About that Cultural Fit: Hack the Hood Knocks Out it’s Second Annual Bootcamp!

In Culture, Technology on September 17, 2014 at 7:46 am


Reprinted from Oakland Local, August, 18th 2014. Written by Pendarvis Harshaw. And, who’s that good lookin’ dude on the bottom of the picture?

On August 14, 2014, Oakland’s Hack The Hood celebrated the conclusion of a six-week summer program for 23 young people who all learned how to create websites for local businesses as a way to begin to train for tech careers.

The graduation ceremony was held in Oakland’s uptown neighborhood, in the new Impact HUB Oakland building. On the screen behind the stage, images of websites for local businesses were shown. The free promotion wasn’t about the locally-owned shoe store, or about the small business that specializes in dessert-making, as much as it was about the creators of the websites.

People like Arletha Grayson, a 17-year-old mother who recently graduated high school, and Teresa Flores, a student at a college in Southern California and a daughter to a hardworking mother who immigrated to the United States. These are just two of the individuals who’ve gained an expertise in web design this summer.

Hack The Hood is a technical training program, birthed out of the collaboration of a number of community organizations (Center for Media Change / Oakland Local, HUB Oakland, United Roots), and backed with funding from Google and many other funders, including The City of Oakland.

This is the second year for the organization, which runs a summer bootcamp focused on Oakland youth. Many of the young people, ages 16-20, are guided to Hack The Hood by organizations known for working with youth: College Track, Youth Uprising, United Way and Lao Family Community Development, to name a few.

This summer, the young people worked in the program five days a week, 9 – 5 every day except for Friday (when they were dismissed at 2 p.m.). Work consisted of learning the Weebly web design platform and creating websites that fit local business owners’ desires and needs.

Every once in a while, work consisted of getting out of the office for on-site visits to Google, Facebook and Weebly. “We’re not taking them there to kick it,” said Damon Packwood, Program Manager for Hack The Hood. “We want them to understand what the industry is like, and make assessments.”

Packwood continued to say that students were instructed to ask themselves critical questions during these research trips: “What is this company like? Could you work there? What if you could make something of your own?”

Packwood, one of four instructional staff members, worked alongside a team of tech-savvy volunteer mentors to aid the young people’s advancement into the world of technology development.

“Technology is re-conceptualizing culture,” said Packwood. He made it a point to stress this to the young people, many of them who came from “disadvantaged backgrounds,” be it financial hurdles, broken homes or parents who recently immigrated and struggle with language barriers.

“There’s a significant part of culture that isn’t being re-conceptualized,” Packwood said, highlighting the young members of Hack The Hood’s graduating class as valuable, because of their cultural ties, energy and talent.

At the graduation ceremony, before students were honored for their expertise in web development, they enjoyed finger foods and light refreshments near the main stage of HUB Oakland’s building. A handful of students gave speeches about their personal paths, while others shared an overview of what Hack The Hood was all about.

The event concluded with a group photo. As the students postured themselves on stage, the projected images of their websites were no longer displayed on a white wall; instead the light was now shown across their smiling faces.

For more info on ongoing programs, or to sign up or volunteer, contact info@hackthehood.org, or visit http://hackthehood.org.

LUCiD, An Original Game Concept by a Bunch of Crackheads

In Education, video games on September 17, 2014 at 7:45 am

Screen shot 2014-09-16 at 11.22.14 PM

It was the year 2003, I think, and a few buddies of mine — Shawn Johnson and Jesus “Chuy” Quintero — were working as Resident Advisors for the USF Upward Bound Summer Program. For six weeks, we lived in a college dorm with a bunch of high school/aspiring college students taking classes at the university, but that’s not the important part. We had a weekend off so, we decided to create an activity around a newly discovered guilty pleasure: video games. We rented a bunch of games from Blockbuster Video (remember them), brought our game systems to the dorms, hooked them up to a bunch of televisions in one room and PLAYED ALL DAY.

At the time, we were still single and chasing women. We wanted to keep the video game thing a secret so we came up with a nickname. We called them Crack. Yes, sounding like we were discussing an illegal drug was somehow better than saying video game, but there it is. We used the name Crack because we thought a good video game was one that you couldn’t put down. A good video game was addictive like an awesome book. Thus, a good video game was like Crack, and our little event, which soon became a tradition, was our “Crack Session” where we “Cracked Out.”

We did our little events for only two more years but we stayed friends. Chuy bought his first console, got married and drove his wife crazy with his brand new hobby. Shawn worked for a year as a tester and hated it. A few years later, I did a stint as a video game journalist. To this day we still use the same words to describe video games. Actually, over the years we came up with a completely new lexicon because A) we were admittedly nuts and B) we absolutely hated how nearly everyone that wrote about games was white, male and geek. I was a Black dude from poor, working class San Francisco. Shawn was a brotha from Oakland. Chuy was a Mexican-American who grew up picking peaches in rural Yuba City, California. The way people talked about games on IGN or Kotaku just didn’t vibe with us.

