Hacking for Gold: South L.A. Youths Code Towards a Better Future

(from left): Kevin Amaya (student), Jerome Johnson (tech mentor), Ben Coppersmith (tech mentor), Gisela Hernandez (student), and Ashley Shorter (student) | Photo: J. Morr

Gisela Hernandez scrutinized the computer screen and frowned. "That's going to make it really clashing," she said, referring to the proposed change in font color.

"We can try it," reasoned Ashley G. Shorter, Gisela's friend since the start of this 2013-2014 school year and her coding partner for designing the homepage of Los Angeles Trade and Technical College (LATTC) Auto Shop.

"We can try to see what it looks like," Gisela agreed, and turned back to her screen with equanimity. Ashley typed in the new code and hit the Preview button to evaluate the modification.

Along with these two young women, 18 other high school students were assembled in the Sage Hall Computer Lab at LATTC, each engrossed with their own projects. Time pressure, potential awards, and public visibility motivated their focus. By the end of WebSlam, the intensive 12-hour Saturday hack-a-thon, the youths' websites would be evaluated by a panel of experts and launched on the Web.

Oscar Menjivar, founder and CEO of URBAN TxT, who had taught daily coding classes over the past week leading up to Saturday's event, noted how engaged the students have been. "They don't want to leave the computer station and the coding that they're doing," he said. "They're liking it -- they're loving doing it."

Nadia Despenza, WebSlam's organizer, retold an anecdote that has become WebSlam legend: A group of three high school students -- Jose Sandoval, Hector Linares, and Michael Taton -- were tasked with developing the website for LATTC student Robert Hubbard's cookie business, Shaquann's Gourmet Cookies. "They told their mentor Steven, 'We're not having lunch today, we're not doing that, we need to finish our website, we need to get this done,'" Despenza recalled. "And their mentor was like, 'We have to have lunch, I'm super hungry.' And they were like, 'No, no breaks.'"

Steven eventually convinced the young men to grab a slice of pizza or a sandwich. But it wasn't easy.

WebSlam was born of Despenza's determination to help youths learn about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). WebSlam's participants, half of whom are female and all of whom identify as either African-American or Latino, are youths who could use such help, as recent research suggests. While women represent slightly more than half of this nation's population, and individuals of African-American and Latino descent represent 12% and 16%, respectively, 1 only 19% of the high school students in America who took the 2012 Advanced Placement exam in Computer Science were female, and 12% identified as African-American or Latino. 2 Unequal participation rates persist during college, with women earning 18% of all bachelor's degrees in computer science, 3 and underrepresented minorities (e.g., blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians) earning 18% of these degrees. 4 Workforce participation rates in computer science similarly vary along gender and ethnic lines; of all individuals employed in science and engineering careers, 27% are female and 11% are African-American or Latino. 5

This disparity has major economic implications, both for individuals and for the nation. According to U.S. News and World Report's 2014 coverage of the nation's best jobs, in 2012 web developers earned a median salary of $62,500. 6 To put that figure in context, it is more than triple the median salary of a nail technician, and more than double the median salary of a preschool teacher. Construction workers' and clinical laboratory technicians' median salaries slightly exceed half those of web developers.

As Despenza explained, "A lot of our students think, 'How am I going to get outside my neighborhood?' or 'How can I help my neighborhood, how can I support my family?' And it boils down to, not only just a passion for learning, but how can I support myself?" As leading education blog Mind/Shift stated succinctly, "For low-income and disenfranchised youth, learning to code might lead to a lucrative career in an industry that's both booming and lacking in diversity." 7

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects about 28,500 new web developer jobs will be created from 2012 to 2022 8; in fact, the next decade demands massively more highly skilled employees across the technology industry. The technology industry is growing, and there is space for our citizens -- including women and people of color -- to serve it.

