This last week, a jury found the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd guilty on all counts. Like many Americans, my emotions have run the gamut, from elation that some measure of justice was served to intense grief at the irreversible loss suffered by Floyd’s family.
Over two weeks ago, I assumed the role of CEO of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit working to close the gender gap in tech. In doing so, I’ve joined the rarefied ranks of Black female executives. That the guilty verdict in the Floyd case coincides with this milestone in my own career as a Black woman feels especially poignant.
It also crystallizes the task ahead in a way that little else could. Part of our work at Girls Who Code is challenging popular depictions that tell young women, especially those of color, that to be a computer scientist you have to be a nerdy guy in a hoodie—depictions that have chipped away at their sense of what is possible, so that there are proportionately fewer women coding now than there were 40 years ago.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that images matter, especially for young minds.
So when I heard the verdict last week, I couldn’t help thinking about Darnella Frazier, the then-17-year-old who captured Floyd’s final moments on video, and her cousin Judeah Reynolds, who was just 9 years old at the time.
I pictured them standing on the sidewalk: Frazier in blue sweatpants and flip flops, Reynolds in leggings and a bright green shirt with the word Love emblazoned on it. And my thoughts turned to how they would be impacted by the violence they witnessed. Studies show that children and adolescents exposed to violence suffer a variety of physical and mental health problems, including fear, depression, and nightmares. Frazier testified that she is “haunted” by what she saw.
We will never be able to erase the image of a dying man from her mind, but we must normalize the images that give her reason to believe change is possible.
At Girls Who Code, we cultivate images of women in tech that confound conventional narratives. Last year, we were featured in a Super Bowl ad to challenge outdated notions of what an astronaut looks like. We teamed up with American Girl to create a gamer doll, and with Penguin Random House to create a series of books about women in tech. And it’s working—we’re on track to achieve gender parity in entry-level tech jobs by 2030.
But what has become painfully clear to me is that we also have to counter the daily onslaught of violent imagery that tells our kids of color (who make up more than half of our Girls Who Code community) that the world sees them as disposable.
Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “Stories can break the dignity of a people” but they can also “repair that broken dignity.” We have seen this remaking in the wake of the fatal shooting of 16-year old Ma’Khia Bryant by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer. Tik Tok videos of the teenager doing her hair have gone viral, an attempt to replace dehumanizing body cam video with images of Bryant in all her joyful teenage glory.
We must tell a different story to our Black and Brown children than the one this interminable ticker tape of violence and despair has constructed for them. Part of my relief at this week’s verdict is that in a small but important way, the decision achieves this.
Young people around the country watched as a judge read the decision, rendered unanimously by 12 jurors, pronouncing that Floyd’s life mattered. They watched as thousands of people of all colors and creeds poured into the streets, a collective expression of relief and joy in the face of what remains an unspeakable tragedy.
They also saw in Floyd’s family the quiet grace and steely resilience of Black America.
While there is much work to be done and no single verdict could ever be enough for real change, I choose to see hope in these images. I want my son and daughter, the thousands of girls in our Girls Who Code community, and every child of color in the country to see them and know that change is possible. I take inspiration from them and all the other young people demanding a different story—including little Judeah Reynolds.
A few days after watching Floyd take his last breath, Reynolds attended a protest with her mother. She had made a sign in colorful block letters. It read: “It can be better.”
Tarika Barrett is the CEO of Girls Who Code, an international nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. Barrett has spent 20 years building educational pathways for young people at organizations like iMentor, the New York City Department of Education, and New York University’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. A graduate of Brooklyn College, Barrett has a master’s degree in deaf education from Columbia Teachers College and a PhD in teaching and learning from NYU. She serves on the board of McGraw Hill and is a recipient of the Dorothy Height Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award from the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.