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For Low-Income Youth, Learning to Code's About More Than Jobs

Computer programming is the tool that helps our teens learn how to learn, develop discipline, and build confidence.

Coding is a tool for youth leadership development, not just a need for the future. At URBAN Teens eXploring Technology, the nonprofit organization we run in Los Angeles, we're setting the tech world on fire by inspiring teens to become tech entrepreneurs. We see coding as the catalyst that can take young men of color from neighborhoods like South Los Angeles and Watts and turn them into technology leaders who build positive communities. To us, computer programming is the tool that helps our teens learn how to learn, develop discipline, and build confidence.

When we dive into coding, our 7th through 11th-grade young men tend to say it's "too difficult," "intimidating" or "confusing." A select few start off their days in computer programming with, "Woah, that's cool."

No matter what the reaction is, their efforts under our guidance result in web and mobile products that improve communities—and they are built in 10 weeks or less.

"How do you guys do it?" is one of the first questions people ask. The answer is simple. Coding is the tool, leadership development is the end goal. We don't see coding as just selectors, file directories, or languages.

Learning how to learn, as opposed to learning what one is told, is important to us. The young men of color in our program are used to a school environment where teachers tells them to put name, date, and class period on one corner, followed by a checklist of to-do's. Their mentality coming into URBAN TxT is usually, "Tell me what to do, let me check off the boxes, and commend me for my work." Well, that is not how we work.

Our coaches and mentors question and challenge the teens on why a problem is a problem, why their solution is the ideal one, how that solution should translate into a web or mobile product, and why someone would buy or invest in said solution. We also provide our teens with the necessary resources and allow them to learn the things they need to in the way that works best for them. Whether it’s Wordpress, Shortstack, specific computer languages, or design software, we present the tools while allowing our teens to fail and succeed while exploring them.

As we use coding to help our young men of color grow into tech leaders, we emphasize discipline. Early on into our coding academies, teens identify the languages and platforms they will use to develop their products. Since we do not tell them what to do, but instead facilitate the process of learning how to learn, our teens have no option but to put in the hours that it takes to succeed. "PHP, Objective-C, JavaScript, and all other languages will not teach themselves to you," we tell our teens. "It is your job to put in the work and to use your resources as you need to."

To build leaders through coding, confidence must be an integral part of the process. Our teens' confidence spikes as they overcome challenges faced in operating platforms, meshing computer languages, working as a team, and building web products. Through failure, exploration, and ultimately success in solving a problem, our teens develop the confidence they need to lead now and in the future.

We are not just creating a legion of curious, intelligent, young men of color who know how to codeand know it well enough to build mobile and web apps in 10 weeks or less. Our culture is based around creating a positive community and being role models for others, which means our teens also have the attitude of wanting to make this a better world through technology. By creating this culture of leadership through coding, our teens not only become amazing, but they also do amazing things.

Oscar Menjivar is the founder and social entrepreneur, and Juan Vasquez is the communications coach for URBAN Teens eXploring Technology. To learn more about URBAN TxT visit

Photo of Mynor, Kevyn and the rest of their group working on a web app that provides college students different note-taking templates courtesy of Urban TxT.

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