Black churches put faith in coding classes by Jessica Guynn

Black churches put faith in coding classes by Jessica Guynn

Black churches are putting their faith in tech labs to teach a new generation of kids to code. FAITHTECH Labs is an initiative from Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition to provide computers for all ages and coding classes for young people. USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — For years, parishioners at the Calvary Hill Community Church have learned to live by the code.

Now their children are learning a different kind: computer code.

The San Francisco church is one of the first to take part in an initiative from Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition to forge a new generation of computer programmers. Jackson is reaching out to African Americans in their spiritual homes with FAITHTECH Labs, an initiative that provides access to computers for all ages and coding classes for young people.

So far, Rainbow PUSH has opened tech labs at Calvary Hill in San Francisco, in its Chicago headquarters and in a church in Greenville, S.C., Jackson’s hometown. Two more are slated to open soon — inside Greater St. Paul Church in Oakland and Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond, Calif. — with a third planned for a Chicago church.

Each tech lab is equipped with laptop and desktop computers, printers, servers and networking technology donated by HP. In many cases the new equipment is replacing slow, broken-down computers that frequently crash, frustrating church users, young and old.

“We have to get a whole new generation ‘code ready,’ to produce thousands of young people who can fill the pipeline to the technology industry,” Jackson told USA TODAY. “If not us, who will?”

FAITHTECH Labs is part of Rainbow PUSH’s 1,000 Churches Connected Program, which supplies technology to boost financial literacy and now technological proficiency.

Valerie Cooper, associate professor of black church studies at the Duke Divinity School, says Jackson recognizes “the power of black churches in black communities.”

For decades, churches have served as a cornerstone of the African-American community and an organizing base for the civil rights and social justice movements. Nearly eight in 10 African Americans say religion is very important in their lives, significantly more than the 59% of the U.S. adult population overall who agree, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2009. Churches not only play a central role in African-American life, they offer far more than Sunday services.

“Black churches have a powerful ability to assist in the educational mission of communities and to help communities flourish,” Cooper said. “I’m excited about the possibility that people will discover a love for technology, for coding and a love for computers. And there is a really strong possibility that if churches have the equipment that children might just explore and find something that they love.”

The success of the initiative will depend on faithful execution, she cautioned. “The danger is that this just eventually becomes a new computer for the church office,” Cooper said.

At Phillis Wheatley community center in Greenville, S.C., from morning until night, people from the surrounding community stream into the tech lab that opened in January to grab a seat and one of the three laptops and three desktop computers. Kids come to work on school projects, teens to hunt for summer jobs and adults to fill out applications for more permanent work, standing in line for their turn when necessary. The community center will debut a coding class for kids this summer.

The tech lab is a blessing “especially for churches likes ours that are located in the inner city,” said Darian Blue, pastor of Nicholtown Missionary Baptist Church and executive director of the Phillis Wheatley Association.

Latosha Dotson, mother of three, says her kids see computers as a gateway to a much larger world. “Knowledge is power,” Dotson said. “The world is going to be run by computers. We have to get up to speed on how they run.”

Jackson first conceived of putting technology in churches to bridge the digital divide in 2003 with computers donated by the company then known as Hewlett-Packard. “We are working to bring technology access centers to church basements across the country, to bring resources and equipment, to give people access to the tools of this modern age in some of the safest and most welcoming environments in their lives,” then-CEO Carly Fiorina said at the time.

Now Jackson is back campaigning for Silicon Valley technology companies to increase hiring of African Americans and Hispanics. And his civil rights organization Rainbow PUSH is once again focused on training young people for promising careers in the sector powering the American economy.

The 26,000-square-foot warehouse that is home to the Calvary Hill Community Church sits on a busy industrial stretch in this historically African-American neighborhood of Bayview. Parishioners are predominantly African-American and Hispanic, all members of the local community that has been “underserved and overlooked by the technology boom,” says Pastor Joseph Bryant, who is coordinating Rainbow PUSH’s FAITHTECH Labs program.

At Calvary Hill, Bryant preaches “total life services for total life success” ranging from after-school care for kids to job training for adults. Starting this summer, seniors will learn computer basics and young people from kindergarten through college will learn to code. “Caterpillars,” younger kids, some of whom have never touched a computer before, will get hands-on time to figure out how computers work. The older “butterflies” will learn how to build websites.

Their instructor is Kian Alavi, the director of youth services who took a five-week intensive coding class at San Francisco’s coding school Hack Reactor so the kids at Calvary Hill could have the same “aha” moment he had: the realization that they, too, can create a digital presence with a kernel of an idea and some keystrokes. One child, he said, delighted in making a website with hundreds of images of cats.

“We all take gratification that we are equipping these children with the tools necessary to make it in life. In the future, everyone will code, regardless of your job function,” Alavi said. “Giving them early access is important. They may not make amazing stuff at 9 years old, but they will be familiar with the language.”

On a recent morning, Alavi talked kids through the steps to building a rudimentary website. “You be the navigator, I’ll be the driver,” he told them. The kids reveled in the speedy new computers and the seemingly magical ability to make something they coded appear on the screen, in this case their names.

“When they get their first Web page going and there are pictures on there and there is text on there, they kind of start freaking out a little bit,” Alavi said.

For children, “it’s a catch-fire experience,” says church volunteer Charlene Lawson.

Juanita Kimball jokes that her 7-year-old son has been a parishioner at Calvary Hill since he was in utero. He already knows more about computers than she does and, she says, is about to know even more. He “can’t wait” to get cracking at coding, Kimball says.

“That’s the age we’re in, the computer age, the tech age,” she said. “The more children know, the more they can be a part of it as well.”

Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn


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