by Susan Mernit
For us, Weebly has turned out to be that source. Like Scratch, the MIT-developed program that allows young children to learn a simple programming language, Weebly embodies many core concepts of tech development, that once learned lend themselves to other platforms. With the Hack the Hood program, young people start out building basic portfolio sites for themselves; as they learn principles of web design, search engine optimization, basic web navigation, and interface design skills, they are able to go on and create websites of increased complexity.
Because our program intends to reach a wide variety of technology-consuming young people, not only young people who have already decided they want to work in tech, it follows a philosophy of progressive learning, which predicts that as young people build skills and confidence, they will want to learn harder things. Typically, that means on Day 1, young people are thrilled to build a personal web site, and on day 5, they are saying “You mean if I know HTML I can change the footer?—How do I do that?” And then, on day 7, they’re asking about CSS and how they can learn to customize the whole site by modifying the templates.
We love the fact that all of this learning and application originates from the basic skills learned when our program’s young people use Weebly as the their foundation to create websites for small local merchants, small businesses, and community organizations. They start out developing their skills with Weebly’s easy-to-use drag and drop user experience, then do things like add custom footers, customize and shift templates, and add plugins and widgets. As they learn additional coding techniques, they expand their repertoire and can apply what they have learned to WordPress, Drupal, and other CMS platforms. Weebly is also a great starting point for young people to build on their experience and start to learn JQuery, JSON, PHP and the beginning of the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache HTTP Server, MySQL DB and PHP), essentials tools for software development today. Similarly, it’s a solid platform to build on to move into learning game development and design and transaction software. Because the Hack the Hood program focuses on responsive themes, using Weebly as a foundational platform easily clears a pathway to teach mobile and app development languages and principles.
At Hack the Hood, we’re keenly aware of the economic situation of so many of our young people and their families. Most of the students we work with make significant economic contributions to their households—they help with rent, pay for groceries, or share general household expenses, especially when adults at home are unemployed. This reality is why Hack the Hood’s vision is hard focused on making 21st century workplace skills and principles of entrepreneurships usable—we know that for many of our youth, our program is a direct pathway to better employment and a higher hourly rate of pay than they could get before the course. Whether it’s the HtH alum who got a great job managing websites and social media for a college organization when she went off the school as a freshman, or the small group of high school students who started a small web development/media business together, or the talented coder and designer who are both building websites on the side as a way to make extra money during college, Weebly is a platform that allows our young people to graduate as skilled web developers, able to serve paying clients, and our whole community
As support for helping young people move into tech careers grows (and that support is so needed), Hack the Hood remains focused on our mission: to engage large number of low-income young people of color, introduce them to the tech ecosystem, basic coding and digital literacy skills, and to move them toward well-paying jobs in tech.
For us, that means engaging not only the small segment who are already excited about being programmers (we have a lot of those), but the young people who enter our program much more involved with consuming technology than creating it. For those folks, Hack the Hood can be a revelation, because they not only find pathways to careers in tech, they actually learn about jobs and roles that fit their interest that they had no idea existed.
Or, as one of our A-team (alumni team) members recently said, “We didn’t know that there were other jobs in tech besides programmer, and as it turns out, the variety of what you can do is amazing.” For getting that process of discovery started, website building for the local community using Weebly is an ideal first step.
June 3rd marks one year since Hack the Hood won the Google Bay Area Impact Challenge. And what a year it’s been! Winning the Google Challenge had a powerful effect on our organization—to say the least—and on this one year anniversary, we want to reflect on what we've learned--and share some lessons other startups might benefit from knowing.
When We Won
Our Chief Education Officer and Co-Founder, Zakiya Harris, sums up her initial reaction to winning the challenge, “Complete awe and surprise. Having worked in the nonprofit world for over 10 years, I have never seen a project attract that much attention and resources in that short of a time.” COO and Co-Founder Mary Fuller describes the moment in further detail, "There was a big awards event and we didn’t know ahead of time if we won the voting challenge that would result in a $500K grant so we were a little on edge. We were the last winners called, so the suspense was a little over the top. Every other organization sent one person up to accept their awards, but when they called out Hack the Hood, Susan [Mernit] made sure the whole team went up. It was very emotional. I hid in the back because I was in the middle of the “ugly face cry”--you know the one where all the blood rushes to your head and your whole face peels back and freezes? Part of the overwhelming feeling was probably from exhaustion. We had worked so hard. I was on Twitter until 2am several nights toward the end trying to get out the vote. The whole competition was exciting—making the win part of a big public participation makes it that much better because you know everyone is behind you.”
Immediate Organizational Impact
Before the award everyone was working on a seasonal, project basis. One of the first things we did when we won the Challenge was bring people on board as year-round employees which allowed us to further develop the curriculum and plan for a major expansion.
“One of the great things about the Challenge win,” says CEO and co-founder Susan Mernit, ”is that the funding was specifically to help us scale across the Bay Area. That was transformational--we were able to leverage that funding to get other program support, such as a $150,000 grant from the California Workforce Investment Board’s Workforce Accelerator Fund, which wanted scalable prototypes to enhance the state’s workforce system.”
