Out of the Ferguson Riots Comes a Youth-Led Push to Close the Digital Divide

In August 2014 a white officer shot an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., and the Internet was overrun with news accounts. Many people depended heavily on their phones and social media sites for updates. Vines, tweets, Instagram pictures and videos were shared at a breathtaking pace, giving everyone first-person access to what was happening with the protests that turned violent amid a police backlash.

News coverage surrounding the place where Michael Brown was killed has since dissipated, but that doesn’t mean the resistance of the Ferguson community toward all systems of injustice has dissipated along with it. From Ferguson’s tear-gas-filled streets comes Hands Up United, a nonprofit, youth-led movement launched in response to Brown’s death in order to continue to “digitalize” the revolution.

“The next logical phase for us was to just empower the community with the tools that they didn’t necessarily have or know that they have,” activist Tef Poe, co-founder of Hands Up United, told The Root. “For us it’s really about trying to close the technological gap between communities that are underprivileged and lack opportunity.”

The nonprofit started focusing on what it refers to as a Tech Impact Initiative aimed at teaching 21st-century skills—mainly computer programming and Web development—to empower those in the community and help them process and develop ideas about building small businesses and grassroots movements through technical-training workshops. Companies backing the initiative include T-RexStrange LoopHack the Hood and ThoughtWorks.

“[The youth] wanted to start boycotting large corporations and investing their dollars in small businesses,” said Abby Bobé, who works for one of those sponsors, global tech company ThoughtWorks. She noted that the young people believe that big businesses push small businesses out, and they want to change that process.

And so the Roy Clay Sr. Tech Workshop was born, a six-week intensive program aimed at teaching selected St. Louis candidates how to do coding, with the goal of strengthening local, black-owned businesses, as well as nonprofits and other social movements in the area.

Bobé, who is also a workshop instructor, tapped into her connections with groups such as Black Girls Code and launched a 10-day, $10,000 crowdfunding campaign to get the program off the ground, raising just under $12,000.

That money made it possible to provide all 10 students in the workshop’s inaugural class, ranging in age from 15 to 28, with MacBook laptops that they could take home to work on their skills during the program.

“We’re dealing with a working population, so what is rent looking like? What is food looking like? What are the real concerns and obstacles for these students?” Bobé explained. “We realized if we gave them a stipend, that could probably take away some of their anxiety [about] why they would not be able to commit to something [for] six weeks and really allow them to be creative. ... You have to take care of certain needs before you reach [a certain level] of creativity.”

The idea is to train the students for six weeks and then have them offer their services to local businesses at no cost and complete a website, at which point the students will earn a $500 stipend. Those students who decide to continue doing coding for local businesses as freelancers will be gifted with their own laptops, Bobé explained.

“It’s just about self-empowerment. When you get introduced to things that you ... never realized you could do ... before, wool comes off your eyes, your eyes open, you look at yourself a little differently. You feel intelligent, you feel capable and you don’t feel inadequate,” Poe said.

But what makes this program unique is that it’s not just a three-day-a-week course in which you come in, sit down, get taught and then leave.

“We’re dealing with very unique situations with people who come from very unique backgrounds. It’s not a typically styled course,” Poe explained. “The beauty is that it creates an environment where everyone really knows each other. It feels more like a village than anything else.”

“We look for the unlikely candidates, the people that everyone else may have given up on. We believe [in] any opportunity where you can empower someone with a change,” he added.

And it’s an opportunity that the workshop organizers hope to continue to offer to other individuals in the coming months.

“We’re hoping to launch another six-week program in June, and then another one in the fall,” Bobé said. Already there’s a sort of chain reaction in which “the participants currently have shared that they want to be a mentor.”

An even larger goal is changing the tech scene as a whole. St. Louis was recently recognized as an emerging tech hub, and Bobé sees this as an opportunity to influence the scene early on.

Currently the program is being run at T-Rex, a St. Louis co-working tech incubator, and even there, Bobé is already starting to see a change. “Our students, they stick out,” she laughed, “because they see black and brown young ladies and young men coding.

“We’re already shifting the culture of certain environments just by their presence,” she added. “I do think you’ll see a natural chain reaction with diversifying the tech scene [and] with community activism.”

Poe echoed much of the same sentiment, nodding at the way access to tech can change and transform a community.

“When you bring opportunity like this to our community, it opens up things and creates access in places where we previously didn’t have it. If you look at this [through] the right lens, it’s really an act of resistance. It’s an act of protest in its own right.”

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.