Grassroots coding, gaming groups tackle tech’s diversity crisis

Grassroots coding, gaming groups tackle tech’s diversity crisis

Hina Mir sees a future for herself in technology. She’s only 16, so it’s not entirely clear what that future will look like. But one thing is almost certain: she’ll be coding.

The Toronto high school student already knows elements of multiple programming languages and has studied with experts working for some of the biggest names in the tech sector.

“With all the things I’ve learned with coding, as well as on the engineering and business sides of technology, there’s so much that I think I could do,” Hina said.

She’s part of an up-and-coming generation of potential programmers, software engineers, developers, designers and entrepreneurs who could help the tech world face down an uncomfortable reality: it is very white and very male.

Companies from across the industry have acknowledged the problems: specifically, that there is both a considerable disparity between the sexes and a troubling lack of diversity in the workforce.

The response from Silicon Valley has been to raise a small army of “diversity consultants” and use more inclusive recruiting and hiring strategies.

The group has members as young as six and as old as 16. International studies have found that starting to teach coding as early as kindergarten is the most effective way to ensure young people stick with it. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

“But it’s not enough to rely only on what big companies are doing if we’re going to create a tech world that reflects the society we live in,” said Ashley Jane Lewis.

A tech workforce that reflects society

The 26-year-old is a mentor with Girls Crack the Code, the community organization where Mir got her start in coding.

The Toronto-based group, which is funded by its organizers and the local school board, helps girls and young women of colour get a head start in tech, and not just with coding classes. In the four years it has existed, Girls Crack the Code has grown into an advocacy network that connects members with all kinds of tech-related opportunities, such as scholarships and workshops.
Ashley Jane Lewis Girls Crack the Code diversity coding

Ashley Jane Lewis, right, is a mentor with Girls Crack the Code. ‘I think in 10 years, when a younger generation looks to the tech world and sees women of colour who learned in communities like this, working in the field, they’ll see a trail that has been blazed for them,’ she said. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

“I’ve already been to Google, Twitter, Salesforce and coding camp, and I’m in a technology program at school,” Hina said.

Critically, Girls Crack the Code works out of Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Regent Park, one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the city and home to Canada’s largest social housing development. Bengali, Mandarin, Urdu, Somali and Swahili are just some of the languages spoken there.

The neighbourhood is undergoing a billion-dollar “revitalization” ultimately aimed at creating a community with housing for families of different socioeconomic levels.
Khadija Riffi Girls Crack the Code diversity coding

Khadija was one of about 30 girls who visited Twitter Canada’s headquarters earlier this month. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

In many ways, Girls Crack the Code is trying to build a tech industry informed by all of the voices, perspectives and experiences found in a place like Regent Park.

It’s part of a growing grassroots movement to cultivate talent in places where diversity is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

A ‘powerful’ message

Earlier this month, 30 girls from the group visited Twitter Canada’s trendy downtown office to listen to a talk by Helen Zeng, a 25-year-old software engineer who grew up in Windsor, Ont., and now codes for the tech giant in San Francisco.

Zeng says that while many companies are trying to hire more women and people of colour into tech jobs, there is a “very loud” effort to push back against built-in biases and attitudes that can’t be undone with corporate policy alone.

Helen Zeng, 25, spent part of her childhood in Windsor, Ont. Now, she codes for Twitter in San Francisco. She says that a network of like-minded, female coders would have been a valuable resource when she was younger. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

Building reliable support networks in places like Regent Park, where the creative energy and talent of young people of colour might otherwise be overlooked, is a big part of that momentum.

“It helps to understand all the possibilities that are out there. That’s powerful,” Zeng said. “To know there is a community of people like you who want to see you succeed is powerful.”

That message resonated with 15-year-old Julia Phan, who joined Girls Crack the Code in seventh grade. She wants to be a dentist but says coding has given her a potent tool in a world “where technology is only going to be growing and growing.”

“The more we can reach out to young women and youth of colour, the more of us there’ll be with the knowledge to fight back against stereotypes that may have kept us out of tech before,” she said.
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Battling stereotypes — on screen and off

Stereotypes are something Dre Henry is all too familiar with. The 16-year-old grew up in Malton, Ont., a small community that sits between two major highways and borders the northwest reach of Toronto.
Dre Henry Techsdale coding

Dre Henry, 16, says he wants to design games ‘that will blow people’s minds’ and challenge racist stereotypes about young, black men. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

He’s loved gaming as far back as he can remember. That passion nudged him toward animation and storytelling and ignited a desire to get into video game design.

But he says many of the racist stereotypes he’s faced in real life, which portray young black men as violent, irresponsible and needing to be controlled by a system they had no say in building, are reflected in some video games.

“People of colour are constantly being subjugated into groups that have nothing to do with who we really are,” Dre says. “You see it in gaming, these tropes.”

Dre says he had a lot of creative energy that a 14-week workshop organized by a local community group called Techsdale helped him focus. He likes to sketch out possible game characters before creating them. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

With an overabundance of creative energy and few outlets for it, Dre struggled in a traditional classroom setting. Then he heard about Techsdale, a gaming workshop run out of Rexdale — a diverse area just on the other side of Highway 427 from Malton that has struggled with high unemployment and high school dropout rates.

Started last year, its co-founders Andray Domise, a writer and advocate who grew up in Rexdale, and Sam Allemang, a web developer, say such a project is a rare resource in neighbourhoods outside the downtown core, where Tech-based programs are chronically underfunded or non-existent.

‘A hopeful thing’

Dre checked it out, and alongside other youth of colour from across the GTA, spent 14 Sundays designing and building his own video game from scratch in a computer lab at Humber College.

“That we did it in Rexdale is, to me, a hopeful thing,” he said. “I think the people living in communities like mine could have a lot to teach the gaming and tech industry. And we will, as more people are inspired to express themselves.”

Julian Ramirez, 15, came to Canada from Colombia as a political refugee. After finishing the original Techsdale program, he spent all his savings to make a game design station in his family’s north Toronto apartment. ‘This is all I do now,’ he said. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

Domise and Allemang have funded the project with a combination of their own money and donations and hope to eventually get some corporate funding so they can open a permanent space to run after-school programs throughout the week. But even in its early stages, the initiative is already inspiring young people to think differently about their future.

Julian Ramirez, 14, fled violence in Colombia with his family and came to Canada as a political refugee in 2010. He lives with his parents in Agincourt, an area in the northeast of Toronto.

Before Techsdale, he says, he spent all his time playing video games. Now, he spends his days designing them — with the help of the free, donated laptop that he and other participants got to take home at the end of the workshop.

“I’ve always liked the concept of building things, but I didn’t really know what do with that,” he said.

“With more people like me and the others who did the program working in gaming and tech, maybe we can start making it better for all the people who feel they have been left out.”
Julian Ramirez Techsdale coding

Ramirez has already designed and programmed one full game. Now, he’s working on new ideas and hopes to land a job in the industry straight out of high school. (Lucas Powers/CBC)


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