Incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary Collect Donations For Flint, MI

"Even though we are incarcerated, we still care about the community.”

A group of incarcerated men at the Oregon State Penitentiary raised $800 for the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Inspired by their efforts, Dream Corps raised a matching donation in support of the organization's work in Flint. Thank you to all who helped raise a matching donation in support of the incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. 

When a group of incarcerated men at the Oregon State Penitentiary learned about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan that had exposed thousands of residents to contamination, they were shocked and impacted by the stories of families subjected to using polluted water.

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                                          From left to right: D’Angelo Turner, Jeremy Hays, Troy Ramsey, Grover Clegg

"I was sitting on my bunk in my cell watching TV. Flipping channels. I saw people on the Steve Harvey show talking about how they couldn’t shower with the tap water," said Troy Ramsey who initiated the fundraiser. "I thought, ‘What can I do from where I’m at to help the Flint community?” 

With the necessary approvals needed to begin collecting donations, a group convened to devise a plan to raise money to the Flint community. Hoping to raise $500, the group was able to raise $800 for Flint with the generous $1, $2, and $5 donations from inmates.

“These are not small donations,” explained Ramsey. “ The average income for inmates is about $49 per month, and we have to use that for all our hygiene items, foods, etc.  A lot of the guys also have obligations to kids and families.”

In an interview with the Dream Corps, Kosal So, who helped Ramsey organize the Flint fundraising efforts, reflected on his own journey and how his experiences influence the work he does from within the prison.

“I was kicked out of school. I didn’t learn to read. We lose confidence and get wrapped up in the streets. I was in and out of the juvenile system. Once you are in that, you are stuck. Now I work to raise money for kids to go to college.”

Like So, other incarcerated men also use the examples of their own lives as a vehicle for change in their communities and society.

“Just because I’m incarcerated doesn’t change morals and values. I used to deliver food to the homeless on Thanksgiving,” said Grover Clegg who helped lead fundraising efforts. “I drove a truck for a freight company and would use that to drive around on Thanksgiving to deliver food”

Though making donations may not be easy for inmates, fundraising is not new to this group who frequently engage in efforts that contribute to a variety of issues.

“I have been involved in a number of efforts,” said D’Angelo Turner another leader in the Flint fundraiser. “ I have written a re-entry program. I raised money for Missus Harris who was diagnosed with orphans disease – cancer – back in 2005 or 2007.”

Incarcerated men involved with the fundraiser noted that it is these efforts that cross racial groups bringing together groups typically segregated based on race.

“Our effort cut across racial groups,” said fundraiser leader Eric Nitschke. “ There are cliques in prison. This fundraiser was also helping people unite across groups and begin to break this down.”

Nitschke added, “I couldn’t believe that we in America could do this to our people. I learned about the change [of drinking water source] from the lake to the river.  They knew it was polluted.  It shocked me that someone who wasn’t drinking the water made that decision.”

This story of incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary organizing a fundraiser to benefit victims of the Flint water crisis lives at the intersection of environmental and criminal  justice, which hits close to home for the Dream Corps and our initiatives.

Here at the Dream Corps, we support economic, environmental and criminal justice innovators. We serve to uplift powerful voices of those impacted by the criminal justice system--like this group of incarcerated men--and ensure that we are working towards an inclusive green economy.

We are deeply inspired by this effort. To support the efforts of the incarcerated men at Oregon State Penitentiary, the Dream Corps has committed to raising a matching donation of $800 for the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Help us raise matching funds for every child, family, and business in the community of Flint affected by the water crisis.

 


Russell Simmons Convenes Allies for #JusticeReformNOW

“Every once in awhile a book comes around that changes the conversation,” said Van Jones, President of Dream Corps and co-founder of #cut50. He was introducing Shaka Senghor, author of Writing My Wrongs and director of strategy and innovation at #cut50, to a house full of friends and allies on a rainy night in Los Angeles.

That evening, music executive Russell Simmons, who has been a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform, hosted stars like Alicia Silverstone, Aloe Blacc, and Harrison Barnes to learn more about the fight for reform in 2016 and hear Shaka’s story of redemption and transformation.

“We need criminal justice reform now because there are far too many men and women being locked up and not given a second chance,” said Shaka, who gave one of the top 10 TED talks of 2014. Members of his audience had tears in their eyes as he recounted his 7 years in solitary confinement and the difficulty of watching his children grow up while he was incarcerated.

