Imagine, Build, Create — Black Girls Code Inspires Young Women of Color to Diversify Computer Sciences Classrooms

Imagine, Build, Create — Black Girls Code Inspires Young Women of Color to Diversify Computer Sciences Classrooms

TL; DR: When Kimberly Bryant founded Black Girls Code in 2010, her initial goal was to ensure that her pre-teen daughter would never again be the only black girl in the room at computer science summer camp. In her mission to nurture her daughter’s passion for computing, Kimberly created an organization to encourage and support the aspirations of young women of color to code, engineer, and achieve careers in computer science and other STEM fields. As Black Girls Code continues to grow and create opportunities, Kimberly envisions a future where women of color have a chance to lead the conversation.

When she embarked on a journey to reinvent her career after working in corporate biotech for several years, it didn’t take long for Kimberly Bryant to recognize how often she was the only black woman in the room at networking events.

As her daughter prepared to enter middle school, Kimberly noted her passion for computer gaming and science. Seeing an opportunity to nurture her daughter’s interest in STEM, Kimberly sent her to a computer science summer camp in the heart of Silicon Valley. As if holding a mirror to her own experiences, Kimberly learned her daughter was the only black girl in a room full of dozens of white children who were almost exclusively male.

The convergence of those two isolating experiences inspired Kimberly to ensure that future generations of young women of color would find a place in STEM fields. And so, Black Girls Code was born.

“It was really shocking. It was this incredible class right in the middle of Silicon Valley, right near east Palo Alto, which is a very black and brown community — but there were no black or brown kids in this class at all, other than my daughter,” she said. “It was my expectation that being in proximity to the Valley would eliminate some of those patterns for the next generation, but that was anything but the reality of what I saw. That was a turning point for me. I wanted to create something where she could find another community of girls like her who were interested in technology.”

Reinventing the Face of STEM: Positioning Women of Color as the Future

Black Girls Code reaches young women and pre-teen girls of color through workshops and after-school programs that provide the opportunity to learn in-demand skills in coding, computer programming, and technology. With more than 1.4 million computing jobs expected to be available in the US by 2020, Black Girls Code aims to diversify the computer sciences field with the smarts, talent, and creativity of young women of color, who have been historically excluded from STEM careers.

Image of Kimberly Bryant and the Black Girls Code logo

Kimberly Bryant started the Black Girls Code organization to expand access to computer science and STEM education.

Raising awareness of intersectionality, or the oppression and discrimination resulting from the overlap of social identities like race and gender, lies at the heart of BGC’s mission. Kimberly said the organization strives to “look through a lens that really broadens the conversation from being one that is just about gender.”

“There needs to be more depth to the conversation addressing the unique challenges that will inevitably exist when you have multiple marginalized identities at play,” Kimberly said. “We can’t just focus on their realities as women in technology. We need to address the unique experiences they have as black women or as Latina women in this field, what that means in terms of how we keep them engaged, and how we support them in their development.”

From STEM to STEAM: Injecting the Arts Into Science and Technology

Redefining the scope of STEM to place an emphasis on the arts (STEAM) is an opportunity to create more space for diversity and inclusion, which Kimberly believes will strengthen the quality of work emerging in the fields of science and technology.

“There are areas where there tend to be more creative thinkers, like women or people of color, who are artists or have artistic talents,” she said. “Bringing art into our focus around STEM and inclusion really allows us to diversify the field.”

Including the arts in STEM in BGC programming is another inspiration Kimberly attributes to her daughter, who is currently taking a gap year between high school and college. She enjoys spending as much time with her sketchbook as she does playing with computer code — and plans on majoring in computer science.

“It takes the same kind of creative process and ability to create something from nothing,” Kimberly said. “Computer scientists are artists. Bringing artists in and really focusing on STEAM allows us to visualize a future world where we use the tools of technology to create change.”

Black Girls Blazing Trails: Measuring the Impact on College Campuses

From the original goal of making sure her daughter didn’t lose interest in her passion, Kimberly said she is happy and humbled when she thinks of how many girls have found similar support when discovering the Black Girls Code community.

“It has been really rewarding to me, as a mother, to see that she has a passion for what she loves,” she said of her daughter. “Now I’m seeing it, not just in my own daughter, but in all the girls who have discovered similar passions.”

Image of black girls walking in front of graffiti with laptops

Black Girls Code programs, camps, and competitions reach K-12 girls across the country.

One of the organization’s biggest projects this year is “wrapping our arms around alumni,” as Kimberly put it, and discovering how to support them as they pursue a future in STEAM in adulthood.

Kimberly said she is taken aback when she realizes the impact the group she created has had in the lives of young women: In Virginia, Kimberly met a college freshman in marine science who first learned important computing skills as a member of Black Girls Code in New York; in California, she encountered a computer science freshman who had been part of the organization since she was 12 years old.

“I am increasingly running into Black Girls Code alumni as I go to speak at different universities and events,” she said. “I will consistently run into a student, parent, or relative who has a student who was a member at some point in their life and found that it was a change agent for them.”

Innovation in the Inner City and Beyond: Going Global with Expansion

As Black Girls Code looks toward the future, the organization will continue to emphasize its focus on working with young women from underrepresented communities. The organization, which has one branch in Johannesburg, South Africa, is currently based in the United States.

During the next three years, however, Kimberly and the Black Girls Code team aims to double the number of chapters in the US and expand internationally, as well. In the US, the organization primarily focuses on reaching inner-city neighborhoods where there is currently little or no access to STEM learning opportunities for youth.

“We’re really engaged in the idea of how do we create these centers for technology and innovation in inner-city neighborhoods?” Kimberly said. “I want to create this specially designed center for innovation and tech, where we can bring under the roof all the different elements of AI, machine learning, and virtual reality so the kids in the programs can see it and test it and feel it and build with it, right in one space.”

Laura Bernheim

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