I spent a lot of my childhood with my Grandma. I still spend a lot of time with my Grandma, but back when I was in elementary school I was with her every weekend. When I got to her house, I was always greeted with a hot meal and a seat in her lap. We talked about everything. She asked me about how school was going, what Spongebob’s latest antic was, if I was respecting my parents, everything. No matter what we ended up talking about, at some point she would say, “Dja, one day you’re gonna shine so so so bright. I can’t wait.” She was always in my corner, always fighting for me, always loving me. I’m so grateful I had the support of my family growing up, because as I got older I realized that not everyone saw the same potential in me that my grandma saw.
I went to PS 180, a small school in Harlem, for elementary and middle school. I loved it there, it was like another family. All my friends at school were from the neighborhood too so we got to hang out all the time. My school fought for us so hard, but it was difficult for our little Harlem school to get funding, so resources were limited. When it came time to apply to high schools, our assistant principal, Ms. Marren, told us about the specialized high school test, the entrance exam for the top 7 schools in the city. Ms. Marren worked so hard with us for the next few months to prepare us for the test. My parents both work in education, so they signed me up for a prep class for the specialized high school test as well. It was a tutorial program for young black students. My instructor told us that students studied for years in preparation for this test, so we had to work extra hard to make sure that we had a chance. I studied really, really hard. It upset me that some students had the advantage of years of practice. I was upset that no one thought to look at me and my friends to see if we had potential. I knew that we could blow people away, we just never had the chance to. I used that anger to push me, to motivate me to score above everyone on the test. I ended up doing pretty well on the SHSAT, at least well enough to get into my school, the High School for Math Science and Engineering.
In middle school I was surrounded by people who looked like me, talked like me, and did things the way I did things. High school was a huge culture shock. To be honest, the biggest change was all the white people. That was new, but I also noticed that I got treated a lot differently. In middle school I got asked stuff like, “Did you watch the game last night?” or “What’s gonna be on the Math test later?” In high school I got asked stuff like, “Can I touch your hair?” and “Do you live in the Bronx or Brooklyn?” No one took me seriously. There are 14 black kids in my whole grade, and I was basically the funny one that’s always dancing. All my white friends recounted their experiences interning at publishing companies and courthouses, and I was a little bitter that I had never been afforded those opportunities. It took me my first two years of high school to realize that I didn’t have access to these opportunities because I was black. I felt disrespected, excluded, but above all else I felt ready to flip the script.
At the end of my sophomore year I started looking for summer programs beyond the usual park cleanup job. A couple of days later my mom told me about this new program called All Star Code that taught young black boys how to code. She said that All Star Code was holding a workshop that weekend and that I should go. I realllyyyy did not wanna spend my Saturday hacking away on my laptop in some dark room, and I fought against my mom’s wishes, but she was not having it. Guess who won. I woke up early that Saturday and took the train down to General Assembly for All Star Code’s second “Design a Startup in a Day” workshop. Honestly one of the best Saturdays of my life. When All Star Code launched their application, I filled it out as fast as I could.
When we started new topics in All Star Code, we didn’t get long boring lectures. We got cheat-sheets for the syntax of a new skill and we just jumped in. We learned by doing, which I think was a lot more effective than watching our instructors, Jonathan and Paul type a bunch of loops into their laptops. It was so weird because learning at ASC was so much fun and way different than school. Jonathan and Paul looked at us and saw beyond what society expected us to become. They didn’t see future garbagemen and criminals. They saw CEOs and innovators. They believed that each and every one of us had the potential to change the world, and they worked hard so that we have the tools that we needed to do so.
I want you guys to close your eyes and picture something for me. Imagine what the workforce would need to look like for All Star Code to not have to exist anymore. Keep your eyes closed. If all of you worked in tech, I think that about 25% of this room should be black. That means that 1 in every 4 people that you look at should be black for All Star Code to not be necessary. Open your eyes. That’s why ASC needs to exist and that’s why we need more ASC’s.
I left All Star Code more confident and optimistic than I had ever been my whole life. I kept coding outside of class and I started attending hackathons at colleges across the country. At first I was really intimidated by all these elite college students, but hackathons are super inclusive and collaborative, so I fit right in. We call this the hacker ethos. I honed my skills all year and by the time summer came again I was pretty proud of how far I came. I was starting to see my own potential.
When ASC announced that they were looking for ASC alum to be teaching fellows for the next cohort, I signed up right away. All Star Code did so much for me, and I wanted to give back and help out in any way I could.
This fall I filled out another application, this time for Stanford University. Stanford is right in the heart of Silicon Valley, and it’s a place where I can get a solid tech education without sacrificing my other interests. Two years ago, I never would’ve even considered applying to Stanford, because I wouldn’t have believed in myself enough to think that I could get it. Now, I won’t jinx it, but I think my chances are pretty good. All Star Code gave me the confidence to look inside myself and realize that I’m capable of doing whatever I put my mind to. No other learning environment has taught me as much as ASC did, which is why we need more programs like it. If I had classes at school that were taught ASC style, we’d be pumping out Bill Gates-es nonstop! We have to rethink the way we educate kids in America, because when kids like me discover their potential, that’s when we realize that we can change the world.