Pedro Ciriano Perez doesn’t like to call his nonprofit’s approach to teaching computer science “unconventional” — but Geeking Out Kids of Color (GOKiC) definitely has a different strategy.
To open the door to technology to kids who are black, Hispanic, Muslim and other underserved races, ethnicities, religions and genders, GOKiC has a unique philosophy. “We focus around racial equality and gender first,” said Perez, “and from there we’ll teach out.”
Over the past three months, Perez and GOKiC has been one of 21 nonprofits and businesses focused on social good in Seattle’s Social Venture Partners (SVP) Fast Pitch cohort. The program helps participants refine their message, work with mentors and connect with peer organizations. On Saturday, 11 finalists from the program will pitch their enterprises to a live audience, competing for grants and prizes totaling more than $100,000.
GOKiC didn’t make the final cut, but will be part of the Innovator Expo and Reception following the pitches. Other cohort members with a tech connection include the Seattle chapter of Techbridge Girls and Elixir, a nonprofit that helps people who are uninsured due to finances or undocumented status find healthcare through an app.
“I’d never met people before who were just going out and trying their ideas and making a difference in the community,” said Marium Raza, Elixir’s founder and a sophomore at the University of Washington. “While it is a competition, the cohort is more of a community and learning from people and learning from people’s journeys.”
Perez said the program helped him focus his message, making it easier to find partners and raise dollars to support GOKiC, for which he is the executive director and a co-founder.
The program started holding classes last spring and targets kids in third-to-eighth grades, adding first- and second-grade programs next month. During the school year, they hold three-hour after-school classes once a week at community centers located south of Seattle in SeaTac, Burien and White Center. Women and racial minorities in the tech sector teach the classes. Some 200 kids have participated in GOKiC programs.
In a camp this past summer, the kids painted a massive map of King County and the Duwamish River on large rolls of paper. They talked about the Duwamish tribe, how we are “uninvited guests” living in this area and the history of corporate pollution in the Duwamish waterway. They built and programmed robots to cleanup and recycle the pollution, which was represented by wadded up newspaper dispersed on the map.
“That is what racial and environmental justice looks like when you intersect it with computer science,” Perez said.
The goal of GOKiC isn’t to train kids for technology jobs, but to show them how they can use technology to better their communities.
Other lessons include storytelling through animation created in Scratch. The kids choose issues that affect them personally, which has included Black Lives Matter, police brutality, Islamophobia and deportation, and build narratives around them.
“You have little boys who are 10, 11 years old saying they’re going to tell a story about how gender pay (discrimination) is not right,” Perez said.
A class this week used the Kiki Challenge dance — a social media fad set to Drake’s “In My Feelings” — to explore the concept of algorithms.
In terms of closing the digital divide between these kids and more affluent, privileged peers, “we are doing what we had planned,” Perez said. “We closed that gap and made them become leaders.”
Focus on diversity and equality
This marks the 8th annual SVP Fast Pitch, which is perhaps the most public event hosted by Social Venture Partners. SVP started in Seattle in 1997, the brainchild of former tech entrepreneur Paul Brainerd and business leaders Scott Oki, Ida Cole, Bill Neukom and Doug and Maggie Walker. The organization essentially trains wealthy individuals to be effective, engaged philanthropists that contribute not only their money, but also their expertise, to charitable efforts. SVP now has 44 chapters in nine countries.
More than a year ago, Solynn McCurdy took over as CEO of Seattle SVP. The organization launched an effort to increase its community impact by putting racial diversity and equality front and center. GOKiC, Elixir and Techbridge Girls all aim to improve equity in disadvantaged communities.
Elixir’s Raza, who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, witnessed firsthand the challenges of getting good healthcare while volunteering in local clinics.
“What I’ve seen before Elixir was this huge disparity between how I grew up accessing healthcare in Seattle, and how someone who goes to a free clinic gets healthcare,” Raza said. She was also aware of other students, who like herself were children of immigrants (her parents migrated from Pakistan), but they did not have health insurance due to costs or legal status.
“That has always tugged at my heartstrings,” she said, “because I can see myself in their shoes.”
So she reconnected with Falak Daud, a high school friend who is studying computer science and engineering at the UW, and Daud rounded up two other CSE friends, Elena Spasova and Sofia Viotto. Earlier this year, the four began researching the problem of healthcare access for people who are uninsured, undocumented or both, and began building an app to serve them.
Elixir holds workshops at community centers serving their target populations. The events include healthcare workers who can help people figure out the services they need. Their focuses are King County, which includes Seattle and Bellevue, and Snohomish County.
The team is beta testing an app that maps a network of free clinics and community health services — information that they and volunteers have verified and entered themselves — including addresses, hours and contact info. They’re trying to use pictures as much as possible in the app, given that their target audience will speak a variety of languages. The students are also building a team of volunteer social workers and healthcare providers who through the app can guide people needing long-term care for an illness such as cancer.
“I believe healthcare is a human right. We all deserve to be healthy,” Raza said. “If I can take even one step forward, change one person’s experience, that’s enough for me. At least I’ve done something that makes a difference.”
‘We have the tools’
Techbridge Girls started in the San Francisco Bay area nearly two decades ago, but the Northwest chapter is only 4 years old. The program brings STEM education and positive, female role models to girls who lack sufficient access to hands-on science and technology. With SVP’s support, the group has been working to expand a program that trains teachers in STEM education and provides them with teaching materials.
“Teachers are super stressed. If you ask them to do a STEM after-school program, they don’t have time for that,” said Callista Chen, executive director of Techbridge Girls Pacific Northwest. “We’re putting the supports in place so they can do it.”
The 12-week, after-school program called Techbridge Inspire is for girls in fourth-to-sixth grades. Teachers receive 16 hours of training to run the program. The classes are in seven schools in South King County, with plans to expand to 14-17 schools in total this spring. Other Techbridge programs go through high school.
The girls enrolled in Techbridge programs locally are 36 percent Latina, 15 percent black and 15 percent multiracial. Nearly two-thirds stand to be the first in their families to attend college.
Participating in SVP brings more exposure to their work, Chen said, as well as new resources to their four-person operation.
The Elixir team has a wish list should they win some of the SVP prize money Saturday. Their app is currently only in English, but they would like to translate it into Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese, which should cost about $2,000 each. Other funds could pay for workshop materials and expansion into more community centers.
It’s a lot to juggle a full load of undergraduate courses plus launch a nonprofit. But Raza said it wasn’t hard to decide to take this on.
“It’s 2018,” she said. “We have the tools at our fingertips and so many resources, so let’s do it.”