Q&A with Van Jones about #YesWeCode on PolicyLink

Where are the black and brown Mark Zuckerbergs? That was essentially the question — the challenge — that the musician Prince asked Van Jones, civil rights activist, founder of Green for All, and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. The result is an ambitious initiative called Yes We Code, to prepare 100,000 low-opportunity youth for careers as web developers and computer programmers. Such training is critical for young people — the tech industry is a major driver of job growth. But it’s also important if the United States hopes to retain its technological edge. Without major investments to expand the talent pool, the industry will have one million jobs it cannot fill with qualified American workers within 10 years.

To build a jobs pipeline from low-income communities to Silicon Valley, Yes We Code will work with community-based organizations that are teaching computer skills to youth of color and help turn these skills into careers. PolicyLink Founder and CEO Angela Glover Blackwell spoke with Jones about his vision and strategy.

Angela Glover Blackwell: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and LinkedIn all recently released data on their workforce and the numbers are frankly shameful; at Google, for example, only 2 percent of their overall work force is African American; 3 percent is Latino. At the same time, the U.S. is becoming an increasingly diverse nation. We recognize these trends really do not portend well for the future. Describe the genesis of Yes We Code.

Van Jones: I was at Prince’s house soon after the Trayvon Martin verdict came down. Prince said, "You know, whenever you see an African American kid wearing a hoodie, people think they’re thugs, but when people see a white kid wearing a hoodie, people think he’s some kind of tech genius." I said glibly, "That's how racism works." Prince said, "Actually it's because we haven't produced enough black Mark Zuckerbergs.” We started talking about what we could do about that.

Angela: Why is it important to focus on this issue now?

Van: Two reasons. First, coding is the new literacy. It’s the key to the future. Second, and I think even more important, the future is not being written in laws in Washington, DC — it is being written in code in Silicon Valley. That’s where change is happening and that’s what’s driving humanity forward. It is very dangerous to have a tiny, tiny demographic control all the technology to build the future. Democratizing the tools to create the future is a civil rights issue, a human rights issue, and a commonsense issue.

Angela: You announced a goal of 100,000 youth to become high-level programmers. How did you arrive at that goal and how does it relate to where we need to be?

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