Scenes from the Essence Festival convention experience
Scenes from the Essence Festival convention experience. (Photo by Alexis Garrett Stodghill)

Prince isn’t the only big name at the Essence Music Festival this year.

Social media giant Facebook has teamed up with the non-profit #YesWeCode as a sponsor of a hackathon and a Tech Village, which is expected to get 500,000 visitors during the event-filled weekend.  #YesWeCode is the brainchild of author, CNN “Crossfire” host and former White House advisor Van Jones. The new non-profit seeks to teach 100,000 low-opportunity youth from all over the country how to code by pairing them with local coding bootcamps.

Coding is the process of utilizing a programming language that tells computers how to operate. Mobile apps, online games and websites are all a result of this people utilizing this skill.

“Coding is the new literacy. When our ancestors got out of slavery, many could not read or write, but they quickly established institutions to educate themselves because they knew they needed to be literate. We have to be able to focus the new literacy,” explained Jones. “Every business is going to end up being a technology-based business because technology is embedded in everything. We are heading towards a world of code or be coded.”

theGRIO | Facebook is dominated by white males

#YesWeCode’s Essence Music Festival hackathon features 100 young people using their newly acquired coding skills to create apps.  A panel of judges will decide the winners. Facebook is co-sponsoring the top prize, which includes $10,000 worth of app support and a pair of Beats by Dre headphones.

Maxine Williams, Facebook’s Global Head of Diversity and a judge for the Black Girls Code hackathon, explained Facebook’s interest in partnering with #YesWeCode.

“One issue is diversity. We are interested in finding more diversity.  We understand that having more diverse perspectives builds better results. Also, we are interested in making the world more connected, so this was an obvious opportunity to take advantage of,” said Williams.

Facebook was also instrumental in developing the recently launched search feature on #YesWeCode’s  website. The tool helps connect interested young people with coding bootcamps and employment opportunities.

Getting these 100,000 future coders into tech industry jobs and entrepreneurial ventures is part of #YesWeCode’s mission.

“We see ourselves as building a national pipeline between young people and tech opportunities,” said #YesWeCan’s Chief Innovation Officer, Amy Henderson.  “We also want the youth to think about ways that they can create technology that benefits their communities. A lot of the people who develop apps today are affluent white men and so they build apps that solve their communities’ problems, such as Über, which helps people get car service.  Meanwhile, one of our young people built an app that sends reminders of upcoming court dates. That’s an issue that impacts his community, so he did something about it.”

At a hackathon in Oakland this past February that focused on young black men, Jones had to get over his own prejudices about that demographic.

“Even we get conditioned to expect the worst from our kids. I went in hoping not to see a fight. I had very low expectations.  But only beautiful, positive things happened.  Seeing these young brothers’ genius shine was incredible.  I tell these kids that technology is an access point. The pop stars are jealous of these Silicon Valley billionaires. We could own a Facebook, a Twitter, an Instagram.  The minute we have an African-American Mark Zuckerberg or a Latina Sheryl Sandberg, the conversation will shift.”

Williams echoes that sentiment. “A lack of diversity is an industry-wide problem. That’s why we like to partner with organizations like #YesWeCode because they are working on building that pipeline. There is untapped genius out there,” said Williams.

Facebook also has a long-standing relationship with the National Center for Women and Information Technology.  One of the programs Facebook is involved with is called Aspirations in Computing. The program offers scholarships, internships and other leadership opportunities in an effort to increase the number of women in the tech industry.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.