My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon Is Changing the World of Children One at a Time

George Hofstetter, 14, took part in My Brother's Keeper hackathon in Oakland, creating an app to help African-American teens feel less nervous around police officers. (Photo: Martin Klimek, USA TODAY)
George Hofstetter, 14, took part in My Brother’s Keeper hackathon in Oakland, creating an app to help African-American teens feel less nervous around police officers.
(Photo: Martin Klimek, USA TODAY)

George Hofstetter stands on stage in a black hoodie, a confident 14-year-old with a wiry frame and bright brown eyes.

He’s handed a microphone and 60 seconds to pitch his idea: a mobile app to help African-American teens like himself feel less nervous around police officers.

The app will have tips — the digital equivalent of “the talk” Hofstetter hears regularly at home, the one that reminds him to keep his hands in sight at all times and to be polite and respectful.

His mom took him to meet the police chief in his hometown of San Leandro, Calif., but this ninth-grader who dreams of studying computer science at UCLA and one day running his own technology company still gets “extremely nervous.” He doesn’t want any more kids ending up like Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer.

“It’s happened so much where kids like me have died because they’ve been shot by police officers,” Hofstetter says.

Teens in the audience at the My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon soberly nod their heads in agreement.

Now Hofstetter and his team have two days to program and present the app.

Sixty-six kids are taking part in a group coding competition called a hackathon. This one is the brainchild of Kalimah Priforce, the 34-year-old CEO of Qeyno Labs.

It’s similar to those that pop up all the time in Silicon Valley in which programmers, designers and other tech workers spend a night or a few days pounding keyboards to develop a new app or feature. That’s how the popular Facebook “Like” button came to be, for example.

But the hackathons that Priforce puts on are very different.

Instead of a sea of mostly white and Asian men, this auditorium is brimming with mostly African-American teens.

Priforce calls them “trailblazers” and they are here on a sunny winter weekend in Oakland to address very real problems they see in the world around them, from helping kids make healthy food choices to encouraging them to read more books.

“Why not put Dr. King, Amelia Earhart and Steve Jobs in one room and see what is it they can do,” Priforce told the crowd as he paced the stage at last weekend’s hackathon. “But hackathons right now are comprised of Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and maybe one Asian guy.”

He pauses as the audience laughs and then says: “That’s a problem.”

For years, Silicon Valley has seemed out of reach to African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities pushed to the margins of the tech industry. They make up a tiny percentage of the Silicon Valley workforce. But passionate entrepreneurs such as Priforce and Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant are trying to change that.

“I want to make hackathon a household world in every community,” Priforce says.

Priforce’s first hackathon celebrated black male achievement after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting and killing an African-American teen who was walking home from a convenience store. Priforce’s thought-provoking concept: Could an app have saved Trayvon Martin?

Hackathons, Priforce said, can collapse the walls that have isolated high-potential kids with too few opportunities. These kids can learn the fundamentals of coding and follow a promising pathway to one of the nation’s highest-paying, fastest-growing careers.

While building apps, kids learn that they can be creators, not just consumers of, technology, he says. And, in the process, they change how the world sees them and how these kids see themselves.

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SOURCE: USA Today – Jessica Guynn

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