Black churches put faith in coding classes
by Jessica Guynn
SAN FRANCISCO — For years, parishioners at the Calvary Hill Community Church have learned to live by the code.
Now their children are learning a different kind: computer code.
The San Francisco church is one of the first to take part in an initiative from Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition to forge a new generation of computer programmers.
Jackson is reaching out to African Americans in their spiritual homes with FAITHTECH Labs, an initiative that provides access to computers for all ages and coding classes for young people.
So far, Rainbow PUSH has opened tech labs at Calvary Hill in San Francisco, in its Chicago headquarters and in a church in Greenville, S.C., Jackson's hometown. Two more are slated to open soon — inside Greater St. Paul Church in Oakland and Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond, Calif. — with a third planned for a Chicago church.
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Each tech lab is equipped with laptop and desktop computers, printers, servers and networking technology donated by Hewlett Packard. In many cases the new equipment is replacing slow, broken-down computers that frequently crash, frustrating church users, young and old.
"We have to get a whole new generation 'code ready,' to produce thousands of young people who can fill the pipeline to the technology industry," Jackson told USA TODAY. "If not us, who will?"
FaithTECH Labs is part of Rainbow PUSH's 1,000 Churches Connected Program, which supplies technology to boost financial literacy and now technological proficiency.
Valerie Cooper, associate professor of black church studies at the Duke Divinity School, says Jackson recognizes "the power of black churches in black communities."
For decades, churches have served as a cornerstone of the African-American community and an organizing base for the civil rights and social justice movements. Nearly eight in 10 African Americans say religion is very important in their lives, significantly more than the 59% of the U.S. adult population overall who agree, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2009. Churchesnot only play a central role in African-American life, they offer far more than Sunday services.
"Black churches have a powerful ability to assist in the educational mission of communities and to help communities flourish," Cooper said. "I'm excited about the possibility that people will discover a love for technology, for coding and a love for computers. And there is a really strong possibility that if churcheshave the equipment that children might just explore and find something that they love."
The success of the initiative will depend on faithful execution, she cautioned. "The danger is that this just eventually becomes a new computer for the church office," Cooper said.
At Phillis Wheatley community center in Greenville, S.C., from morning until night, people from the surrounding community stream into the tech lab that opened in January to grab a seat and one of the three laptops and three desktop computers. Kids come to work on school projects, teens to hunt for summer jobs and adults to fill out applications for more permanent work, standing in line for their turn when necessary. The community center will debut a coding class for kids this summer.
The tech lab is a blessing "especially for churches likes ours that are located in the inner city," said Darian Blue, pastor of Nicholtown Missionary Baptist Church and executive director of the Phillis Wheatley Association.
Latosha Dotson, mother of three, says her kids see computers as a gateway to a much larger world. "Knowledge is power," Dotson said. "The world is going to be run by computers. We have to get up to speed on how they run."
Jackson first conceived of putting technology in churches to bridge the digital divide in 2003 with computers donated by the company, then known as Hewlett-Packard. "We are working to bring technology access centers to church basements across the country, to bring resources and equipment, to give people access to the tools of this modern age in some of the safest and most welcoming environments in their lives," then-CEO Carly Fiorina said at the time.
Now Jackson is back campaigning for Silicon Valley technology companies to increase hiring of African Americans and Hispanics. And his civil rights organization Rainbow PUSH is once again focused on training young people for promising careers in the sector powering the American economy.
The 26,000-square-foot warehouse that is home to the Calvary Hill Community Church sits on a busy industrial stretch in this historically African-American neighborhood of Bayview. Parishioners are predominantly African-American and Hispanic, all members of the local community that has been "underserved and overlooked by the technology boom," says Pastor Joseph Bryant, who is coordinating Rainbow PUSH's FAITHTECH Labs program.
At Calvary Hill, Bryant preaches "total life services for total life success" ranging from after-school care for kids to job training for adults. Starting this summer, seniors will learn computer basics and young people from kindergarten through college will learn to code. "Caterpillars," younger kids, some of whom have never touched a computer before, will get hands-on time to figure out how computers work. The older "butterflies" will learn how to build websites.
Their instructor is Kian Alavi, the director of youth services who took a five-week intensive coding class at San Francisco's coding school Hack Reactor so the kids at Calvary Hill could have the same "aha" moment he had: the realization that they, too, can create a digital presence with a kernel of an idea and some keystrokes. One child, he said, delighted in making a website with hundreds of images of cats.
"We all take gratification that we are equipping these children with the tools necessary to make it in life. In the future, everyone will code, regardless of your job function," Alavi said. "Giving them early access is important. They may not make amazing stuff at 9 years old, but they will be familiar with the language."
On a recent morning, Alavi talked kids through the steps to building a rudimentary website. "You be the navigator, I'll be the driver," he told them. The kids reveled in the speedy new computers and the seemingly magical ability to make something they coded appear on the screen, in this case their names.
"When they get their first Web page going and there are pictures on there and there is text on there, they kind of start freaking out a little bit," Alavi said.
For children, "it's a catch-fire experience," says church volunteer Charlene Lawson.
Juanita Kimball jokes that her 7-year-old son has been a parishioner at Calvary Hill since he was in utero. He already knows more about computers than she does and, she says, is about to know even more. He "can't wait" to get cracking at coding, Kimball says.
"That's the age we're in, the computer age, the tech age," she said. "The more children know, the more they can be a part of it as well."
San Francisco Chronicle
Black churches bring coding classes to the Bay Area and beyond - August 7, 2016
By Marissa Lang
The smartwatch on the little girl’s wrist is off by about four hours. She’s not sure how to fix it, but that’s OK. She only uses it to count her steps.
