Out of the Ferguson Riots Comes a Youth-Led Push to Close the Digital Divide

Hands Up United has launched a new initiative aiming to empower young people in Ferguson, Mo., and the Greater St. Louis area with skills they can use to strengthen themselves professionally and strengthen their communities, too, combining tech and activism.

Students and instructor-mentors in one of the tech-workshop classes 
Students and instructor-mentors in one of the tech-workshop classes  Philip Deitch

In August 2014 a white officer shot an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., and the Internet was overrun with news accounts. Many people depended heavily on their phones and social media sites for updates. Vines, tweets, Instagram pictures and videos were shared at a breathtaking pace, giving everyone first-person access to what was happening with the protests that turned violent amid a police backlash.

News coverage surrounding the place where Michael Brown was killed has since dissipated, but that doesn’t mean the resistance of the Ferguson community toward all systems of injustice has dissipated along with it. From Ferguson’s tear-gas-filled streets comes Hands Up United, a nonprofit, youth-led movement launched in response to Brown’s death in order to continue to “digitalize” the revolution.

“The next logical phase for us was to just empower the community with the tools that they didn’t necessarily have or know that they have,” activist Tef Poe, co-founder of Hands Up United, told The Root. “For us it’s really about trying to close the technological gap between communities that are underprivileged and lack opportunity.”

The nonprofit started focusing on what it refers to as a Tech Impact Initiative aimed at teaching 21st-century skills—mainly computer programming and Web development—to empower those in the community and help them process and develop ideas about building small businesses and grassroots movements through technical-training workshops. Companies backing the initiative include T-Rex, Strange Loop, Hack the Hood and ThoughtWorks.

“[The youth] wanted to start boycotting large corporations and investing their dollars in small businesses,” said Abby Bobé, who works for one of those sponsors, global tech company ThoughtWorks. She noted that the young people believe that big businesses push small businesses out, and they want to change that process.

And so the Roy Clay Sr. Tech Workshop was born, a six-week intensive program aimed at teaching selected St. Louis candidates how to do coding, with the goal of strengthening local, black-owned businesses, as well as nonprofits and other social movements in the area.

Bobé, who is also a workshop instructor, tapped into her connections with groups such as Black Girls Code and launched a 10-day, $10,000 crowdfunding campaign to get the program off the ground, raising just under $12,000.

That money made it possible to provide all 10 students in the workshop’s inaugural class, ranging in age from 15 to 28, with MacBook laptops that they could take home to work on their skills during the program.

“We’re dealing with a working population, so what is rent looking like? What is food looking like? What are the real concerns and obstacles for these students?” Bobé explained. “We realized if we gave them a stipend, that could probably take away some of their anxiety [about] why they would not be able to commit to something [for] six weeks and really allow them to be creative. … You have to take care of certain needs before you reach [a certain level] of creativity.”

The idea is to train the students for six weeks and then have them offer their services to local businesses at no cost and complete a website, at which point the students will earn a $500 stipend. Those students who decide to continue doing coding for local businesses as freelancers will be gifted with their own laptops, Bobé explained.

“It’s just about self-empowerment. When you get introduced to things that you … never realized you could do … before, wool comes off your eyes, your eyes open, you look at yourself a little differently. You feel intelligent, you feel capable and you don’t feel inadequate,” Poe said.