A few months ago, I started teaching a class on principles of video game design with a small group of youth. I’ve learned a few things since the summer of 2003. During the first lecture, I talked to them about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, his Theory of Flow and it’s influence on video games. His theory, as I explained to my class, is the reason why a good game is like crack.  I explained it. They totally got it. I had come full circle. 

A few weeks later that small group of young people created a concept for a video game, called LUCiD, a game about dealing with grief. They used Little Big Planet 2 to create a concept demo and Weebly to create a website around it with character profiles, concept art and a YouTube video. And, they call themselves The Crackheads. On Moday, they submitted their game to the ESA LOFT Video Game Innovation Fellowship. No word on the results just yet, but I couldn’t be more proud of this small band of Black, Yemini and Latino youth.

Ain’t it funny how ideas develop?

We Need to Work on this Idea of Cultural Fit

In Technology on September 13, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Below is a re-post of something I wrote for Hack the Hood last summer. Yes, I need to get better at posting what I’m writing. And, I have been writing, by the way! Culture and technology is an idea that I am growing increasingly passionate about. Read and enjoy.

Apparently, I’m a “troublemaker.” I earned that nickname in the middle of my first quarter as a graduate student in a technology program when I brought up the ethical application of technology in marginalized communities. Yep, I was the only Black man in a technology program, and in the first few weeks I received my scarlet letter, a big fat “T” tattooed onto my forehead.Then, last summer, I heard that Hack the Hood, a youth program that teaches inner city youth how to build websites for local businesses free of charge, was seeking volunteers. I threw my name in immediately. At the time, I didn’t even know what they did. The name was enough for me. It helped me realize that this “troublemaker” had allies, and that felt good.

We use the word disruption a lot in tech. Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen defines it as a product that addresses a market that was previously ignored, or a an existing market that is being addressed in an easier or cheaper way. (This doesn’t paint the full picture. As we’re seeing in Oakland, San Francisco and East Palo Alto, market disruption creates both cultural and community disruption). It takes guts to name a youth program that serves mostly young Black and Latino youth, Hack the Hood. That name and the focus of the program are inherently disruptive. Local businesses without a digital presence and inner city youth who can’t create one can be deemed nonexistent in this new age. What happens when you put the two together? When you fuse technology and the ‘hood” you quickly realize that you have to do things differently. You have to imagine a new approach and create new rules. Suddenly this process, in the context of technology, sounds familiar; this is the way innovation begins. It worked for Steven Paul Jobs. It helped Dan and Sam Houser make the world forget that Grand Theft Auto is an actual crime. Mark Zuckerberg created a social media empire out of it. So, here I am one year ago walking up to United Roots. The building is marked in the cultural colors of graffiti art (#awesome). I walk inside a computer lab, and there are fifteen youth sitting in front of iMacs. There’s an unfamiliar sound in the air, a symphony of keyboard taps and mouse clicks playing underneath that Oakland drawl. The young people are communicating about their projects. Some of them are collaborating and others are challenging each other, boasting about a raw design they just made. One of the youth, playing the unofficial role of lab DJ, is searching for oldies on YouTube, but every once in a while he hits play on a gritty Bay Area rapper that I’ve clearly aged out of. I thought to myself, “this is no tech environment that I’ve ever been a part of.”

There are staff members with locked hair, African accessories and mobile devices walking the room offering assistance. An Ethiopian American woman is coming in later to discuss an Oakland community event centered on supporting local businesses. One of the other volunteers is in the corner preparing for a presentation. He’s talking to a student about the cover design on Madden, a football video game. The environment was incredible.

I have never seen youth look so empowered and I myself have never before been so comfortable in a technology space. I have over ten years of experience working in youth development. Five years ago, I decided to pursue technology, which I’ve been doing almost exclusively over the last four years in the areas of mobile applications, journalism and academia. Every experience has left me unsatisfied. It always felt like something was missing.

The issue of cultural fit has become a popular topic in the technology field. The idea refers to a reason why some people are not hired, but to some people it implies a sort-of discriminatory practice. I like to look at the idea of cultural fit in a different way. Technological innovation is the act of re-conceptualizing cultural activities, things we already do. The phrase, a little bird just told me, for example, is the idea behind Twitter. Within this idea of cultural fit we have to start having conversations about multiculturalism because we don’t all share the same culture and we don’t all use technology the same way.

How can folks from inner city communities re-conceptualize their own culture? It’s a fascinating question; one too few people are interested in pursuing. Fortunately, last summer at Hack the Hood taught me that this is not a taboo question, that I’m not the only one asking it, and the answers can be ideas worth investing in.