By Antonio Byrd

Researching Coding in Black Communities

As a researcher at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, I study how Black communities access and learn computer programming, and how they use coding to address racial inequality in their lives. Why’s an English professor doing research on computer programming and race?

Well, computer coding is a type of writing: coders string together symbols that have meaning to both people and computers. There’s also strong belief that coding is the next literacy we all need in our lives. Black people have often seen reading and writing as the ticket to racial justice. For me, I try to understand how exactly that plays out for Black communities as coding becomes more widely available.

My work started in 2017 when I was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had the wonderful opportunity to do a year-long research study at a nonprofit computer code bootcamp that trained adult low-income women and people of color in coding. I call this computer code bootcamp Clearwater Academy. The end goal for the program is helping low-income marginalized people find a lucrative job in tech while diversifying White-majority tech companies.

The reality of this training is more complicated. While the computer code bootcamp hoped many students would become software developers, only two of the 12 Black adults who participated in my study got a paid six-month internship. And even then they often encountered microaggressions from management. Both would eventually leave these positions and the industry itself.

But the good news is that these two Black coders, and the graduating classes of 2017, found coding useful for them in other ways: to organize household chores, to find a better job in banking, to start a clothing line, to return to community college for a certificate in information technology!

Right now, I’m writing a book about these Black adults’ stories and what those stories mean for giving more racially marginalized people opportunities to learn computer coding in public schools, higher education, and vocational training.

Life After Clearwater Academy

My time at Clearwater Academy had an impact on me: I got first-hand experience in what working for social or public good can look like through digital technology. Interacting with the very generous instructors and students at Clearwater Academy made me want to do more than just research. I wanted to use my training to work with community organizers. As my mentor Dr. Kate Vieira says, some of your tax dollars go to public universities; our university researchers should use their work to benefit those taxpayers.

When I moved to Kansas City in 2019, Dr. Erica Stone introduced me to Code for KC and, subsequently, Leslie Scott, founder of Re.Use.Full. Using our knowledge and skills for public good was a perfect match! What I learned from Clearwater Academy, I could do here in Kansas City!

Using my background in qualitative research and content design, I’ve partnered with the Re.Use.Full team to learn how and why people donate their belongings, to market and promote Re.Use.Full on social media and elsewhere, and to make enhancements on this very website!

I like to think that my efforts help make Re.Use.Full visible to the Kansas City Metro community and to help make the website accessible to generous donors and the nonprofits looking for gently used items!

Bags of clothes would sit in my bedroom for months. Re.Use.Full inspired me to follow through on donating them

Big Picture Goals: Environmental Racism

But I have to think about the big picture goals, too: Re.Use.Full furthers efforts to combat environmental racism–a type of racial discrimination in policy-making, regulations and laws that expose racially marginalized communities to environmental hazards. Dr. Robert D. Bullard, who led a key study on 20 years of toxic waste dumping in the United States, finds that racially marginalized communities are often treated as “throw-away communities” used as “garbage dumps.”

In Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., environmental racism can have a different flavors. From disinvesting in city-owned buildings in Black neighborhoods to turning the Quindaro Ruins into a garbage dumping site before declaring it a historical landmark.

Certainly these examples are policy and regulation decisions. But we can all do our part in our personal lives as laws and policies change for the greater good. Re.Use.Full encourages all of us to direct our stuff toward the families that need them. And that keeps stuff out of the Black communities so often treated as dumping sites. It’s an effort that I’m slowly beginning to take up and be more conscious of myself.

And who knows? Maybe literacy and environmental racism will be my next big research topic.

Antonio Byrd is an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He teaches courses in professional and technical writing, literacy, and digital writing. You can read one of his research articles about Clearwater Academy here: Between Learning and Opportunity: A Study of African American Coders’ Networks of Support

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