This is why Despenza decided to earn a Master's degree in STEM education, and join the staff at YouthBuild Charter School of California (YCSC) as STEM Coordinator. YCSC is a competency-based dropout recovery school rooted in social justice. YCSC oversees 18 sites across the state, with 13 in southern California. Three of these -- Slauson Site at Home Sweet Home, Long Beach at W.I.N.T.E.R. YouthBuild, and South L.A. Site at CRCD Academy YouthBuild -- sent some of their finest students to participate in WebSlam.

YCSC STEM Coordinator and WebSlam organizer Nadia Despenza | Photo: Laurel J. Felt
YCSC STEM Coordinator and WebSlam organizer Nadia Despenza | Photo: Laurel J. Felt

The WebSlam experience took place over six days. First, students attended five afternoon coding sessions, taught by Menjivar. In Despenza's view, these sessions were crucial, not just educationally but also socially. "We just all became like one big team ... they became like their own site."

Joseph Guerrieri, LATTC's Dean of Academic Affairs and Workforce Development, who hosted WebSlam at LATTC, would occasionally pop his head in to check out the students' process. He recalled seeing several intimidated young people on the first day.

"Talking to Oscar [Menjivar], a lot of these students came in completely green, either having little or no background in this," explained Guerrieri. "Just watching them work now, they look so confident. It's really great to see that in one week ... It's remarkable."

The infamous lunch refusal is consistent with many of the students' behavior all week. Although instruction ended each day at 3 p.m., Menjivar said, "We had students stay until 4 -- that's the time that we stayed. But I think if we were to stay maybe later, until 8 or 9, I think they would have wanted to stay."

Following this one-week intensive, participants arrived at LATTC on Saturday, April 12, for the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. hack-a-thon. Students split into four teams and met with four LATTC-associated clients who needed new or updated websites. This local connection played directly to YCSC's values. "YouthBuild is about giving back to the community," said Despenza. "Freely you give, freely you receive."

Student teams created wire frames that reflected their clients' requests for particular styles and content, then distributed tasks amongst team members in order to finish each website by 6 p.m.

While WebSlam is Despenza's brainchild, it's several people's baby. Samantha Walters, Colocation America's Vice-President of Online Strategy, is among them. "I was doing an article for National Women's Day and it took me an entire week to find five women in my industry who were making a difference," she remembers. As soon as Walters heard of Despenza's WebSlam concept, she delivered sponsorship dollars within 24 hours.

Despenza already had found a teacher in Menjivar, whose company, URBAN TxT, is dedicated to encouraging inner city teen males to become catalysts of change in urban communities. Guerrieri, who's currently developing a digital media program at LATTC, embraced the opportunity to host WebSlam on campus. Melanie Vaget, Senior Manager of Culture & Engagement at Factual, a L.A.-based company that sells such products as global location data mapping and cleaning, rounded up several mentors from among Factual's ranks. Not only was Vaget interested in supporting education and opportunity, she also was enthusiastic about providing a physical representation of a woman who works in the tech industry.

Colocation America VP of Online Strategies Samantha Walters talks to student Jose Sandoval and client Robert Hubbard | Photo: J. Morr
Colocation America VP of Online Strategies Samantha Walters talks to student Jose Sandoval and client Robert Hubbard | Photo: J. Morr

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, several factors dissuade girls from participating in computing, including: computing curriculum that is disconnected from student interests and environments that are uncomfortable for girls; unequal opportunities and early experiences vis-à-vis computing; a sense of isolation for lone girls who get involved; perceptions of computing as masculine and "geeky"; and limited knowledge or inaccurate perceptions about what computing careers involve. 9

"This isn't just a dream," said Vaget, narrating what she hoped her presence would convey to female WebSlam participants. "This is me at the other end of the tunnel and you totally can get here ...if you have it in your heart to stick with it, you can do it."

Yasmeen Summerlin, an 11th grader at Youth Build's Slauson site, worked with Morgan Mullaney, a Factual software engineer and WebSlam mentor, on a website for the Cosmetology Department team. Her procedural mastery and grasp of the vernacular was spot-on.

