-old in attendance that day was Jayda Ostrum, who traveled to the event from Philadelphia. Like Landeau, Ostrum has taken computer programming classes before; she once took part in a robot-building competition but said she prefers coding.

“I don’t like rushing,” she said, adding that the robot competition had a deadline, whereas constructing codes allows her to save a project and return to it later. “I just love the whole program.”

The girls were not the only ones at work; while they were creating mobile apps, their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents circled around in a neighboring room to take part in a panel discussion on how they can continue to empower young minority women to excel in STEM fields.

Victorio Milian, who works in human resources and whose 12-year-old daughter Kalindra took part in the mobile app class, expressed his concern about how to best prepare his daughter for what he called “the institution of racism and sexism” in science-based industries, adding that most companies contain a “single-digit representation of women, less for women of color.”

Other parents echoed Milian’s thoughts and networked with each other after the panel to establish a support group.

Allyson Gill was one of the panelists to address parents’ questions. The 20-year-old admitted that she was not aware of the gendered and racial chasms in computer science as she grew up. Gill, who now studies communications technology at York College, attended Brooklyn Technical High School, where math and engineering were heavily integrated into the curriculum.

“When I left high school, I met other people who went to New York City public schools, and I realized that they weren’t exposed to it. Ever since then, I’ve been a big advocate for exposing kids to all of the opportunities in the STEM fields that don’t always have to be encryption or developing software for a business. It can be something creative and fun.”