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Black-led tech camps in Pittsburgh seek to build pipeline of diverse talent

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An-Li Herring
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BetaBuilders co-founder Anthony Harper is one of two instructors at the North Side-based tech education nonprofit. He led a two-week coding camp this summer at the downtown nonprofit YouthPlaces.

This summer, 12-year-old Darwin Christian wasn’t lounging around. He took a computer class through the North Shore-based company IT’s 4 Me while attending a day camp at Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center in East Liberty. The nonprofit primarily serves Black and low-income households.

For one assignment, Christian learned how to find pictures online related to his interests and used them to make presentation slides.

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An-Li Herring
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Darwin Christian,12, learned to use the photo editing software Paint.NET to make a slideshow about his hobbies and career aspirations. During the school year, he attends Pittsburgh Schiller STEAM Academy in the North Side.

“The first page is like my name … and then it's like my hobbies,” he said, flipping through a printed-out slideshow one morning. “I like to play football. I like to play basketball. I like training, like playing my [PlayStation 5] … going outside and … listening to music.”

The slides also include some big dreams.

“I want to get my own house. I also want to go to the NFL, so I want to go to college,” Christian read aloud from one page. “If I don't make it to the NFL, I want to be an agent or coach. … If I don't make that, I want to start a business.”

No matter what, he’s going to need tech skills. Jobs across sectors revolve around computers, so at IT’s 4 Me, his teacher Leslie Smith covers the basics like Microsoft Office and Google Workspace. Students can also go on to learn graphic design and business planning.

“We want to get them used to the things that they're going to be using when they get to the office place,” said Smith, who also works as education curator at IT’s 4 Me. More specifically, she hopes that some of IT’s 4 Me students will land high-tech jobs in coding and robotics.

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An-Li Herring
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Leslie Smith has worked at IT's 4 Me for two years as education curator.

But she said they need to recognize the opportunity for themselves first – a big ask in an industry where Black professionals make up just 7% of the workforce, according to national data. In the Pittsburgh area, tech-based sectors were generally less than 5% Black in 2020, even though Black residents accounted for 8% of the regional population.

Smith said that disparity “screamed” at her when she applied for tech jobs a decade ago.

“No one in that company looked like me. None. Like, it's amazing,” she said. “How do these companies have [200] and 300 people and no people of color? That just amazes me.”

She said Black-run programs, such as IT’s 4 Me, are key to building a pipeline of new talent.

“We tell [the students] all the time, ‘Look, if you get good with this coding thing, you can work for Google. You can be one of the brown faces at [Carnegie Mellon University],” she said. “We just outright tell them. We don't sugarcoat it. We give them dreams: ‘You can do that. You can be there.’”

Tech doctors

IT’s 4 Me is about three years old. Founder Taylor Ford said business really picked up when COVID-19 arrived and exposed the stark digital divide.

One in three Black households don’t have a computer at home, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. That figure drops to one in five for white families.

Ford also offers managed IT services for businesses and schools. She said demand exploded when the pandemic forced her predominantly Black clientele to operate remotely.

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An-Li Herring
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90.5 WESA
IT's 4 Me founder Taylor Ford launched her business based in the North Shore about three years ago.

“We were there to help them. We considered ourselves the tech doctors for when COVID had happened,” she said.

IT’s 4 Me expanded its educational programming from there. Ford noted that her company teaches skills that are relevant across the economy — even in sports.

She would know: Her uncle, retired NFL wide receiver Bobby Engram, recently coached the Baltimore Ravens.

“Over COVID … I was helping my uncle create zooms and presentations and slides and plays. That was all digital,” she said. And she noted that the issue comes up a lot at IT’s 4 Me because, like Darwin Christian, many students have visions of becoming pro athletes.

“There's nothing wrong with being a football player who can wire a room. There is nothing wrong with being a basketball player who can protect the computers,” she said. “And I let them know there's nothing wrong with dreaming like that. But you want to have some things that are attainable.”

Playing it safe

The Northside-based nonprofit BetaBuilders reiterates the same message with its students, too. It goes beyond the basics of office software to teach coding.

“They're young, and they're really inclined to sports and entertainment because that kind of gets pushed into our communities as the way to succeed,” BetaBuilders co-founder and instructor Anthony Harper said of his students.

“We try to realistically show them the chances of them making it to the NBA, making it to the NFL. And we try to stress the importance of … having the [tech] skills to fall back on.

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An-Li Herring
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90.5 WESA
Rising seventh grader Tymiere Johnson, a student at Urban Pathways charter school in downtown Pittsburgh, participated in a two-week coding boot camp that the local nonprofit BetaBuilders ran this summer.

This summer, Harper led about a dozen teens through an intensive two-week camp. They met at the downtown location of the local nonprofit YouthPlaces.

First, they learned HTML. But rising seventh grader Tymiere Johnson is happy they moved on to making websites and games with JavaScript.

“Because HTML is like for starters, and I'm a fast learner. That's why I like JavaScript more,” he said.

He doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, but he expects tech to play a central role. So for now, he says he wants to keep learning as much as he can.

“So it's easier for me when I grow up because if somebody asks me to do something for a job, I would know exactly what to do,” he said. “If you do that, you might get a raise.”

While one goal for both BetaBuilders and IT’s 4 Me is to steer students toward high earnings, another is to make the tech industry more diverse and inclusive in the coming decades.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.