Why This Man Happily Turns Students Into 'Hackers'

Oakland's Kalimah Priforce uses "hackathons" to build apps and character.

While most of the kids in his Brooklyn group home were zoning out in front of Yo! MTV Raps, 8-year-old Kalimah Priforce was staging a hunger strike.

Not for toys, not for a later bedtime, but for books and more time at the library. Three days in, Priforce, now 35, prevailed and set himself on the trajectory that has shaped his life.

"I would say it was the beginning of having sort of a hacker mind-set," he said, "'hacker' meaning to change the parameters of something, to unlock the potential of a set of parameters."

Now, Priforce is the founder and head of Qeyno Labs, pronounced KEE-noh, which aims to bring that "hacker" mind-set to children from disadvantaged backgrounds through "hackathons."

He wants children from all backgrounds to know that they're capable of shaping not just their own futures, but the future of the tech industry.

A minuscule number of employees at major tech companies identify as Black or Hispanic. Google released figures last year that showed only 1 percent of its tech workers are black, 2 percent are Hispanic, and 18 percent are women. One reason those figures are so low is that the pipeline of young people pursuing tech degrees and careers is overwhelmingly white and male.

Priforce wants to change that.

"It's about these kids having the right mentorship, the right tools in front of them," he said.

His love affair with computers and coding began when the dean of his junior high school assigned him to a computer class as punishment for fighting with a school bully. Priforce was wary. Use of the computer lab came with a number of rules and restrictions, and warnings about breaking the machines.

"That is still the relationship so many kids have with computer technology in their schools," Priforce recalled. "For poor kids, that doesn't allow them to hack."

But, perhaps aware that he was bright and inquisitive, the school gave Priforce free rein and he utilized it, plowing through books on programming languages and operating systems.

Through his tumultuous teens and early 20s—Priforce studied Buddhism for a time after meeting a Buddhist nun at the library, ran away at 14, and lost his younger brother, Charlemagne, to gun violence—his love of computers and design remained constant.

After his brother was killed, Priforce knew he wanted to show other kids growing up in tough situations like his that they could be creators and problem-solvers, too.

"In many ways, I hacked my own isolation," he said.

Five years ago, Priforce moved to Oakland, California. He launched Qeyno, named after his brother's nickname, with the goal of developing software that would help young people identify and pursue career goals. In 2014, his team began offering three-day hackathons to young people.

Participants don't have to have good grades or test scores, and they don't have to know how to code. They simply have to have an idea, a problem they want to solve.

Over the course of an intensive weekend, the participants—each assigned three volunteer mentors from major companies like Amazon and Uber—work to develop a solution, whether that means a Web page or an artistic rendering of how they'd want an app to work. The goal, Priforce said, is not just to foster a love of computer science, but, more importantly, to foster self-esteem.

He has tried to create, he said, the kind of group home environment he always wanted—a safe and encouraging one. "I tell security how they deal with these kids has to be different," he said. "I tell them I want them to treat every kid who walks through the door like they're a lord on Downton Abbey."

The hackathons, which Priforce says are open to "high-potential youth in low-opportunity settings," are free for the participants. Most of the kids are African American or Latino, and all have grown up in challenging environments. He said most hackathons are male-dominated, but he has found that when he asks kids of color to participate, it's girls who respond.

+Priforce wants children from all backgrounds to know they can shape the future of the tech industry. (Courtesy of Kalimah Priforce)

"The adults are exhausted at the end," he said, "but then I get a call from a kid asking, 'When is the next one?'" At the end of each hackathon, participants go through a "rite of passage" ceremony, where Priforce tells the kids that they have just demonstrated the ability to innovate and problem-solve. The ceremony is aimed at showing kids that the space they are navigating, the experience they are living, is theirs.

So far, Priforce has organized six hackathons, with several more planned for later this year. One will gather Native American children who live on reservations, and another will bring youth of color and police officers together.

Right now, Qeyno parachutes into a city, works with community partners and sponsors to put on a hackathon, and follows up to help connect participants with resources and mentors after they've gone. Ultimately, Priforce would like to set up a permanent, brick-and-mortar school. There are already plans in place for a teacher-training session next year, and Qeyno this week received half a million in funding from the San Francisco Foundation to continue its work.

Jabrill Sohan, 19, has participated in two of Priforce's hackathons.

"It was such a good experience," he said. The mentors were "people who kind of showed you you can make it."

Sohan is the first in his family to go to college. His mother had him as a young teen, and his dad, who recently passed away, wasn't in his life much growing up.

Sohan, who is studying computer science at Contra Costa College and hopes to eventually earn a computer engineering degree, "learned nothing" in high school, he said. But college and the hackathons, he said, have been eye-opening.

At his first hackathon, his team had an idea for an app for athletes. At the second one, he worked on a way to connect college students with tutors at any time of day. Most importantly, he still has the contact info of the mentors and hopes to keep in touch.

Other hackathon participants have also come up with innovative ideas. One young man who'd gotten a ticket for skateboarding in an unauthorized area developed an app to help kids understand and navigate the court system. Someone who lost his family developed an idea for an app with a Snapchat-like interface that would help young people process depression. A third wanted to develop a rating system for how schools treat people of color, and another had an idea for an anti-sex-trafficking app.

"There's a cultural bias in Silicon Valley as to which problems to solve, which are important. It's not like they don't want to work with a Black coder. They don't want to solve Black problems because they don't think Black problems affect them." -- Kalimah Priforce, Qeyno Labs CEO

These are not exactly issues Silicon Valley is focused on.

The problem isn't that Silicon Valley is overtly racist, Priforce said; it's that "there's a cultural bias in Silicon Valley as to which problems to solve, which are important. It's not like they don't want to work with a black coder. They don't want to solve black problems because they don't think black problems affect them."

"It's easier to work with people who look like you," Sohan said when asked why he thinks Silicon Valley has been so slow to embrace people of color.

Another issue, Priforce said, is that tech giants think it's more cost effective to build an office in London and hire East Indian engineers than it is to build a pipeline from East Palo Alto, an economically disadvantaged community in the shadow of Stanford University, a few miles down the road to Mountain View where Google is headquartered.

He doesn't expect things to change until tech giants see "black-and-brown-owned companies and women-led start-ups succeeding, doing groundbreaking work." Silicon Valley is great at innovation, he added, but "we have to start opening our doors and building on-ramps."

Priforce hopes that by inspiring young people who have never been given the opportunity to innovate before, he can put them on a path toward bringing their transformative ideas to life.