Shaka Senghor and Russell Simmons

“There are far too many children growing up without parents. My parents had to drive for 12 hours just so I could touch my own children for a moment, before they were taken away again.”

 Shaka is co-founder of #BeyondPrisons, a new initiative of #cut50 and Dream Corps.

Shaka is set to become a household name in 2016. His soon-to-be-released memoir traces his journey from childhood to the streets of Detroit, where he sold drugs and lived a life of crime that resulted in a 19-year-prison sentence.

Note: Pre-order your copy of Writing My Wrongs and receive an exclusive excerpt from the book: http://bit.ly/1SI51tR

 

Shaka Senghor and Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors

 “Incarceration destroys individuals, families, and communities,” said #cut50 National Director Jessica Jackson Sloan, whose husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a non-violent crime, leaving her with a small daughter who asked everyday to see her dad. Sloan talked about the inhumane hardships their family faced, like not even knowing which facilities he was being moved to, or not being able to afford the weekly $21 phone call.

#cut50’s Jessica Jackson Sloan

 “The idea we can all get behind is the economics,” said former BET President Reggie Hudlin. “It costs so much more to send a person to prison than to college. As a nation we are hurting ourselves putting so many resources into warehousing people, where they arguably become worse criminals. The tragedy of the prison system is no one is talking about breaking the cycle, rehabilitation, and reducing crime in a meaningful way.”

 #cut50 urged everyone to sign the petition asking Congress and the President to end the culture of punishment run amuck.

#cut50 team directors Shaka Senghor, Van Jones, and Jessica Jackson Sloan


Article 3 Advisors: The Crisis of the American Criminal Justice System is Bad News for Everyone

static1.squarespace.pngWritten by Richard Branson and Van Jones, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series.

From the perspective of philanthropic institutions and individuals, criminal justice is not a distant problem that primarily concerns governments. The failures of the criminal justice system, from mass incarceration to egregious racial inequalities, have had such profound corrosive impacts that they can no longer be ignored. 

With 2.3 million people in the US prison system, 7 million on parole or probation, and 1 in 3 African-American men expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetime, we are facing a crisis of dramatic proportions. The system is so fundamentally broken that its very capacity to deliver justice has to be called into question. Equality before the law, the right to a fair trial and due process are frequently and often quite deliberately violated, tipping the scales to a point that conviction or acquittal are no longer a question of guilt or innocence, but rather a matter of socio-economic status and race. If you can’t pay for a good defence, the odds are stacked against you. If you are black or Hispanic and can’t pay for your defence, you are screwed. 

It’s an unacceptable status quo that also weakens America’s moral authority abroad. Indefinite solitary confinement, life without parole for minors and the fact that one in nine death row inmates will eventually be exonerated do not exactly strengthen our negotiating position when trying to stand up for human rights elsewhere. 

Beyond the staggering facts, the broader consequences are quite clear: this crisis threatens to roll back and undo years, if not decades, of social progress, much of which was accomplished with passionate support from the philanthropic community. Public health goals are undermined by everything from stress related-illnesses to high HIV transmission rates within prisons. Family formation is interrupted; children lose contact with incarcerated parents. Economic development is undercut when large numbers of African-Americans have felony convictions that lock them out of the job market. No question, if the legacies of the civil rights movement, of the fight for equality and of the war against poverty are to endure, we are all called upon to join forces and help restore justice, dignity, fairness and equality – the bedrock principles of healthy, equitable and prosperous societies.

To be frank, this is a momentous challenge many philanthropic organisations have to come to terms with as they seek to find their own role in the 21st century. Much of philanthropy still prefers to treat symptoms, rather than pushing for systemic change. It’s time to shift our priorities. 

How can this be done? First of all, reform needs champions and resources. Modern philanthropy should be prepared to provide both.

Part of the exercise is to listen to the voices of the criminal justice reform movement. The wider public, as well as mainstream media, are only slowly beginning to understand the extent of the problem. As advocates, champions and thought leaders, philanthropies can help amplify awareness of the causal relationships between a broken system and its devastating impacts. There is enormous room for positive and meaningful programmatic work to highlight best practices, vocally support reform efforts and grassroots initiatives. 

The good news is that change is happening. Ballot initiatives and legislative proposals seek to undo years of injustice. Unlikely alliances are forming across party lines and ideological positions, recognizing that the human and economic cost of these continued injustices, estimated as in excess of $80 billion a year, is not just unsustainable, but also deeply un-American 

While the window for change is open -- with so much at stake for so many -- philanthropy needs to continue working open doors of opportunity, while doing everything possible to close prison doors. Both are necessary. 

