How Do You Get from Here to the Rest of the World?

by Autumn Caviness

In Episode 5 of Season 5 of HBO’s The Wire, boxing trainer Cutty relays to high school student Dukie that the world is bigger than their Baltimore, Maryland, street corner. Upon hearing this, Dukie asks Cutty, “How do you get from here to the rest of the world?” Cutty’s response is chilling—“I wish I knew.”

My mind replays the aforementioned scene from The Wire, weekly. This exchange between Cutty and Dukie has permeated my teaching philosophy, driving the campus programs and curriculum that I create for my students at Austin’s oldest institution of higher learning, Huston-Tillotson University (HT). This exchange between Cutty and Dukie is why each spring, during the first weekend of SXSW Interactive, HT hosts our Annual Diversity Hackathon. Our Diversity Hackathon held for Austin-area high school and college students was created with one goal in mind: we want to shift how Millennials of Color view their role in technology, moving from consumers of technology to creators of technology. Our event aims for student participants to understand that the way to move from our campus address of 900 Chicon Street to the rest of the world is via technology. Specifically, via creation of a mobile app that disrupts the Business, Entertainment, Education, and Health industries.

Although I serve as the Faculty Director for HT’s Diversity Hackathon, what makes the Hackathon distinctive is that it is the only one in the country that is 100% organized and operated by students of an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). My students and I begin planning for the Hackathon in October. And between the months of October and March, my students will have logged individually, at least 250 hours of community service in preparation for our event. Many of my students serving on our Diversity Hackathon Squad are the first in their families to step foot on a college campus; thus, they get the significance of providing Hackathon participants with an alternate reality, an alternate mode for employing technology to get the rest of the world.

According to The Demographics of Social Media Users (2015) published by Pew Research Center, African Americans and Latinos hold a prominent presence on the social media networks of Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Yet, these metrics illustrating the social media media consumption among African Americans and Latinos remain woefully disproportionate with the percentage of African Americans and Latinos hired by major technology companies in Silicon Valley. The Wall Street Journal’s Diversity in Tech (2015) finds that for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, 1% of employees identify as African American and 3% of employees identify as Latino.  Silicon Valley and U.S. media industries euphemize these bleak employment percentages for African Americans and Latinos in Silicon Valley, as a pipeline problem. But when I share these bleak, dismal employment percentages with my brilliant and resourceful Diversity Hackathon Squad students they do not understand why Silicon Valley can not reach out to all Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI’s) to fill this so-called barren pipeline. Put simply, my students want Silicon Valley to understand that they are the pipeline.

HT's Diversity Hackathon is designed to empower students to see themselves as creators rather than simply consumers of technology.
HT’s Diversity Hackathon is designed to empower students to see themselves as creators rather than simply consumers of technology.

The theme of this year’s Annual Diversity Hackathon, “I Am the Pipeline,” emerged from this spirit. Next, my students and I had a larger, looming question to grapple with: how exactly do you create a Hackathon that aids Millennials of Color in viewing themselves as a vital part of the technology pipeline? How do you create a Hackathon that moves beyond campaign slogan to transformative student participant action?

DIV Hackathon By the Numbers: More than eighty percent of the student participants identified as either Black and Hispanic; young women were forty percent of the participants.
DIV Hackathon By the Numbers: More than eighty percent of the student participants identified as either Black and Hispanic; young women were forty percent of the participants.

My students and I studied the largest student-led Hackathons in the country, and could not locate a single Hackathon that was operated and organized in a fashion that would reach Millennials of Color, young women, first-generation undergraduates, and inexperienced student coders who were interested in technology careers. Thus, we created our own Hackathon blueprint.

Our blueprint combines 24 hours of hands-on coding experience by professional mentors from the technology industry with a learning curriculum facilitated by HT professors and technology experts from Silicon Valley. In this year’s Diversity Hackathon over 150 participants learned from HT’s Business, Education, and Health faculty members why mobile apps are needed for communities of color in the aforementioned content areas. Additionally, our Hackathon hosted an #IAmThePipeline panel, presented by Google and Google Fiber employees; a Q&A Session with Director of Engineering at Entelo, Leslie Miley; and insight into Six Flags’ new Virtual Reality Coasters via Six Flag’s Vice President of Corporate Alliance, John Gray.  Miley’s Medium post reflecting on why diversity is such a stubborn challenge in the tech sector went viral.

Our Diversity Hackathon is ambitious. For example, we have to educate and train our selected student participants. We expect student teams to have a working mobile app to show the Diversity Hackathon judges come presentation time on Sunday evening. What my Diversity Hackathon Squad and I do cannot be found at any other Hackathon held in this country. Again, my students do a lot.

Yet, after we have announced the winner and participating students, mentors, and judges leave our campus overjoyed with the magic that our Hackathon has created—my mind teems with many questions: How do I make our 3rd Annual Hackathon better? Was there enough coding time? How do you motivate experienced coders and inexperienced coders, simultaneously? Did the students love the panelists? Did I feed the students too much pizza and not enough kale and quinoa? Did the mentors and sponsors enjoy our event? Over the summer, answers to these questions will surface; however, one question will linger, Did I show the students how to get from 900 Chicon Street to the rest of the world?

Cutty did not have an answer for the astute and precocious Dukie. My sincere hope is that I and our Student Squad did have answers for our astute and precocious 2nd Annual Diversity Hackathon participants.

For more on our Diversity Hackathon see the following pages:





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