Young People's Project connects tech and civil rights

By Bethany Allen
Source: Cambridge Chronicle

In Microsoft’s Kendall Square office on a Friday afternoon last fall, about a dozen people worked busily building programs from scratch. Literally, the programs were built on Scratch, a freely available application developed by MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group. The programmers? Local teenagers, brought to Microsoft by the Young People’s Project for a free conference billed as a “sampling of real-world S.T.E.A.M.-related career topics and skills.”

It's probably not an unusual scene:  in Microsoft's Kendall Square office on a Friday afternoon, about a dozen people worked around a conference room table, building programs from scratch.  Literally, the programs were being built on Scratch, a freely available application developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab.  The programmers were local teenagers, students from City Links, a program of Cambridge Community Services that provides immigrant youth with internships, job training, and leadership opportunities, and the Young People's Project (YPP), an organization that promotes the ability to understand and apply math in the classroom and beyond ("math literacy") to kids in poor and minority communities.  YPP had brought the students to Microsoft for a free conference open to Boston and Cambridge teens billed as "an afternoon of fun and educational workshops" that provided a "sampling of real world STEAM-related career topics and skills."  


STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, an expansion of the popular STEM educational movement that seeks to prepare students for a society that is more and more technologically driven; the addition of arts to this core approach reflects the importance of creativity to the process of innovation, but the two acronyms are often used interchangeably.  One of the organizers of the event at Microsoft, YPP Director of Media and Technology Chad Milner, noted, "As technology becomes more pervasive and the bar for gaining a baseline level of technical literacy becomes lower, there is a case for a greater need for those who can think and act technically and creatively in order to drive the creation value of the emerging 21st century economy.  Boston is one of a handful of hubs for 21st century jobs in the country, and one of the ideas behind the Teen STEAM Day was to inspire and empower our youth to access these jobs."


From the Mississippi Delta to Technology Square


YPP was founded in 1996 in Jackson, Miss., but its roots are local.  Cambridge resident Bob Mosesstarted the Algebra Project (AP) at the King Open School in 1982 with the help of a MacArthur Fellowship award and an engaged community of teachers, administrators, and parents.  The AP uses a hands-on, alternative math curriculum to prepare students to pass the 8th grade algebra entrance exam – a stumbling block for many poor students and students of color to gaining access to college-track math classes in high school.  Armed with this new curriculum, Moses found himself returning to the Mississippi Delta where he had formerly been a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Moses was instrumental in the famed Freedom Summer and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (initiatives that took center stage in the recent American Repertory Theater production "All the Way," a play – now headed to Broadway – by Robert Schenkkan that chronicles Lyndon Johnson's first year of presidency).  In the early years of AP, Moses presciently claimed that, for young people, access to college-track math classes was as key to full citizenship in the 21st century as acquiring the vote was to Black Americans in the 60s.  This premise is reflected in the AP's mission to use math "as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America."


Moses's sons, Taba and Omo, eventually joined him in Mississippi to work with students at the Brinkley Middle School in Jackson.  Along with a classmate of Omo's and nine Brinkely students, the brothers founded YPP, seeking to continue and expand upon the tradition borne from the activism of the civil rights movement that had inspired the AP.  As YPP's website states, "In the same way that Ella Baker[an influential mentor to Moses and key SNCC advisor] helped fashion a space for the students who sat-in to think and organize for themselves, the Algebra Project provided a space for YPP to grow and develop."


There are few places where Moses's prediction is playing out with more clarity than right now in Greater Boston.  In 2013, there were an estimated 122,300 available technology-based job openings, and many of these jobs were in Cambridge.[1]  Kendall Square, an historically important commercial neighborhood and home to MIT, has long been a hotbed for the tech community, and it is now home to more than 150 bio- and infotech companies, including industry giants such as Novartis, Genzyme, Google, and Yahoo.  Yet students who have grown up, as recently elected Vice Mayor of Cambridge Dennis Benzan has noted, literally in the shadows of these companies may never have a chance to work for them.  A post on Benzan's campaign Facebook page stated, 


"For Cambridge to truly prosper we must prepare all our children to meet the demands of the globalized Information Age economy.  STEM…focused education will play a critical role in our children’s ability to succeed in the globalized economy of the future.  And yet many of us have no idea what STEM actually is or how we might encourage it in our young people."  Benzan plans to hold a series of symposiums on STEM education that will "offer opportunities for the city to hear from our home-grown experts" such as YPP.  


