Joseph Clark, a 25-year-old Oakland, California native, has always enjoyed figuring out how things work.
“If I had any old radio system or any old computer, I’d try to break into them and try to reattach them,” Clark said.
Clark, however, never imagined that he’d be able to learn more about how computers work other than what he had already taught himself. “That’s something I never really thought was gonna be available to me growing up in Oakland.”
Youth like Clark traditionally have not had the opportunity to access the San Francisco Bay Area’s burgeoning tech scene. A former foster youth, Clark entered the child welfare system at 15 and spent nearly four years circulating between foster and group homes in Oakland, Richmond and Vallejo.
However, last spring, Clark was selected to participate in a six-week boot camp through Hack the Hood. “I went to Hack the Hood, and I actually started to learn how to build websites,” Clark said. “I was already into technology, so I put my all into it.”
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Hack the Hood is an Oakland based non-profit that introduces low-income youth of color to careers in tech by hiring and training them to build websites for small businesses in their own communities. During intensive six-week boot camps, traditionally underrepresented young people gain exposure to the tech industry. Over the past three years, Hack the Hood has been disrupting the tech industry, and now, the organization is advocating for technology to be better leveraged within the larger child welfare system, growing the number of youth it works with, and diversifying the partnerships it’s forging.
“The part that’s most infuriating,” said Mary Fuller, chief operating officer and co-founder of Hack the Hood and a foster mother of two, “is that technology isn’t being applied to this problem.”
Foster youth, like Clark, don’t always have access to laptops or computers in their foster or group homes, further contributing to the skills gap that is commonplace among system-involved young people. “That’s really where the impetus for Hack the Hood came from. This desire to link the young people with the small business community with the tech community for a system of change,” Fuller said.
When Hack the Hood launched its first boot camp in 2013, it had a budget of approximately $65,000 and roughly 18 youth identified to participate. The organization, however, was a 2014 recipient of the Google Impact Challenge Bay Area Award, which granted the innovative non-profit a half-million dollars.
To date, approximately 130 youth have gone through Hack the Hood boot camps. That number will more than double in 2016. This year, the organization will be working with ten times more youth than it was serving three years ago. Eleven boot camps are already on the calendar for this summer and fall across northern California, and Hack the Hood has started to train and provide curriculum to other non-profits to deliver boot camps in their communities.
“Part of our model is to provide $600 stipends and a Chrome book that [youth] then are able to earn and take home with them at the end of the program if they complete,” Fuller said. “We really think that incentives are important, especially for youth who have financial responsibilities.”
To Fuller and her team at Hack the Hood, bringing technology to the foster care system requires partnerships. “What’s really needed at this point is for people to come together from different sectors to help craft solutions that make sense,” Fuller said. “In Oakland, we’ve worked with First Place for Youth. They’ve recruited youth for us in the past, and that helps us directly serve their young people.” In Oakland alone, Hack the Hood has partnerships with more than a half-dozen other non-profits.
“This year, we’ll be partnering with Silicon Valley Children’s Fund and TeenForce to do a Hack the Hood boot camp in San Jose,” Fuller continued. “That will be 100 percent foster care youth.” Traditionally, between 10 and 15 percent of the organization’s clients are youth who have spent time in the foster system.
Hack the Hood, however, is thinking beyond their traditional model. The non-profit has joined a list of organizations preparing for the first-ever national foster care hack-a-thon that will take place in Washington D.C. later this month, and Hack the Hood will also be extending programs to boot camp alumni who are looking to advance further into the tech scene.
“We’ve developed a partnership with General Assembly and Adobe where a certain number of our graduates will be able to graduate from the boot camp and then go into the web development immersive at General Assembly. A certain number of them will get paid internships at Adobe,” Fuller said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re thinking about.”
Technology needs to be made “more accessible for our young people,” Fuller added. “These young people are resilient and they are strong. They’re tremendous assets to society if we can give them access to the opportunities they deserve,” Fuller said.
“We put a layer of entrepreneurship training in everything we do,” she said, “because we feel like, especially with young people with a lot of barriers in their lives, we need to think entrepreneurially, whether starting their own business or taking that approach of seeking out opportunities and setting goals for themselves and pursuing them.”
“Every young person we meet in our program has a lot of potential, and what they need is access to opportunity to realize that potential,” Fuller said.
Clark is a perfect example.
“Where I came from in Oakland,” Clark said, “there aren’t too many people that you see building websites or anything like that.” Clark used the skills that he learned from the Hack the Hood boot camp to build his own website. Now, according to the 25-year-old, he has five people lined up who want to pay him to build websites for them.
“I’m trying to start my own business where I’m building websites,” Clark said. “I’m making a reasonable price.”
Clark is in the process of printing business cards and spreading the word about his business. He’s also a strong supporter of boot camps similar to the one that he participated in at Hack the Hood.
“If there were more programs like Hack the Hood, I would go to them because it’s an opportunity for everybody to open their horizons to other fields,” Clark said. “You have people who don’t necessarily know what they want to do with their lives.”
“There are not too many open tech classes that are available and affordable. Not everybody has the funds to get into the classes.”
Shane Downing is a San Francisco-based writer covering stories relating to homelessness, public health, and city planning. View Shane’s portfolio and follow him on Twitter @SCdowning.