Source: Article 3 Advisors


Less Equal than Ever

 

In a city that has come to symbolize the growing inequality gap, The Nation magazine hosted a conversation about the country’s inequality crisis with a panel of experts. San Francisco was the city, and Less Equal than Ever was the theme, and the occasion was the 150th birthday of the magazine begun by anti-slavery abolitionists in 1856.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Dream Corps Founder Van Jones, National Domestic Workers Alliance Director Ai-jen Poo and The Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel talked about “the greatest threat to the world,” according to a 2014 Pew survey. It’s a core issue on which The Nation has long been sounding the alarm. The event was  co-presented by the Commonwealth Club November 17 at the packed Herbst Theater.  

 Moderator Judge LaDoris Cordell opened with a trick question: “Who said this? ‘‘Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.’”

 The answer surprised the crowd. It was Mitt Romney, earlier this year, just one example of how Republicans are now incorporating this message along with Democrats.  

“The wealth controlled by the top tenth of the top 1 percent has more than doubled over the past 30 years in the United States, approaching unprecedented levels,” said Cardell. “Are we about to tip?” she queried the panel.

“No,” said Robert Reich with finality, then dramatic silence that brought a laugh from the audience. Then he continued, “The good news is inequality is something people are talking about. For Republicans, this is fashionable to talk about now.”

For Ai-jen Poo, a conversation about inequality starts with wages. “Low wage workers are organizing now, fighting for $15. Starbucks baristas. Walmart workers--they’re organizing with the same vibrance of Black Lives Matter. We are in the early stages of next great social movement,” said Poo.  

“From an African American perspective, the conversation about inequality starts with mass incarceration. It is, in fact, the most significant defining issue of the African American community,” said Van Jones, founder of #Cut50, a national initiative to cut prison population by 50% in 10 years. “The incarceration rate of African Americans is six times that of their peers, though their white counterparts are doing drugs at the same rate. You can’t give African Americans a fair shot at equality in this society if you’re making them felons for doing the same thing as young kids in college or some of you are doing this weekend.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has been Editor of The Nation since 1995 and a frequent commentator on inequality, said, “Cynicism about government is the wrong way to go. Blaming people is dead politics on arrival. Show how you can improve the conditions of people’s lives.”

Poo jumped in to give concrete ideas for improving 27 million lives in the upcoming “silver tsunami”: The senior (85+) population is the fastest growing and soon to be the largest demographic ever. Homecare is such a fast-growing occupation that the average median income is still just $13,000. By 2050, 27 million people will need care. “If we could connect the dots, we could invest in an infrastructure now,” said Poo. “This is the kind of inequality agenda that connects people across race and ideology.”

Cordell concluded the evening asking each panel member, “What would you do about inequality if you were elected President?” Poo said she would create a new system to support caregiving for families. Jones said end mass incarceration. Vanden Heuvel said end America’s endless engagement in wars. Reich had the last word. “Get big money out of politics,” he said. Reich underscored his optimism to close out the evening. “I’ve been teaching for 35 years,” said Reich, a professor at University of California, Berkeley.  “I’ve never seen a more idealistic group of young people than the current one. We can build a coalition working toward equality based on interconnectedness. As the market tilts and the wealthy have even more power, grassroots organizations will be the countervailing power in working for equality.”

   

 


Alicia Keys and Van Jones Take Justice Reform to Capitol Hill

Alicia Keys took to a different stage this week to ask Congressional members to sign a petition for justice reform that she will deliver to President Obama once it reaches 1 million signatures.

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Alicia Keys speaks to lawmakers. 

"I am a mother," said Keys. "My heart is breaking for mothers left behind by incarceration, struggling to hold it all together. There are 1.1 million fathers in prison and 5 million children with a parent in prison. Is that our America? Is this who we are now?"

Keys began the day in East Baltimore with #Cut50's Van Jones. Her organization We Are Here joined forces Monday with #Cut50, which aims to reduce prison sentences by 50 percent in 10 years.

In the same community where unarmed black man Freddie Gray died earlier this year in police custody, Keys talked to children and mothers forced to support their children alone, stigmatized. "Their lives are full of stress and they do their best not to lose hope. In a way they have been imprisoned too," said Keys.

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Van Jones, Alicia Keys and U.S. Senator Cory Booker. 

She spoke to children affected and mothers whose children were tried as adults when they were as young as 14. “We can no longer afford to be this cruel to our young," said Keys. “These are just regular boys and girls trying to find their way."

Felicia "Snoop" Pearson of the HBO series "The Wire" gave Keys and Jones a tour of the street where she grew up, of boarded-up row houses and a funeral home where many of her friends ended up way too young. Snoop was born a premature crack baby to a mother who was in and out of prison and a father she never knew but who was believed to be a local stick up artist. She was convicted of second-degree murder at age 14, sentenced to 16 years, and released after 6½. Snoop spoke of the difficulty of re-entry into society, a subject Keys addressed later that day on Capitol Hill.

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Snoop gives Jones a tour of the street she grew up on. 

"Currently, when released, ex offenders are forced into a life in the shadows," said Keys. "They can’t vote, they’re ineligible for public housing, food stamps, and often barred from formal employment due to their status as convicted felons. We need to ban the box on job applications. It's up to the private sector. Starbucks and Facebook have no box to tick, showing us the power in believing in second chances."

In less than 30 years, since the "war on drugs" began, the penal population has risen from 300,000 to 2.3 million. It costs between $30,000 and $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison, and reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders could save $40 billion a year. "Can you imagine the good a mother could do with that money?" Keys asked Congressional lawmakers, urging them to sign the petition. 

"Moments of opportunity like this come along once in a generation," said Jones, who also spoke to the packed room about letting judges judge and providing alternatives to prison like rehab and job training.

Jones introduced one of the most vocal leaders of criminal justice reform, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who spoke of the progress in introducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. It would be the most significant federal action in decades and has the backing of the White House, where Obama has made criminal justice reform a pillar of his second-term agenda.

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Keys meets with Baltimore kids affected by incarceration. 

Keys' deep, rich voice filled the room as she spoke of an extraordinary moment to change the country, and her performer's instincts crept in as she punctuated her words with expressive hands and measured each word musically: "You have the ability to change things. Not them. You. Us. We."

 


This Week in Dream Corps

As this is our first This Week in Dream Corps blog, let me explain how it is here. At our Dream Corps office in downtown Oakland, you could be talking about ending mass incarceration one minute, training disadvantaged youth to code the next, then getting dirty energy to invest in the communities they pollute. You have to think fast because there’s breaking news in each of our three arenas all week long. It’s kind of fun to try to keep up, and to see all the connections from our Oakland office to current events--for example:  

  • Oprah recently bought the movie rights to our own #cut50 Director of Strategy Shaka Senghor’s memoir.

  • Or there was the time last week that a police officer assaulted a non-violent student in South Carolina, and our #Cut50 Director of Policy Matt Haney quickly responded in the press because he happens to be VP of the San Francisco School Board and championed an innovative alternative to student discipline that avoids herding kids into the legal system.

  • Twitter, eBay, Yelp, Pinterest, Square and dozens of other tech leaders recently announced they are teaming with #YesWeCode to hire non-traditional candidates over the next 5 years in light of a million-worker shortage coming by 2020.

  • And when the EPA added the Clean Power Plan to the Federal Registry in late October and 26 states immediately sued to block it, our #GreenForAll Director Vien Truong took to the road to bust the myths and share the success stories of real Californians whose energy bills did not in fact go up as the naysayers predicted--like Maria Zavala, whose bill went from $200 a year to $1.50.    

 Maria Zavala & family, photo courtesy of The Greenlining Institute and UpLiftCA

This week brought the usual whirlwind of interesting developments, and as usual our Dream Corps team was traveling all over the place.

Wednesday #GreenForAll Director Vien Truong and Dream Corps President Van Jones were speaking to a Hollywood crowd hosted by Mark Ruffalo that included Normal Lear and Alicia Silverstone. The event was called Hollywood United for a Healthy California, and the point, says Vien Truong, was “to tell Governor Brown to leave oil in the ground.” She talked to the entertainment industry crowd about the lies being told about how the green movement hurts low-income people. Van Jones said, "Good people got together and said let's take dollars out of polluters pockets and use those dollars to green up poor communities. It went from being a fantasy that people like me wrote bestsellers about but didn't know how to make happen to a fact today in California. California has invested $1 billion dollars in a clean power economy for poor folks in the last two years."  

#GreenForAll's Vien Truong and Mark Ruffalo

Another cool conversation occurred in San Jose at the Verge sustainability conference between Van Jones and Tom Steyer, hedge fund manager and founder of Farallon Capital Management. Their keynote was called “The Business Opportunity Hiding in Plain Sight,” which was about getting the business crowd to engage all communities in the sustainability movement.

Van Jones, who is a CNN Political Commentator, appeared on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday as a panelist, and offered this meaty bone to chew on, “What’s so weird is that we’re in this moment where we have a white female who’s a front-runner for the Democrats. We don’t even notice that anymore. We now have an African-American man, front-runner for the Republicans. Ben Carson bewilders, I think most black Democrats. I mean, he certainly is professionally impressive. Personally, he can be somewhat impressive. Usually politically he’s probably the least impressive on that stage and yet, this morning, he was great.”

Finally, this week #YesWeCode got to pick the brains of the best in the business when they were selected out of 100 nonprofits to come to the Schwab Pro Bono Challenge in San Francisco and sit down the Charles Schwab’s CFO, two VPs, and a senior manager and discuss how to beginning thinking about the scholarships they will offer to 100,000 low-opportunity youth. The lightbulb moment for the #YesWeCode team was learning from the experts that when you go to a corporation to get money, fit yourself into their models--take advantage of H.R., because that’s where the money is, so instead of asking for donations, #YesWeCode should consider themselves a placement service thereby getting a fee for bringing in talent from an untraditional pipeline. It was a very practical conversation, which is exactly what the team was looking for.

Oh boy, next week we’ve got a lot more coming down the pike to tell you about...   


CNN: Getting Smart About Justice

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(CNN) Everyone knows that ambitious, bipartisan legislation is completely impossible to pass in today's divided and dysfunctional Washington right?

Wrong.

By year's end, President Barack Obama could sign into law major criminal justice reforms -- passed because of the leadership and full engagement of the congressional GOP.

On Thursday, key leaders took a major step toward that outcome as Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015, a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill that will start chipping away at our unjust, unaffordable system of mass incarceration.

Over the past 40 years, the United States has fought the drug war in the worst way possible -- by jailing those who simply needed help with their addiction or mental illness. Meanwhile, we have targeted and disproportionately sentenced black and brown Americans, as well as those from poorer neighborhoods. And we have created a system that costs too much, imprisons too many, and does too little to truly keep us safe.

Now, nearly 25% of the entire world's prison population is behind bars right here in the land of the free. The federal prison population in particular has skyrocketed, soaring more than 800% since 1980.

With all this in mind, there are three reasons we should all be excited about the SAFE Justice Act.

First, the act will safely and smartly reduce our prison population over time. It will refocus our prison system on those who are an immediate threat to others, not people caught in a police sweep with a small amount of marijuana. The act will also reform mandatory minimums to help snag big traffickers -- but without condemning nonviolent offenders to long prison sentences. Instead, it will expand the use of alternative sentencing like probation, drug courts, and medical treatment for addiction or mental illness. And finally, it will help people get their lives back on track when they get home.

It does all this in smart, sensible ways that have already been piloted and proven at the state level. Both red and blue states have shown that you can lower prison populations, reduce costs, and cut crime by instituting evidence-based alternatives to sentencing, giving judges more discretion, and allowing targeted releases of those who are unlikely to offend again.

In short, the SAFE Justice Act will bring those who pose no danger back to their families by taking the best of state policy and implementing it at the federal level. That is how our system should work.

Second, the act offers a chance at comprehensive justice reform legislation.

The reality is that our system of mass incarceration is simply too interconnected and complex to fix piecemeal. It makes little sense, for example, to send people home from prison without changing the way the "felon" label marks them for life -- preventing them from voting, getting jobs, or even having roofs over their heads. Reforming re-entry into the community without revising mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes leaves too many in jail for far too long -- far longer than other advanced nations. Reinvent prisons without transforming policing and sentencing, and you simply replace one generation of the needlessly jailed with another.

There are a number of good bills that have been introduced in the Senate that do in fact accomplish pieces of what the SAFE Justice Act does. But to reform an interlocking and tightly woven system, we need comprehensive fixes like this one.

Finally, the SAFE Justice Act presents a chance for bipartisan justice reform.

Both parties created this mess. Both parties must fix it. Richard Nixon may have declared the war on drugs, and Ronald Reagan may have turned it into a war on the impoverished, but Bill Clinton also helped create today's mass incarceration nightmare.

Republicans control both houses of Congress, meaning nothing will move without bipartisan support. Indeed, in the real world, there is no functional difference between holding out for justice reform with no Republicans involved and opposing reform altogether. It is time to come together, because suffering families do not have the luxury of waiting for ideological purity.

In states across the nation, leaders have taken a deep breath, stepped across the aisle, implemented serious reforms -- and it has worked. In fact, a range of existing justice reform legislation in the U.S. Senate has bipartisan co-sponsors. Criminal justice is one of the few issues where right and left agree, most recently demonstrated by a huge Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington.

That potential is coming together in a big way. Can such promise be fulfilled? I believe there is nobody more trusted to fix the prison system than Bobby Scott. And there is nobody more committed to cheaper, more effective government than Jim Sensenbrenner. If these two men can work together, then so can everyone else.

The next year will be full of partisan bickering and political grudge matches. But, just maybe, it will also see real bipartisan reform, sparked by two leaders who dared to think big.

Read full article at CNN 


How Big Tech Will Save Big Money

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“Diversity in tech is not about guilt, morality, or the word ‘should,’” said Van Jones, president and co-founder of #YesWeCode. Diverse companies are showing strong evidence of outperforming non-diverse companies, Jones explained. Diversity in tech is about the bottom line.

“At this moment, we have reached a breakthrough level of Bay Area employers committing to the idea of apprenticeships sourcing talent from nontraditional pipelines,” said Jones at the Diversity in Tech Summit at the Oakland Museum October 19. #YesWeCode announced a new Employers’ Council of 30 leading tech companies who have committed to 300 paid positions for non-traditional candidates over the next 5 years.

The Oakland summit brought together leaders from Twitter, Yelp, Lyft, Pinterest, eBay, Square, SolarCity, Pivotal Labs, thoughtbot, NationBuilder, and Good Eggs to address head-on how to get more diversity in the tech economy.

"The reason diversity is a priority for companies and the reason the government is getting involved is there will be a million-worker shortage by 2020,” said Dave Hoover, co-founder of Dev Bootcamp, which transforms beginners into full-stack Web developers in 19 weeks. “Finding non-traditional talent sources is a very cost-efficient alternative to outsourcing.”

“Silicon Valley was built on a particular monocrop of genius,” said Jones. “Oakland is the most diverse city in the country. Every kind of human ever born lives in Oakland. 37 languages are spoken in our public schools. There’s an extraordinary amount of genius in this town 38 minutes — without traffic — from an industry built on scaling genius. How do we connect the brilliance of Oakland to these opportunities?”

#YesWeCode facilitates access for companies to nontraditional pipelines such as community college, an online degree, military schooling, or boot camp.

“We aren’t going to use PC terms. We are talking about young poor kids,” Jones told the crowd that included representatives from three mayors’ offices and US Rep. Barbara Lee. ”When we held our national Hackathon, there were engineers from top companies literally with jaws hanging open at how incredibly smart these kids are, trying to solve problems the engineers had never heard of. Like the kid who had an idea for an app for court date reminders. Now when I went to Yale, 80% of my peers were unpoliced drug users. But these kids are from a different world and end up in the system, and that’s a whole untapped world. There is opportunity here.”

“There was a young woman in foster care who said her clothes were all hand me downs from charity,” Jones continued. “‘People laugh at us,’ she said. ‘We do things you wouldn’t want your daughters to do so people don’t laugh at us.’” But she had a great idea: what if we had a way to pick our own clothes from uploaded photographs? Now, the secondhand trade is worth a billion dollars, so here you’ve got a foster kid with a billion-dollar idea in her head.”

“Motivated young people may have circumstances that prevent them from attending 4-year colleges,” said Johnnie Williams, #YesWeCode’s Apprenticeship Director. “The talent is there. It’s all about providing resources.”

Hoover, who ran Groupon’s apprenticeship program, explained how apprenticeship is ideal at this moment because of the way hiring has changed, “There’s a lot of great potential out there, and there’s a new industry saying, ‘potential over credential.’ The great thing about software development is that when bringing someone new on board, you can ask them to code something and look at the product.”

Marcy Tavano, Director of People at Pivotal Labs, echoed that analogy: “When hiring we think of ourselves as the basketball coach considering a new player. Let’s get you on the court so you can show me how you play.”

“Software is a team sport,” said Dan Croak, chief marketing officer of thoughtbot, “The internship that tech companies use has evolved into a more structured mentorship. You come on board as a second pair of hands on a client’s project. But your primary purpose is to learn, so you are encouraged to pause client work and go deep into a topic when you need to. We hire two-thirds of apprentices, and recently there’s been a 10% lift of people of color in the program.”