In the three-bedroom home she shares with six people in Daly City, there is no computer. There used to be one, the 9-year-old said, but her parents sold it.
Just a few years ago, Kimberly Ceras learned English at school. Now, she’s learning coding at church.
The soon-to-be fourth-grader was the first in her class to finish building her own website — a simple riff on Facebook’s original wall format, complete with a profile picture and messages she and others can post — in Calvary Hill Community Church’s summer coding camp.
The Bayview neighborhood, one of the first in the country to host free coding classes for members of the congregation and surrounding community, is being used as a model for a national initiative to bring technology training to historically black churches.
The project — dubbed FaithTech2020 by Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow Push Coalition is leading the effort — begins this month with five churches. One is in Chicago; one is in Jackson’s hometown of Greenville, S.C.; and three are in the Bay Area: Calvary Hill in San Francisco, Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond and Greater St. Paul Church in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood.
The idea is that by setting up classes and computer labs in community churches, black and Latino congregants are more likely to participate in classes and learn skills like coding. That, Jackson has said, will promote economic mobility and change the lives of those who otherwise may not have the resources to learn computer skills.
Jackson and others involved hope this solves two big problems facing the tech industry: diversifying its largely white and male workforce, and filling a growing demand for software engineers and developers.
“Technology is an important industry, and an important place where wealth is being made,” said Shawn Drost, co-founder of Hack Reactor, a San Francisco programming school that provides volunteer coding instructors to FaithTech churches.
“There’s opportunities and it’s a growth sector, and that’s of enormous value to people, particularly in the Bay Area. ... There’s about a half million open jobs right now for software engineers and the hope is, with some training, the people living in these communities can learn computer programming and help fill those jobs.”
Pressure on tech companies to disclose the ethnic and racial makeup of their workforces and boost their diversity has grown over the past several years, as companies have revealed that a disproportionate number of their engineers and executives are white or Asian men. A lack of differing perspectives, critics fear, could limit the products that companies create.
Despite vocal commitments, diversity numbers at some of the Bay Area’s biggest technology companies have remained largely unchanged. Apple, which released its most recent numbers last week, drew praise from Jackson when the company revealed it had boosted its number of female workers — 37 percent of its new hires are female — and black and Latino employees, which grew to 8 percent apiece this year. Google and Facebook, by contrast, recently reported that their workforces remain stuck at 1 percent black and 3 percent Latino.
Tech companies, which have pushed bias training, have blamed the education system for a lack of diverse talent. Executives and diversity officials have made headlines when they said candidates of color are hard to find.
Calvary Hill pastor Joseph Bryant, who is also helping to lead Jackson’s FaithTech initiative, said this is where historically black churches come in.
For more than a century, black churches have been more than just places of worship. They have served as community centers, civil rights field offices and safe houses for black people in America. In predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, the church is often the heart of the community, organizing food drives, blood drives, job fairs, voter registrations and more.
Nearly 40 people are on the wait list for Calvary Hill’s coding school.
“This started off with an iPad and an idea,” Bryant said. “Now we’re giving young people in this community the skills they need to compete and the opportunity to be gainfully employed, or go to college.”
The church computer labs, which will be furnished with new computers, printers, servers and other equipment donated by Hewlett-Packard, will host classes designed for kids, young adults and seniors.
It’s a work in progress, Bryant said. But he’s devised three class levels divided by age and skills.
Seniors, who come to church weekly for Bible study, will have a tech literacy class beforehand where they will learn the basics: How to use email, social media and sync their smartphones to their computers at home.
Kids ages 8 to 13 will learn basic coding, with older kids helping to coach and oversee the hour-long sessions.
Young adults from their early 20s to mid-30s will undergo the same rigorous introductory coding course that Hack Reactor teaches in its San Francisco classroom. Bryant hopes that after completing the class, young black and Latino adults will be more marketable and better prepared to land a job in the Bay Area’s burgeoning tech scene.
But Drost said they might need a little more time behind a computer.
Several local coding schools and developer boot camps offer scholarships and financial assistance — particularly for students of color.
“We want to make sure these kids aren’t left out of the future,” said Kian Alavi, Calvary Hill’s youth minister who was trained at Hack Reactor and runs the summer coding camp. “If we can expose them at an early age to the logic behind computer programming, they’ll be able to get jobs that allow them to stay here in their home, which is San Francisco.”
Advocates pushing for greater diversity in tech often argue that by simply exposing people to opportunities in the science and computing fields, it broadens their worldview and empowers them to believe that they, too, may be capable of working in those industries.
TECH AND EDUCATION
Before starting coding classes at Calvary Hill, 9-year-old Kimberly had never before considered a future in computing. But now the elementary school student said she wants to grow up to “code all day — except when I get tired,” she said. “Then I’ll play video games.”
The girl’s brothers, who are in their 20s, were wowed when they heard their little sister was designing websites. Her mother, who is learning English, could hardly understand how Kimberly had picked it up so fast.
Kimberly doesn’t understand what the big deal is.
“It was only five pages of code,” she said, her long braided hair falling off her shoulder as she shrugged.
Alavi said that’s true of most of his students, and an attitude he and Bryant hope will take them far.
“These kids don’t know the stereotypes about computer programmers or tech bros,” Bryant said. “All they know is when they learn how to do this, it can give them a way to get out of poverty, or a way to get a good-paying job. ... It opens doors. It shows them there’s hope. We have one little boy who used to talk about becoming a football star. Now he talks about becoming a computer programmer.”
Marissa Lang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.