(KPIX 5) — Good computer literacy is vital nowadays, especially in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.
Stevon Cook knows this firsthand. He is the CEO of Mission Bit, a small startup with big goal: bridging the technical divide by teaching low-income kids how to code.
“We think that they have all of the ideas, the interest, the passion to thrive in the tech sector,” he says. “So we want to teach them computer science but more than that, we want them to have access to any job opportunity the want to pursue.”
Fifty percent of public schools in San Francisco don’t offer any computer science classes. The divide is deeper for the poor. Many of the low-income kids we interview for Students Rising Above in the Bay Area don’t have a computer at home or if they do, they can’t afford wireless access.
The tech industry is too alien to consider as a career. “You’re locked out of anything and everything that you want to pursue,” says Stevon Cook, who sees “incredible young people with immense talent that cannot even get the ball rolling with anything they want to pursue if they don’t have access to the Internet.”
Poverty feeds the digital divide and deepens it. So at Mission Bit, free coding classes are offered, taught by computer science college majors and advised by professionals in the field.
At the Mission Bit Demo Day, the students show off their creations. Each group of kids presented an Android game they designed in the Mission Bit summer courses. Before the presentations began, Stevon talked a little about himself.
“If you’re like me and you grew up in San Francisco in public housing before moving on to live with your grandparents, you understand in a visceral way the difference that an education and a job can make for a young person.”
That quote tells you something about why Stevon was selected as a Student Rising Above, in 2003. We met him when he was graduating from from Thurgood Marshall High and heading off to the prestigious Williams College in Massachusetts.
“My world completely changed when I was exposed to some great opportunities,” he says. Now, 12 years later, he’s back in his hometown with a big goal: “I want to go into communities where they would never even consider a computer science course and spark something in the minds of low-income students.”
Teaching low-income kids how to code is also a first step to diversifying the tech industry. Stevon says it is vital that these kids see talented people of color working in the tech industry.
“We’re doing that at Mission Bit. We’re bringing in teachers of color to lead courses. We’re starting courses in low income communities to really give students that initial exposure.” Enter Joe Williams, another Student Rising Above.
We met Joe when he was still a foster kid; a senior at Riordan High, back in 2012. Now he’s on summer break from Lewis and Clark University where he is majoring in Computer Science and Thetre.
But this summer, we caught up with him working at Mission Bit. Stevon hired him to teach kids to design games for their Android devices.
Like Stevon, Joe understands the importance of early exposure to technology, ”If you don’t have Internet and you don’t have a computer… you might not be able to keep up with the technology you don’t get to keep up with the culture.”
Learning to code by designing a game makes it more fun for the kids. “It gives them something to go show their friends,” says Joe. “If their friends aren’t interested in coding, they have this whole visual aspect to it, like, hey look what I did.”
It’s no coincidence that Stevon hired Joe, having met each other through Students Rising Above.
Like Stevon, Joe has lived in the projects, lost a parent to drugs, and understands first-hand how poverty locks kids out of the tech field and other professions.
“I know what Students Rising Above stands for,” Stevon explains as he describes the philosophical bond he and Joe share. “Investing in young people that would have not otherwise had the opportunity and because of Students Rising Above you know I’m in a position to do what I’m doing today and Joe’s in a position to do what he’s doing today. So you know, when we get together and do more impactful work in the community it’s around that same idea. I believe that in my core” he says.
And Stevon knows Joe shares this ”Joe also believes that — it’s a part of his makeup, that access and opportunity for disenfranchised communities is important and we have to focus on that.”
There is something important that happens when kids of color can see someone like themselves in leadership positions. Something powerful; which is why it is important that someone like Stevon Cook is CEO and Joe Williams a coding teacher.
In their classes, exceptations grow, dreams open up. Change is happening at Mission Bit on many different levels, bit by bit.