Taking part in the Challenge also brought Hack the Hood an influx of interest and support from many people and companies. Having Google support us in such a public way brought us wide-spread attention and opportunities. Mary Fuller elaborates, "People on the other side of the planet got in touch and started supporting us! We had one guy from Belgium give us a $5,000 grant from out of the blue. And things like that kept happening. People found out about what we were doing, loved the idea, and wanted to support us." We've attracted new partners, resources, and best of all an amazing network of volunteers who want to be involved with our mission and help, hands on. This attention and enthusiasm was immediate, and it’s been very consistent.
From Broad to Deep Touch
The past year has taught us a lot, and we've had to pivoted a bit based on what we've learned. One goal we modified was the number of youth we'd be able to serve over two years. We realized that the number we promised would result in some more shallow interactions—and we want to be game changers. Did we want to serve thousands of youth with a narrow scope of learning outcomes, work and networking opportunities, or a fewer number youth with a more transformative experience? We quickly decided we wanted to go for quality and results, and not just quantity. Google was fine with this, testing and iterating is part of their organizational culture as well.
Year-One Accomplishments & Lessons Learned
Hack the Hood started out as a pilot project, and was essentially that when we won the Challenge. In the past year we've been able to build a fully functioning organization, with a scalable program. We are now serving six times the number of youth we were able to before winning the Challenge, the quality of our programming improves consistently, the founders have been continue to develop their skills, meeting the opportunities we've been given, and everyone on staff has taken on new roles and responsibilities—and has excelled. But it hasn't been easy. Everyone has grown to meet the challenge. It’s really shown us something that’s relevant to our mission—you never know what people are capable of until you give them the resources and opportunities to do great things. That’s exactly what we hope to give our young people--an opportunity to excel.
Serving More Young People, In More Cities
Going forward Hack the Hood plans to scale our program to more cities and youth. We designed our scaling so that local organizations, which know their youth and community the best, can learn our model and adjust it for local needs. Our deep knowledge of Oakland and the network of relationships is what helped us succeed here. But with partners taking the lead on the ground, Hack the Hood could look very different in East Palo Alto, or further away.
So You Think You Want to Build a Program and Create Social Impact? Here’s Our Advice
Start small, but think big!
Test your ideas, and don't get too attached to any of them.
Hack the Hood is a very iterative organization, which is exciting and sometimes it can be a little stressful—but in the end, this produces programming that is responsive to the needs of youth and their environment, and will lead to success.
Think about what assets your target population and community possess and you can build on. Don't focus on a deficit mindset, if you do you're not going to get very far. Instead, look at what you have to work with, you’ll do much better.
This summer Hack the Hood will operate bootcamps for 16-21 year olds in five locations: East Palo Alto (Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula), Richmond (RYSE and Youthworks), San Francisco (African American Arts and Culture Complex) and Oakland (MetWest High School and East Oakland Youth Development Center). We’ll work with 125 young people who will learn basic coding and digital literacy skills, gain insight into the tech ecosystem and understand how they can fit into it, and chart career paths into tech careers. Along the way, each young person will visit several tech companies and talk to real live professionals about their career evolution, build 2-5 websites for local small businesses in their communities, as well as create a personal portfolio, LinkedIn page, and a career plan.
During the course of the bootcamp, many of the youth will move from feeling like tech just isn’t something they could do, to seeing themselves with a many new career and educational opportunities. For young people coming from communities where good jobs might be security guard, janitor, or warehouse worker, learning about other options, especially the tech pipeline and figuring out how they can get there, is very transformative.
Mentors and Volunteers Make a Critical Difference—How About You?
To help create these powerful insights and changes, Hack the Hood relies not only on the instructors and program staff who work with our young people every day, but on tech professionals who work with our young people to help them create career plans, answer questions about jobs and training, and provide real-time, hands on support. For many of our young people, the tech professionals they meet turn into important role models and contacts—providing a navigation capital and point of reference most of our young people lack.
What it takes to mentor is your time and an interest in talking about your work and the path you took to get to where you are. We support mentors and volunteers by providing training, support, and follow-up, so you're part of a larger program.
Roles We Need Filled--And Where
We're seeking tech mentors and volunteers around the Bay Area starting in mid-June and going through August.
Web Ninjas: Commitment is 2-4 hours a week during a bootcamp. We are looking for volunteers with Expert Tech Skills, (HTML/CSS, UX/UI, Web Design).
Clinicians: Commitment is 1 hour a week for 1 to 2 weeks. We are looking for volunteers with expertise in their fields, who would like to teach a valuable skill or concept in a one hour class to youth. This can range from advanced HTML/CSS to personal branding.
Mentors: Commitment is 1-2 hours a week and begins at the end of 4th week of the bootcamp. Mentors work with youth to secure a career plan and offer opportunities for professional growth.
Sign up here or contact firstname.lastname@example.org; we’ll have trainings and orientations later this month.
Hack the Hood Blog
News items and musings on tech inclusion, youth development, buying local and more.