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UCLA Hosts Tech Leaders, Unveils Bruin Code Summer Academy with Urban TxT at South LA School

Addressing a group of the inaugural 9 grade class at Mann UCLA Community School in South Los Angeles, Jarvis Sam, manager of Global Diversity Initiatives for Snapchat, described the need for students of color to earn “a seat at the table” in technology education and careers.

“Tech is often defined as a seat at the table,” said Sam, who spoke as part of the UCLA Tech Talk panel discussion, “Advancing Pathways to Tech for Black and Latinx Youth,” held on April 5. “However, I’ve had tons of seats at the table where I’ve felt entirely uncomfortable being at the table. So rather, it is a voice in the conversation … that is unique and impactful.”

Members of the panel also included Andres Cuervo, director of the UCLA Tech + Innovation initiative, which hosted the event; Oscar Menjivar, founder and CEO of L.A. – based nonprofit Teens Exploring Technology (Urban TXT); Christine Shen (’97, M.A. ’98, Ed.D. ’03), director of the UCLA Community Schools Initiative; and Orlando Johnson (’98), principal of Mann UCLA Community School. In addition, the event announced the launch of the Bruin Code Summer Academy, a partnership between Urban TXT and UCLA’s Tech + Innovation initiative, that would provide 30 male and female students at Mann with the opportunity of a summer technology boot camp, including five days to learn coding at UCLA and a field trip to a major tech company.

“Today’s conversation is really about how tech represents how we build the future, but if tech is leaving communities out of the conversation, we’re not including [people] of color and women to be a part of how this future is built,” noted Cuervo. “It’s about forming partnerships that are not just talk.”

Sam pointed out that there is a “cultural element” that sends the message to students of color that they do not fit the typical demographic of a tech professional.

“You see this huge [number] of White founders starting applications and different types of companies, whereas in the Black community, we’re expected to uphold a job or a role within the normally-established framework,” he said. “We often teach students of color … this idea of what a professional looks like … whereas White and Asian primarily male counterparts are not taught the same [belief].”

Principal Johnson said that early access to technology is critical for students of color to not only gain technical skills but to acquire an understanding of fields that are typically unfamiliar – and often, inaccessible – to them.

“What we as leaders would like is to get the kids to start being creative and experiencing [tech] at the elementary level,” said Johnson. “But it’s hard to do that with budgets and constraints that we have, as well as that a lot of people who are leaders in education are not tech experts, so we don’t know exactly what a program would need.

“One of the things we’re trying to do here at Mann UCLA Community School is trying to develop partnerships with organizations so that we can bring these experiences to our kids at an earlier age, so when they do make a decision on where they want to go for college and careers, they’ve had so many experiences that they can make an educated decision for themselves. When they are going to apply for a job or start their own company … they’re not coming in cold. That’s one of the things that employers are asking for.”

Menjivar, who founded Urban TXT in 2009, said that in South L.A., less than one percent of schools offer computer science courses and that while much attention has been paid to recruiting girls and women to technology education, a great social shortfall exists in the recruitment of young boys and men of color who would benefit greatly from the same opportunities.

“A big challenge is that tech companies have not [recognized] the fact that we’re losing Black boys in the streets every day,” said Menjivar. “We’re losing [them] to shootings.. to hunger… to homelessness. We’re forgetting that Black boys are as important as women in tech. I think what the challenge is how to get more companies to understand … the greatest need in communities of color. There’s not a movement yet for tech companies to say, ‘Hey, let’s pay attention to Black and Brown boys in these communities who are being left behind.’”

Shen shared the successes of the first UCLA Community School, located at the RFK Community Schools in the Koreatown-Pico-Union neighborhood, in garnering support for computer science education, with gifts from the Dream Foundation and the Ahmanson Foundation that provided computer hardware for every student at the K-12 school.

“You have to have early access and it has to be ongoing,” said Shen. “You need to create a pipeline of not only support for our teachers so they know how to integrate technology in schools for learning in the classroom, but also a pathway through courses.

“We have to keep kids excited about learning about tech, and it means lots of frequent interactions and opportunities for them. Some of the things we’ve already been able to launch at UCLA Community School RFK are AP computer science course, intro to computer science, and intro to data science. We’ve also been able to offer seminars and internships so kids have not only structured exposure in school, but they also have fun experiences during summer and outside of school hours.”

Menjivar noted that educating and grooming students of color toward tech careers is about more than teaching code.

“At Urban TXT … we train young Black and Brown boys to become technology entrepreneurs,” he said. “Coding comes as a tool for us – it’s the secondary thing you learn at TXT. What you learn first is your leadership skills. What you learn first is how to shake somebody’s hand. What you learn first is how to build your own confidence. You’re learning how to do research, understand your strengths, and how to bring those strengths to the tech companies.

“Tech companies right now don’t just need developers, they don’t just need coders. They need people who are project managers [or] who can read proposals and can put them in a humanistic [context]. So for us, it’s been about developing youth as leaders who will change the face of tech and run companies – just as someone who is going to get a job coding.”

To view the archived stream of “Advancing Pathways to Tech for Black and Latinx Youth,”visit Facebook.

To view photos of the event, also visit Facebook.


Above: The UCLA Tech + Innovation initiative, led by director Andres Cuervo (at far right), hosted a panel discussion on April 5 at Mann UCLA Community School in South L.A. to teach high school students about the opportunities in the tech fields. 

L-R: Oscar Menjivar, founder and CEO, Teens Exploring Technology; Jarvis Sam, manager of Global Diversity Initiatives, Snapchat; Akili, senior, Mann UCLA; Orlando Johnson (’98), principal, Mann UCLA Community School; Christine Shen (’97, M.A. ’98, Ed.D. ’03), director,  UCLA Community Schools Initiative; Bella, senior, Mann UCLA; Jayden, senior, Mann UCLA; and Cuervo.

Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA