A tech-savvy nonprofit is helping young people in Oakland keep pace in a fast-moving digital economy. Called Hack the Hood, the grass-roots organization is bridging a divide that’s just as significant as the body of water that separates the working-class city from its wealthier sibling across the San Francisco Bay.
When Hack the Hood co-founder Susan Mernit moved to Oakland, she encountered a world much different from nearby San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The longtime tech executive discovered that many small businesses, often owned by immigrants, were invisible on the Internet. Meanwhile, young people in her neighborhood were failing to receive the kind of training they need to succeed in a tech-driven world.
Mernit and her Hack-the-Hood co-founders, Zakiya Harris and Mary Fuller, set out to change the environment. First, they launched a pilot program in 2012 to help small businesses boost their online profiles. Then, they expanded the program in 2013. With the help of a grant from the city of Oakland, they offered a six-week summer boot camp to teach web development, search engine optimization and other tech skills to young people.
Hack the Hood participants—low-income youths, ages 15 to 21—build websites for themselves and then work as consultants for small businesses in need of some digital assistance. Using the Weebly platform, about 85 students have built 120 websites for a variety of businesses, including Silver Moon Kids, Black Spring Coffee and Flying Carpet Restoration Services.
The young people thrive in the environment. “I’m amazed at how quickly they pick it up,” Mernit says. “I think it’s because so many of the kids are digital natives. They’re on their smart phones all the time. They just get the whole concept really quickly of how to become a creator of technology versus a consumer of it.”
Success stories abound. Despite complicated lives, 96 percent of participants have graduated from the program. They’ve also gone on to do such impressive things as earn a $20,000 annual scholarship to a private college, secure a $40,000-a-year job in tech support at a San Francisco company and present an award-winning prototype video game to members of Congress and the Obama administration in Washington, D.C.
A $500,000 grant from Google is allowing Hack the Hood to expand. In 2015, the organization hopes to open affiliates in other California communities, such as Richmond, East Palo Alto/Menlo Park, San Francisco and Sacramento. Hack the Hood has a goal of reaching 5,000 young people by 2017.
“If we don’t want a whole class of young people to be perpetually underemployed, then it’s really important that we make sure that we give them the training to qualify for the jobs that are available,” Mernit says.