For teen coders in Chicago, a transformative summer

Journalism / Article

Knight Foundation supports LISC Chicago through Open Gov for the Rest of Us to provide residents in low-income neighborhoods with the tools to access and demand better data on issues that are important to them, such as housing and education. Above: Students met daily throughout the 10-week course, working as teams to learn coding to build websites. Photo credit: Demond Drummer.

Sixteen-year-old Dallas Battle is one of the first to present at the Englewood Codes demo night in late August, with 60 parents and supporters in the audience. Showing off a website built by her team, called the Phenomenal Women, she doesn’t disappoint.

“Honestly,” she said, “you will not find another group of women like us, who know how to code.”

The crowd roars its approval.

In a 10-week course sponsored by the community-development group Teamwork Englewood on Chicago’s South Side, Battle learned how to use HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Twitter Bootstrap and GitHub.

Among the program’s 24 other graduates were Kyi Massey, whose teammates call him “a coding machine”; Tony Robinson, who “can barely take his eyes off the screen when he’s coding”; Danajae Ballard, who seemed shy at first but ended up “always present and always ready to help everybody”; and Angela Jordan: “I like to code, actually,” she said. “This program made me want to go into computer technology. This is my senior year and it could be one of my majors.”

Englewood Codes launched this summer after three years of investment by neighborhood leaders in digital and tech programming—an investment that will be extended by the new Knight Foundation Open Gov grant. Earlier work—called Smart Communities—transformed young and old residents into enthusiastic Internet users. The coding program took it a step further for a group of students who mostly had no coding experience at all.

They learned what it takes to build websites, from digital photography and font selection to forking code and dealing with a software update the day before a presentation. They worked as teams, calling on each other to fix bugs, edit content and clean up graphics. They roughed out concepts for apps and widgets, and they fiddled with hardware, configuring little Raspberry Pi processors.

Every student spoke during the demo, some of them nervous or halting, others triumphant and laughing along with their teammates. Watching them—and hearing the pleased murmurs of relatives and friends—suggested that the summer coursework had burned lasting memories into their brains.

Leading demo night and the Englewood Codes program was Demond Drummer, a former Obama-campaign organizer who taught himself to code before signing on with Teamwork Englewood as a “tech organizer.”

In the tradition of tech-company pitches, Drummer created a pep-rally tone, pacing the floor of the black-box theater as he extolled the students’ potential. He called out individuals for special praise, joked about getting his supervisor to sign checks for expenses and interjected stories about bumps in the road.

Englewood Codes was a high-performance environment, he said, with daily deliverables expected from every student. “Yes, we kicked out some and some students dropped,” Drummer added. “Let me assure you: It was not for lack of talent, but a lack of discipline and of wanting to comply with our ground rules and professionalism.”

The program launched with a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign that exceeded its original $5,500 goal in two days, thanks to strong support from local residents and Chicago’s tech community. It had additional support from the City of Chicago’s After School Matters program; Kennedy-King College, which offered its computer labs; and LISC Chicago, the community development organization that is coordinating the Open Gov work in Englewood and other neighborhoods.  

There are more training sessions this fall, with intensive use of JavaScript and a goal of teaching students Python by next summer. In October, a team of Englewood Codes students will participate in an apps competition on urban sustainability. Later, youth will get involved in the Open Gov work. And when those conversations begin—connecting  neighborhood residents to government data and Chicago’s civic app activists­—you can bet that some of the Englewood coders will be right there, speaking their new language.

Writer Patrick Barry works for LISC Chicago to document its work in open government, technology and community development.