After graduating from college, Oscar Menjivar, a computer science professional who grew up in South LA, returned to Watts to teach. Out of the 60 kids in his class, only five were familiar with coding. He was determined to change that.
And so, Menjivar founded Teens Exploring Technology (TxT), an organization that encourages inner city teenagers to use technology as a tool for promoting positive development and leadership, as a path to higher education and eventually a career in sciene, technology, engineering or math related fields.
“I knew we needed to bridge the digital divide,” he said. “We needed to bring confidence to young people of color.”
Today, he has more than 50 students from high schools around the South Los Angeles area who ride their bikes, take the bus or walk to the 750 square-foot location he calls the “cube” on West Adams Boulevard or to USC, where they hold their summer academies. They are there every day (even on Saturdays) from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. doing homework, learning to code, building websites and creating apps. Menjivar sees this as more than a techie endeavor.
“They learn life skills here,” he said, looking around proudly at the tiny office space with ceiling tiles brightly colored in orange, blue and green. TXT partners with USC, Google, IBM and the Annenberg Foundation for funding and resources.
The students embrace their inner geek by competing for “Geek Hours—“ whoever spends the most time at the cube, earns a gift card or movie tickets. The teens love the taste of success. When 200 people downloaded Xavier Clark’s SAT app, he couldn’t believe it.
“It felt great to see that happen,” said Clark, a 17-year-old at View Park Prep High School. “I believed more in my dreams when that happened. If I say I can do it and put in the time and work, then things can happen for me.”
Kenia Cruz, 22, was one of the first students to join TxT six years ago when it began—and one of the few females. She recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara but came back to help train the next generation of tech leaders. She said TxT was invaluable in her education.
“I pushed myself a lot. I learned to think logically, have patience, to trouble shoot and find solutions to a problem,” she said. “We are giving kids the tools they need with whatever they want to do in their lives.”
The program could lead to potential collaboration with Los Angeles County, said Ali Farahani, chief data officer for Los Angeles County, who visited TxT in December with Richard Sanchez, the county’s chief information officer.
“I was very impressed by the caliber and talent level of the program participants and the vision and passion that Oscar has for this program,” said Farahani, noting that as part of a partnership students could create apps or bring innovative ideas to improve services in LA County. “It is a model for other students and a positive environment to grow in and get involved in technology.”