It’s no longer enough to hire exactly the right narrow candidate, because that role might last, say, 8 months. Companies have learned that when hiring, it’s more cost-effective to think like a skill producer than a skill consumer. “Your business is your talent,” said Hoover. In an age of non-templatized jobs, the ability to transition roles is key, and apprenticeship is the perfect platform for cultivating the full-deck, evolving developer.

Tamika Ross, chief of staff for Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, said, “The word we like to use now is ‘tequity.’ We have a new talent pipeline. The growth can be shared. New cities can connect to a regional economy. And we can set young people up for success.”

“We think a lot more is possible,” said Jones. “It’s like Prince said — the older people in the crowd know who Prince is — you can have more Mark Zuckerbergs and Marissa Mayers if you have different expectations of people.”

Source: Medium


The New York Times: Silicon Valley, Seeking Diversity, Focuses on Blacks

From left, Mohammed Abdulla, Isaiah Martin, Matthew Jones and Zebreon Wallace take part in the Hidden Genius Project in Oakland, Calif., a program that teaches technological development and entrepreneurial skills to African-American students.CreditPeter Earl McCollough for The New York Times

Having grown up in a single-parent home with an absent father who was frequently incarcerated, Mr. Young, 33, can identify with other young black men he now calls “hidden geniuses” — the promising male teenagers who grow up in challenging circumstances mere miles away, but light-years apart, from Silicon Valley’s tech money machine.

That experience led Mr. Young to found the Hidden Genius Project two years ago. The program immerses high school men of color in coding, web and app design, team building and other skills intended to give them a leg up in the tech economy. Mr. Young says he focused on young men because similar groups existed for young women, and because young males face particular challenges in school and their communities.

His project is one of a multitude of grass-roots efforts that have sprung up recently to address one of Silicon Valley’s most acute diversity problems: the scarcity of African-Americans in the tech industry.

“We are helping these young men to understand who they are and what they’re capable of,” said Mr. Young, who runs his education technology start-up, MindBlown Labs, in the same Oakland building as Hidden Genius Project. “We’re giving them a pathway and putting them on it.”

Silicon Valley has been engulfed in a diversity debate for more than a year, in part because data released by giant tech companies like Google, Facebook and others showed how overwhelmingly tilted the population of tech workers is to white males. The data highlighted that the low number of African-American tech workers is particularly acute, worse than even the dearth of women and Hispanics in the industry.

Google revealed that its tech work force was 1 percent black, compared with 60 percent white. Yahoo disclosed in July that African-Americans made up 1 percent of its tech workers while Hispanics were 3 percent. In areport last month, Apple said it had made progress increasing diversity in hiring in the last year, though African-Americans remained the smallest fraction of its tech work force at 7 percent, compared with 53 percent white, 25 percent Asian and 8 percent Hispanic; the rest were undeclared, multiple or other.

According to the United States Census Bureau, African-Americans and Hispanics have been consistently underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations. In 2011, blacks represented 11 percent of the total work force but only 6 percent of STEM workers. Hispanics were 15 percent of the total work force and 7 percent of STEM workers.

The figures released by the tech companies have led to a flurry of initiatives to address the issue. Spurred by advocates like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., who runs the nonprofit Rainbow PUSH Coalition, there are now “black tech” summit meetings and efforts by historically black colleges and universities to produce more science, technology, math and engineering graduates. These have been joined by a growing number of professional networks, including a new Black Tech Employees Resource Group, and nonprofit groups like Black Girls Code and Code2040, which are bushwhacking the professional trail.

“A lot of African-Americans want to grow up to be LeBron James, Jay Z or Barack Obama,” said Van Jones, the CNN political commentator and founder of #YesWeCode, a year-old program that has raised $3 million to connect young adults in Oakland to apprenticeships in tech companies. “They don’t hear about David Drummond at Google, who is at the center of one of the biggest companies in the world.” (Mr. Drummond is a senior vice president and Google’s chief legal officer.)

The idea with all of the new efforts, Mr. Jones said, is to create a generation of black entrepreneurial “uploaders” — those who create profit-making apps instead of simply downloading them.

How effective some of these initiatives will be remains unclear. “No one new idea will drive systemic change,” said Rosalind L. Hudnell, the chief diversity officer at Intel, which has pledged $425 million over the last few years to diversity efforts. “There is no quick fix.”

At the heart of the issue, underrepresented minorities “are up against a series of barriers and obstacles that their Caucasian and Asian counterparts don’t have,” said Freada Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute in Oakland, which sponsors programs to increase diversity in technology. “The farther outside the tech ecosystem they are, the harder it is.”

