Why Teens of Color Should Learn to Code

Computer code shapes our lives, so it shouldn't be left to White men.

by Layla Hussein

I was first introduced to coding in 4th grade when all math classes were assigned to do Hour of Code activities for one day. These beginner activities were fun and easy, but my journey with code ended on the same day it started because math was my least favorite subject. I had the wrong idea that I had to be a master at math to understand code.

Four years later, my brother, a sophomore in college, told me he was declaring his major in computer science. When I heard the news, I laughed.

“Are you serious? Do you even have any coding experience?”

I suggested he switch to business.

“I know I don’t know anything about it,” he told me. “But you’ll realize how important it is to learn computer science whenever you can.”

That’s when I noticed how right he was. Everyone is on their phones, whether they are playing music, using map apps in their cars, applying Instagram filters, or choosing from Tik Tok’s #ForYou page. Remote learning wouldn’t be possible without the software engineers behind Zoom and Google Meet. My brother was right: coding profoundly influences everyday life, and knowing how to do it can give you options and power.

Throughout middle school and into high school, I witnessed my brother learning about the field. He paid for an online course that taught him the depths of web development. In a year or two, I’ve watched him blossom from a person who couldn’t understand the basic concept of data structures to a person who eats, sleep, and breathes coding.

His motivation and passion influenced me. I watched his frustrations when he couldn’t understand a concept or spot an error in his program; he’d slap his head a lot. But then he’d dance around the house when he figured it out or when his result turned out exactly like his original vision. Watching his rollercoaster of emotions with computer science made me want to join the ride.

Coders Like Me

Last year, when the coronavirus made its way to New York City and prompted the closure of schools, restaurants, concerts, and almost all public areas, I figured this was the best time to learn how to code.

I researched coding opportunities and applied to Kode with Klossy, an organization that offers free coding scholarships for girls and non-binary individuals to learn web or mobile app development during a two-week summer camp. I researched alumnae from the program and learned that one had created a mobile application for survivors of sexual assault, and another had made a website full of resources for the Black Lives Matter movement. These girls were from backgrounds and with interests just like me! I applied and was accepted.

On my first day, I was nervous. Not only would this be my first time learning computer programming, but it would also be my first virtual program and my first time meeting girls across the world. Yet all my worries vanished as soon as I saw the other girls’ faces on Zoom.

Over those two weeks, we learned HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, which are the languages needed to create content and functionality on a webpage. For our final projects, we were asked to design websites and apps to raise awareness about social justice issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change, feminism, abortion rights, and mental health.

My group wanted to promote female empowerment by sharing stories by young women of color who are not often heard from on big media platforms. We named our website GenZ Girls. Because we were meeting in June, we wanted to spread positive news of successes to counter the deaths and violence in the world occurring from the coronavirus and police brutality toward Black people.

For the rest of the summer, my group and I promoted GenZ Girls on our Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles, and encouraged young women to share their stories of empowerment on our website. While at camp, we also learned about social media promotion, marketing, and entrepreneurship. So we decided to not just launch a website, but to become an organization. Although we did not have a registered domain, we still promote our website as much as possible.

We created a Google form to encourage women of all ages to share how they overcame a challenge. In just three months, we’ve published numerous stories written by women across the globe, including an entrepreneur in India, an activist in Turkey, and a teen author in Florida.

Coding Led Me to Social Justice

Before, I wasn’t that involved in social justice issues, but this course motivated me to take action. I have coded a mental health website that offers resources for meditation, exercise, and self-care activities; a mobile application to help teen mothers have control in their lives; and a website to alleviate social isolation among senior citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. While these projects have not been implemented yet, they illustrate the possibilities of computer science.

You can code to educate, increase representation, connect people, and much more. These endless possibilities make me feel like I could have a say in the world. Before learning how to code, I was a non-confrontational person who avoided taking chances because I was afraid of failure. But now, I identify myself as a leader who is willing to give a voice to the voiceless through computer science.

We need teens, especially girls and queers of color, to know how to code because the industry is dominated by cisgender white men. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates, the list goes on. Computer science is often used to solve problems. But when the same type of people with the same background attempt to solve problems, we continue to live with the unsolved problems that affect the rest of us. Diversity in computer science offers new perspectives and ideas that perhaps men like these wouldn’t think of.

Now more than ever, the world is starting to recognize the power of youth voices. If we put that into action through coding, we will be better able to create solutions to social, economic, and political issues in our world that affect everybody.

We are currently accepting applications for people to join GenZ Girls.

If you’re interested in learning the magic of computer science, Kode With Klossy is not the only option. Some of my recommendations for how to learn for free are:

Discussion Questions

  1. Layla discovers coding as a whole new world. What’s a field of study or work that you’d like to explore and why?
  2. How does Layla connect her coding with a passion for activism and social justice?
  3. Why is diversity and representation in fields like computer science important?
  4. How can you link your passion or interests with social justice?

My brother was right: coding profoundly influences everyday life, and knowing how to do it can give you options and power.
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