In a room labeled Mission Techies Lab, a group of technology interns had their hands full. They were trying to resolve some technical issues that Mission District community members visiting for the day had with their phones.
At a table near the front of the room, a Mission Techie intern patiently walked a visibly frustrated woman through the steps of accessing her smartphone’s voicemail.
“Information technology is such a fast progressing industry right now, and people are getting left behind,” said 22-year-old Raphael Barba, a participant in the Mission Techies internship program that is part of the Mission Economic Development Agency’s free Workforce Development. “We want to give them the tools to help make their lives easier.”
But it was clearly not getting easier for everyone – at least not right away. No matter, the teaching continued. Barba walked over to a white board that listed a set of applications – categories included transportation, fitness and finance – and explained their functions.
“Some people have these apps on their phones and don’t even know what they do or how to use them. You don’t have to be an expert, but if people don’t know how to use the technology that’s at their disposal correctly, there is not much of a chance to grow as a community,” said Barba.
The Mission Techies program is designed to teach Latino youths the basics of IT such as coding, hardware, and software – skills that the interns used to conduct some of the workshops at Get Connected, a day-long event held on October 24 at MEDA’s offices on 2301 Mission St.
“I have seen the power of the internet change my life and family, but many families don’t know where to go, they don’t know where their resources are,” said Leo Sosa, MEDA’s technology training coordinator. Sosa hopes that community outreach from organizations such as MEDA as well as tech firms will narrow the digital divide that challenges many underserved communities in San Francisco.
“We are working with tech companies to create opportunities that are related to technology because we want these families to be part of the digital age.”
Mission Families Meet Tech Community
Get Connected brought together MEDA, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Mission Promise Neighborhood – a five-year neighborhood initiative that provides education, social and community support to families through nonprofit, private and public partnerships – in an effort to improve the quality of life for many families who lack opportunities because they are “digitally disconnected.”
On Saturday, the agency opened its doors to the community by transforming its offices into “technology labs” in which attendees of all ages had the opportunity to experiment with code, invent apps, and receive assistance with their mobile devices.
Most participants were native Spanish speakers, and the event’s organizers pointed out that language barriers faced by many Latinos often complicate the search for resources to educate themselves in technology.
“We want to ensure that Latinos have access to the internet and the resources that we provide, because it’s a real issue in our city,” said Ernesto Martinez, who is a job coach at MEDA. “We are supposedly the most technologically advanced and progressive city in the country, yet a high percentage of San Franciscans live without internet access – it’s a travesty.”
Careers in tech such as software development and engineering account for some of the best paying jobs in the Bay Area, yet some Mission families live without physical access to the internet – an issue addressed by one of the Get Connected workshops, in which participants were informed about mobile wifi hotspots and broadband services.
“The internet is expensive, and that is an issue for my family – we didn’t have any service because our budget is very tight,” said Mission resident Carmen Ramos.
After losing her job, the 52-year-old mother experienced first-hand the challenges of re-entering a workforce changed dramatically by advances in technology.
“I am one of the people who is very behind when it comes to talking about technology,” said Ramos. “Most jobs require some basic computer knowledge – but how can you become good at that if you don’t even have the internet at home?”
Ramos said she chose to take advantage of the workshops because she hoped to gain skills that would make her more versatile for the current job market. “I know that technology is very important for my kids and for myself,” she said. “I want my family to walk towards technology.”
Lack of Diversity is a Challenge in Tech Industry
While recent data shows that just 3 percent of tech workers are Latino, the lack of diversity in the industry was another issue that those behind the event hoped to address.
“Many Latino youths don’t know that this field is attainable to them,” said Google’s Social Responsibility Regional Manager Hector Mujica, adding that by leading the way in publishing its diversity numbers, the company is already working towards shifting that gap.
“We want people to hold us accountable in changing those numbers. We are taking a lot of proactive steps community outreach efforts to start educating kids about tech and the possible careers they could have.”
One of these steps includes Google’s CS First initiative, a free program that aims to introduce children to computer science.
In a room called the “Google Lab,” CS First instructor Dante Alvarado Leon showed school-aged children the basics of coding – and almost every seat was filled as the young group learned how to design and digitally mobilize a submarine using Scratch, an online multimedia authoring program.
“We want to build the kids’ enthusiasm around tech while providing them with an opportunity to consider pursuing a career in tech in the future,” said Alvarado Leon. “Our test is to climb a tree, but we are all different animals. We don’t all have the same resources.”
When 17-year-old Mari had problems making her digital submarine move, Alvarado Leon helped her rewrite the code.
“What I’m learning about coding is that you always have to do layers. One thing above the other to make it work,” said Mari. “Once you get it, it’s not that difficult.”
Early exposure, explained Mujica, is often times the only thing that sets applicants apart in the highly competitive industry.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” he said. “We want to plant seeds early on and expose kids to coding and computer science – that’s something that’s traditionally been lacking in the Latino community and a reason why we don’t have that pipe line for minorities in tech.”
As the workshops concluded, a panel of four tech workers shared their experiences in the industry with a room of Mission families, hoping to show young Mission Techies and others that these careers are also available to them – regardless of culture and gender.
“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there because you look or have a different background than everybody else,” said panelist Kamilah Taylor, a software engineer at LinkedIn. “Being different is your best asset, and it will also set you apart from everybody else.”