And entry into the tech firmament remains challenging, even for African-Americans with engineering degrees. Consider Erin Teague, 33, director of product management at Yahoo, who grew up in a predominantly black suburb of Detroit and later became the only black woman among 1,200 students at the University of Michigan’s engineering department.

At left, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and Van Jones, a civil rights advocate, addressed the Push Tech 2020 gathering.CreditPeter Earl McCollough for The New York Times

“Everyone around me believed in me and saw me as smart,” she said. “But there was an exposure and access gap. I didn’t know what to dream for.” Eventually she received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and became one of the first 500 employees at Twitter.

With only 1 percent of venture-capital-backed start-ups led by African-Americans, access to capital is also being viewed as a civil rights issue.

“If you’re a 20-something in Atlanta or Oakland, you might not have the familial wealth or the network you need to raise seed-stage funding from angel investors, who are mostly white men of a certain age,” said Monique N. Woodard, the founder and executive director of Black Founders, a group dedicated to increasing the number of black tech entrepreneurs.

Now new networking groups, both formal and informal, are trying to shift that equation. At a “blacks in tech” gathering in Oakland in May, nearly 100 African-American entrepreneurs and diversity advocates brainstormed about Oakland as “the soul city of tech.” A new Bay Area Blacks in Tech organization also met in July at the San Francisco offices of Pinterest, the online scrapbooking start-up.

“Seeing almost 200 black engineers gathered together isn’t a common sight,” said Makinde Adeagbo, 29, a Pinterest engineer and one of the organizers. “We heard about what awesome things black engineers were working on at all these different companies. Events like these remind you that you aren’t alone.”

Ken Coleman, who is African-American and chairman of the data analytics firm Saama Technologies, started a “More Diverse Silicon Valley” event in 2013 at the exclusive Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, Calif. — the Main Street of venture capital — with the goal of enhancing upward mobility and access to capital for blacks and others.

“The most important ingredient for a tech company is talent,” Mr. Coleman said. “It’s shortsighted to overlook talent anywhere.”

Promoting entrepreneurship and increasing the numbers of math, science and engineering graduates has also become an imperative for historically black colleges and universities. About 28 percent of all math and tech-related degrees awarded to African-Americans are from those institutions.

Two years ago, the United Negro College Fund collaborated with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and others to hold an “innovation summit” at Stanford University, which was attended by provosts, deans and faculty members of some of these colleges and universities and intended to forge closer relationships with tech companies.

“It was a very powerful event,” said Chad Womack, a director at the United Negro College Fund, who added that the group visited Facebook and was greeted by Sheryl Sandberg, the social network’s chief operating officer.

Still, the hope that a consortium of tech companies would get together after the event to collectively invest in pipeline issues has yet to materialize. “If you look at the scale and speed with which the Valley moves, if they wanted to solve this problem, they could,” Dr. Womack said.

At the still-fledgling Hidden Genius Project, progress has been incremental, but there is traction. In total, 33 young men have completed the program or are in it, including 19 who just started. Mr. Young said the project had improved the academic performance of young people like Matthew Jones, 18, a student from East Oakland who described himself as a onetime “knucklehead.”

Because of Hidden Genius Project, Mr. Jones said he went from being a C student to graduating from high school with a 4.0 grade point average. He starts college at California State University, East Bay this month, with plans to major in computer science and the goal of becoming a software engineer.

“It’s taught me critical thinking skills and made me a better person,” Mr. Jones said. “I want to keep going.”

Source: The New York Times


#YesWeCode: Growing Hope—and Tech Careers—in the Bronx

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It is clear that the careers of tomorrow will be filled by a budding generation of technology entrepreneurs. The challenge: How do we equip youth across America with the tools they need to pursue these careers and become tomorrow’s leaders?

On September 10th, MSNBC and #YesWeCode will host a special broadcast event in the Bronx, focused on growing a new generation of tech leaders. Here, aspiring young people will engage in a dialogue with local community leaders and successful entrepreneurs on how to pave the way towards becoming the new faces of tech. This unique, multigenerational discussion will explore opportunities to develop and scale initiatives to create a more inclusive tech economy, and how technology professionals have the power to drive positive change in local communities across America.

Join MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts and Frances Rivera for live event coverage and inspiring conversation with a diverse set of leaders of today and tomorrow. Don’t miss Growing Hope Live from the Bronx, sponsored by Ford. September 10th at 2pm on MSNBC.

Click below to watch the video. 

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