Toward a Different Future: Picking Up STEAM


At Microsoft, the teen programmers chatted and laughed at each other's burgeoning animated creations while the workshop facilitator gave directions and about half a dozen volunteers helped students stay focused, troubleshoot technical difficulties, and fix programming bugs.  One of the volunteers was Cliff Freeman, a current Wentworth University student who is a coding and programming wiz, YPP graduate, and college Math Literacy Worker (MLW).  The MLW model recalls another lesson of the civil rights movement: each one teach one.  Older and/or more experienced students work with younger and generally less experienced peers to create and collaborate, all the while working toward the goal of greater understanding of math concepts.  Freeman started YPP as a high school sophomore at New Mission High School in Roxbury, not far from the Higginson Lewis School where he currently works as an MLW teaching Scratch to 5th and 6th graders, and at once a few miles and a world apart from the Microsoft conference room.  Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, YPP has expanded its coding curriculum, teaching programming at sites in Boston and Cambridge at places like the Fletcher Maynard Academy, East End House, and Cambridge Community Center.  


While Cliff's aptitude, educational accomplishment, and promise in the tech world is a model it hopes other students will emulate, ultimately, YPP believes every student in should get an education that prepares them for a STEM-industry job.  "There are many more kids like Cliff in our communities, and they are not hard to find; it's up to us to find and commit the resources needed to enable all of them to develop and thrive," said Maisha Moses, YPP's Executive Director.  To that end, YPP plans to host additional STEAM workshops with local partners and, using the Cambridge/Boston program as a model, eventually develop similar events in other YPP cities (in addition to Jackson and Boston, YPP has a site in Chicago, IL, and has affiliate programs in Miami, FL, New York City, Ann Arbor, MI, Mansfield, OH, and Eldorado, IL).  Although these workshops are still in development and represent only a small area of its current work, YPP sees the prospect of illuminating access to jobs that could sustain its students as adults in these same communities as central to its mission.  


Importantly, "access" is not all about the jobs themselves but innovation and its potential to have broad, lasting impact.  When exploring the ways in which technology can help confront some of society's biggest challenges, organizations like YPP are working to ensure opportunities exist for everyone to be at the table.  Looking at the data, however, it is easy to feel discouraged.  A recent study by the US College Board[2] shows that computer science education, and specifically coding, is a bellwether issue that shines a bright light on STEM preparedness: more than 50% of STEM jobs will be computing occupations, yet there is a very low level of access to computer science education in the US at the high school level.  Currently, only 10% of all schools nationwide have access to coding education, and only 2% of all math and science AP tests taken last year were AP Computer Science.  Of those, less than 20% represented Black, Latino, and Native American students of any income level.  For low-income students, the numbers were even lower.  Along with its core curriculum, carried out predominantly in afterschool programs for middle-school-aged kids, YPP believes the combination of employing more high school and college students as MLWs, incorporating coding/programming into its workshops, and continuing to produce events like the Teen STEAM Day will ultimately create a measurable impact on these statistics.  However, the recent workshop highlights a not-so-measurable effect as well:  the importance of envisioning a future where things look different.


"In addition to our day-to-day programming, we felt there was a need for an open space where youth could come with little to no preparation and learn about what 'work' looks like in this new economy," Milner said.  "While we understand that these one-off events are not going to single-handedly prepare students for this workforce, they can serve as a tool and potential inflection point for students to start thinking and learning about possibilities in these career fields."  In other words, it was important for the students to be in a place like Microsoft now so that they could imagine themselves back there as part of an adult workforce.


Given the amount of work still to be done to level the educational landscape, it might be tempting to understate this point.  Nonetheless, it is one that YPP understands and hopes to leverage.  After all, even the most significant change starts out as an idea and, given its civil rights heritage, YPP knows a great deal about both.