Obstacles to 'coding while black'

Rodney Sampson came to the rescue when one of his coding students was denied cashing a check Sampson took this photo of the chequecashing establishment when police were called

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Rodney Sampson helps run Codestart, a 13-month program designed to teach young people from low-income backgrounds or communities about coding, finance and finding jobs.

He was partly inspired by the lack of African Americans working in the tech industry - 1% of tech employees at Google, Facebook and other leading Silicon Valley companies are black.

But when the program began last month, it wasn't difficulty with Java or finessing career strategies that threatened one student's progress.

As part of the programme, each student is provided with a living expense. When one of his students, who did not have a bank account, attempted to cash his cheque in a branch of the Atlanta Check Cashing Company, he was accused of attempting to submit a false or stolen money order. Police were called, and the student was threatened with arrest.

Sampson broke the story down into a series of tweets, and posted the stream on Storify. His posts have been shared hundreds of times.

It has started a conversation about barriers keeping low-income and minority students out of the tech field.

"We have to have the hard skills; but we have 2 be taught 2 navigate simple transactions like cashing a check, interacting w/ law enforcement," tweeted Sampson.

Another tweet read, "At the end of the day, all we can do is keep grinding for the least of these. Creating more coders/entrepreneurs who won't look backwards!"

The story struck a chord with a number of people working in the tech industry. Anil Dash, cofounder of Makerbase, tweeted "Please, please if you work in tech, read @rodneysampson on what it *really* means to 'teach everyone to code.'"

Later Dash posted figures showing that the lack of diversity of tech isn't just about the "pipeline" - that is, finding qualified candidates.

"Every time we discuss hiring disparity in tech, apologists will say it's because of who graduates from [computer science] programs... CS programs graduate a higher % of black & latinx people than get hired at tech companies. Graduates are >6% but hiring is nowhere hear," he tweeted.

Another user focused on the significance of the program existing in the first place.

"Thank you for sharing this story. So glad the student had a network of mentors…but so many do not. This must end."

Fortunately, Sampson says his students have only been fuelled by the incident.

"Rather than complain about it, we've said let's solve this," Sampson said. The class is now focused on technologies or businesses that can help report on police altercations, and they have been receiving proposals for internships and jobs for the students.

"We're focusing on the solution. Everyone is invigorated to learn, this is the silver lining from this."

The organisation is fuelling their project with a GoFundMe account set up following the incident which has raised over $20,000 thus far.

Blog by Olivia Lace-Evans

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