"I was resizing [an image] into a banner using Gimp so that we could put it on our website," said Yasmeen. "So you either save it as a jpeg for image, and then png would be like if you don't want no background on it, so the layers can come out. I stayed with the jpeg ..."

Such commitment to and proficiency in both problem-solving and perseverance are among the most important participant outcomes of WebSlam.

"Today our server went down," sighed Despenza, "and we just had to problem-solve right then on the spot. If the students hadn't been here throughout the week they might have been like, 'What do we do now?' But they were like, 'Let's look up some codes!' So they started to work through it."

This also exemplifies sensitive and functional communication, another key take-away from WebSlam. "There was one kid who wasn't talking too much to his group members," said Menjivar. "But then after realizing, if I don't talk to them, my ideas won't be heard, he had to figure out, how do I talk to them?" Menjivar facilitated discussions on the subject, offered useful language for negotiating conversations, and modeled best practice by coordinating with Despenza aloud, for students to hear.

Factual tech mentor Morgan Mullaney (R) assists student Yasmeen Summer (L) with her site | Photo: J. Morr
Factual tech mentor Morgan Mullaney (R) assists student Yasmeen Summer (L) with her site | Photo: J. Morr

Educational researchers and computer scientists report that learning to code develops practitioners' systems thinking and collaboration skills, and might even inspire a passion for computer programming. 10 This is why hack-a-thons for students, particularly low-income students, have become more prevalent across the United States, from Oakland, CA, to Philadelphia, PA, to Seattle, WA.

Hack-a-thons are also occurring on a global scale. During the same weekend as YCSC's WebSlam, UCLA hosted "L.A. Hacks," a 36-hour event catering to ambitious, tech-savvy college students and conferring both monetary prizes and access to CEOs and VIPs associated with such hot companies as Tinder, Amazon, Coinbase, and Pandora. 11 In Argentina, the city of Buenos Aires recently welcomed hackers to solve problems in the public sector as participants of FINDEMO, "the world's first Public Innovation Festival." 12 And this April in New York, the Tribeca Film Institute is inviting coders, designers, and filmmakers to their hack-a-thon in order "to imagine and invent new possibilities for storytelling in an increasingly mobile and connected world, experimenting with storytelling on wearables, smartphones and tablets, using social media and connected devices." 13

Back at YCSC's WebSlam, the judges awarded top prize to the site built by the three young men who refused to leave for lunch; Yasmeen and her partner Anai's Cosmetology site came in second; a team working on behalf of the Associated Student Government came in third; and Gisela, Ashley, and their colleague Kevin's site for LATTC's Automotive Department came in fourth. 14 But considering the participants' knowledge gains, skill development, and professional prospects, as well as WebSlam partners' collaborative success and the community's receipt of both new websites and empowered learners, everybody was a winner.

As District 9 City Councilmember Curren Price said during his lunch-time site visit, these youth are part of a revolution, and their WebSlam helps to advance the rise of the "New Ninth" as a place for new ideas, new energy, and new enthusiasm.

Power to the people.


1 National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2013). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2013. Special Report NSF 13-304.
2 The College Board. (2012). Program Summary Report.
3 Ashcraft, C., Eger, E., & Friend, M. (2012). Girls in IT: The Facts. Boulder, CO: National Center for Women & Information Technology.
4 National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2013). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2013. Special Report NSF 13-304.
5 Ibid.
6 "Best Technology Jobs: Web Developer."
7 Mind/Shift. (2014, March 3). Looking for the Hidden Genius Within Disenfranchised Youth.
8 Ibid.
9 Ashcraft, C., Eger, E., & Friend, M. (2012). Girls in IT: The Facts. Boulder, CO: National Center for Women & Information Technology.
10 Quillen, I. (2013, May 23). Why Programming Teaches So Much More Than Technical Skills.
11 LA Hacks. "Info."
12 UNICEF Stories. (2014, March 17). FINDEMO: First Festival of Public Innovation.
13 "Hackathon Overview."
14 Suttmeier, E. (2014, April 16). WebSlam a Huge Success.

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