SAN FRANCISCO — Shortly after the Trayvon Martin verdict, Van Jones says he was talking about race with his friend, music legend Prince.
"Every time you see a black kid wearing a hoodie, you say: there's a thug. If you see a white kid wearing hoodie, you say: there's Mark Zuckerberg," Jones said. "I said, 'that's because of racism. And Prince said, 'maybe so, or maybe you civil rights guys haven't created enough Mark Zuckerbergs.'"
That challenge inspired Jones to create Yes We Code, an initiative of his Rebuild the Dream organization that aims to teach 100,000 low-income kids to write code. Prince promoted the initiative in July by headlining the Essence Festival in New Orleans where Yes We Code held its first hackathon.
"How do we create a situation that when you see a young black kid in a hoodie, you think, maybe I should go up and ask the kid for a loan or a job as opposed to assuming the kid's a threat," Jones said during an interview in USA TODAY's San Francisco bureau.
Computer science is one of the fastest-growing and best-paying career paths in the USA. Yet most computer science students are white men, and too few African-Americans and Hispanics even consider it.
Yes We Code is helping dozens of organizations around the country that are trying to address high-tech's racial and gender gap from Black Girls Code to Hack the Hood. It connects those groups with the resources they need, Jones said.
"Yes We Code aspires to become the United Negro College Fund equivalent for coding education," Jones said. "Yes We Code exists to find and fund the next Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in communities you would never expect to find them."
Yes We Code counts among its partners Facebook and Google. And for good reason. The tech industry needs these kinds of efforts.
In 2014, leading technology companies released data showing they vastly underemploy African-Americans, Hispanics and women.
Tech companies are mainly staffed by white and Asian men. African-Americans and Hispanics make up 5% of the companies' workforces, compared with 14% nationally.
That means Silicon Valley may be missing out on the next big idea or company because it employs too few women and people of color, Jones said. And young people are missing out on their chance at a better life.
"Aptitude tests show one out of five kids of any color have an inherent aptitude for the kind of problem solving that is required to be a computer programmer. So that means one out of five kids out here in low-income communities, Native American reservations, Appalachia, housing projects, barrios, ghettos could be on the Mark Zuckerberg track," Jones said. "The problem is their mother doesn't know, their father doesn't know, the coach doesn't know, the teacher doesn't know, the preacher doesn't know. So they all want to be LeBron James.
"The math doesn't work. You have a million low-income kids playing basketball this weekend all trying to get into the NBA. The NBA has 450 players and they hire 15 kids a year So you have 1 million mostly black kids trying out for 15 jobs. Meanwhile the technology sector says they are going to be a million workers short in eight years. And if we are not careful, we will have 15 black Urkels trying out for a million jobs." Click here to read more.
To celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 86th birthday, Van Jones spoke with Dr. Cornel West, Professor at Union Theological Seminary and author of Black Prophetic Fire.
Praised by The New York Times for his “ferocious moral vision” and hailed by Newsweek as “an elegant prophet with attitude,” Dr. Cornel West bridges the gap between black and white opinion about the country’s problems. As a leading voice in societal commentary, Dr. West marched in civil rights demonstrations, taught at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton and is currently a professor at Union Theological Seminary. He draws from traditions of Christianity, the black church, Marxism, and neopragmatism. Hear his fiery oration on the past, present and future of race and injustice in the United States in conjunction with the release of his latest book, The Radical King.
Watch the conversation below:
More than 80 young men and women teamed up with professional coders, designers and innovators to develop apps for social good at the first #YesWeCode Hackathon in coordination with the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. This three-day event, which was presented by Google and powered by Qeyno Labs, produced 10 apps designed to solve problems within the community, including an app to connect teens to mental health professionals and an idea for crowdsourcing solutions to remedy urban blight.
Click to see event gallery (PHOTO CREDIT: Johnathon Henninger of Johntown Productions)
Dream Corps Unlimited founder Van Jones and Nationbuilder CEO Jim Gilliam participated in Glide Church’s esteemed thought leaders’ series to discuss national politics, activism, technology and Jones’ vision of how to close prison doors and open doors of opportunity.
Click to see event gallery