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The Company That’s Turning Activists Into Coders

Code for Progress is bringing more women and people of color to the tech world, and using their skills to change the world in the process.

The Company That’s Turning Activists Into Coders
[Photo: via Code for Progress]

Coding isn’t just for tech-wizards whipping up gadgets and apps in Silicon Valley. It has the power to create needed social change. Just ask Aliya Rahman, program director at Code for Progress, an organization that focuses on bringing more women and people of color to the tech world.

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While most tech diversity initiatives are focused on building a pipeline of young people to tech companies, Code For Progress, which launched in 2013, focuses on teaching social activists coding skills that they can use to address issues of inequality.

Rahman got involved in community organizing and social justice work after three years in a PhD program in astronomical engineering–a career path she left after realizing it wasn’t having the kind of grassroots social impact she knew the tech world could have. But she recognizes too that educating social activists in coding isn’t a simple solution. Less than 10% of people working in STEM are African American or Latino, according to census data. “For me the writing is on the wall why people don’t have this education,” she says. “It’s not something wrong with their brain. It’s about access to resources.”

In its first year in running, Code For Progress selected a dozen fellows from hundreds applicants. The program did a lot of community outreach to organizations and activist groups across the country in order to find candidates with an established history of social activism.

Code For Progress pays each fellow a monthly stipend during their five-month training program in D.C. After fellows complete the coding program, Code For Progress helps place them in code-related jobs and offers ongoing support. The first incoming group of fellows was 75% women, most did not go to college, and 5 of the 12 participants identified as LGBT.

“What’s broken is a very long pipeline,” she says. “Companies that used to just say, ‘We want the best of the best,’ are now saying, ‘Shit, we have really bad diversity numbers. How do we balance the desire to have the most credentialed people and diversity? It’s really uncharted territory.”

Also uncharted are the issues many of the participants are using their coding skills to work in. Pam Davis, a 2014 fellow, was illegally fired from her job at Walmart last year after trying to teach workers about their labor rights. Davis the oldest fellow in the group, now 57, had been working 12 to 14 hour shifts at Walmart, making $10.45 an hour–not enough to cover basic necessities. All around her, she was seeing Walmart workers being mistreated and doing nothing about it. After being fired, Davis was hired by OURWalMart a workers group focused on protecting Walmart employees against unfair labor practices.

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After her Code For Progress training, Davis was hired as the data coordinator for the state of Nevada’s AFL-CIO, federation of labor unions, where she manages Walmart employee outreach data. “My goal was to write better tools for organizers on the ground,” says Davis. “There’s more to just a click. Somebody had to build that click.”

The social issues tackled by Code For Progress fellows run the gamut. They are working to build digital resources for black urban youth, queer undocumented immigrants, the hearing impaired, and on issues including low-income advocacy services, Native American tribal sovereignty, and grassroots local campaigns.

The fellows have been hired at organizations like ECMC, which helps students plan and pay for college; 18F, which builds digital services to help people and companies interact with the government; Detention Watch Network, which deals with issues of undocumented immigrant detention and deportation; and the Democratic National Committee.

Code for Progress also holds weekly hackathons in Southeast D.C. In one such hackathon the group created Buscando, an app that helps families in Maryland connect with resources to help them house refugee children from Central America.

For all of these causes, a grassroots approach is critical–arming social activists with the skills necessary to reach as many people as they can. “There’s not a category in the app store for civic organizing or community organizing,” says Rahman. But that won’t stop her and other activists in the space from using coding to spread the word for social change.

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About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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