Unless you have been living under a rock, you know how impactful the final scene of Black Panther is to those of us who are concerned about the growing technology gap. Watching T’Challa and Shuri commit to opening a Wakanda Center in Oakland with the intentions of empowering the youth through introducing new technology to them made you hopeful for a brighter future- even in the fictionalized world.
But we’re happy to report that it is an idea that is already happening in real life.
In 2015, Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade opened the Roses in Concrete Community School in East Oakland, and the work he is doing there is making a huge impact on the community.
His belief that “the purpose of education is not to escape poverty, but to end it,” is the doctrine behind the school that aims to empower students to become forces of change in their own communities.
The school received a $750,000 grant from Google.org in 2015 and just received a re-investment of $650,000 to fund their innovative computer science curriculum.
TheGrio caught up with Justin Steele, a Principal at Google.org who leads the company’s U.S. giving initiatives to support the communities around Google’s offices and its Inclusion portfolio to combat bias and promote equity, to find out what attracted him to the school and how celebrities like Zendaya are helping black kids get excited about computer science.
“We were trying to be responsive to communities where Googlers live and work and ask community leaders what new ideas would address the needs of the community. The founder of the school kept coming up in those conversations. The school was brand new and Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade has been teaching in Oakland for 25 years. We had just made a commitment to fund $5 million worth of racial justice work in The Bay area and we were looking for some early investments,” he explained.
“Roses in Concrete captured us because it is intentionally a communally and culturally responsive school. It is based on the idea that schools should be responsive and integrated into the communities surrounding the school and be respective of the cultures of the students in the schools. That means the curriculum should be culturally relevant, it means there are community organizers on staff at the school. It’s a really powerful model.”
While the initial investment helped the school with startup costs, the reinvestment of $650,000 is specifically targeted at implementing their computer science curriculum.
“One of the goals of this program and curriculum is for students to be working on computer science projects that address the needs of their community. It is going to be taught in a way that students can express what they see right in front of them. Something as simple as designing a robot that sweeps the school hallways to something that can reduce violence in the community. We see lots of examples right now of young people using their voices to try and improve their communities and this is one more way for them to do that,” he explained.
“It’s like a real-life Wakanda Center. I think one of the real powerful things about people who are raised in Oakland is they come up with a sense of responsibility to the community and responsibility to uplift the youth,” he said. “Ryan Cooler echoes that message and it obviously came through in his film, Black Panther. Zendaya came up a few weeks ago and invited several hundred students from Roses to see Black Panther at a theater she rented out. There’s a real sense of connectedness in Oakland that is really impactful and can be leveraged to serve as a model for the rest of the country on how to make computer science relevant.”
According to Steele, there have been several roadblocks keeping students of color from utilizing new technology, particularly when it comes to relevance and representation.
“One of the barriers is relevance. Making sure young people see the relevance of technology and really understand how it can solve some of the problems in their communities. Obviously, we know that students of color use technology for media and entertainment and generating creative content but really there are ways it can be used to directly affect the lives of their families and their communities,” he said.
“Representation is important as well. Thats why we are so excited to be able to engage an Oakland native like Zendaya in a project like this so we can show an example that there are people who grew up in these neighborhoods and look like them who are using technology and computer science to generate art and push creativity and further spread their message to the world. We need those examples. Relevance and representation are really critical and hopefully this project will take some steps to address both those things.”
While Zendaya has been instrumental in supporting the cause in Chicago, other celebrities are using their influence to further initiatives like this one.
“We did a project with Chance The Rapper in Chicago earlier this year and were really struck by how much it inspired young people to see an artist like Chance coding. I had students at that event asking me for my autograph and asking me to write down websites that could help them learn how to code on their own,” he said.
One of the things we are trying to do is support community-based organizations who are bridging the gap. Google has invested over $40 million in computer science over the last few years. We want to get the curriculum in the hands of young people.”
When it comes to helping students of color gain access to computer science in other areas, Steele suggests taking the issue into your own hands.
“There are a lot of great online resources people can tap into. It’s important to find schools who do this in the school setting as well.”
Check out this mini-doc on the incredible school.