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Ferguson Activists Learn Technology To Further Their Cause, Give Back To Community

Ferguson activist Ebony Williams (left) has been a regular at area protests calling for police reform. She says she wants to learn coding and other tech skills to bring them back to the community. Danie Banks (right) of Thoughtworks is her mentor for the
Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio

For the next six weeks, 10 young people, many with ties to Ferguson demonstrations, will spend three days a week learning web coding, business technology and how to protect themselves from cyber-attacks.

Activist group Hands Up United organized the program through the help of Abby Bobé with the IT consulting firm ThoughtWorks. Other ThoughtWorks employees also are involved.

Bobé said the goal of the six-week workshop is to give more people of color in the St. Louis area an opportunity to learn about technology.

“If you look nationwide, there’s a huge digital divide where you have black and brown school neighborhoods that don’t educate people on technology,” Bobé said, noting that there is a growing demand for tech skills in the job market.

Bobé first came to Ferguson in September as part of a ThoughtWorks team that built a website for Hands Up United. Young activists watching her work asked for her to teach them how to code, and so Bobé decided to organize a technology workshop.

Now their interest and Bobé’s work have come to fruition in the Tech Impact workshop series begun Saturday, with 10 applicants between the ages of 15 and 30 selected by Hands Up United to participate.

At the end of the training, the participants will be given a laptop so they can keep building their skills. They will also be given a $500 stipend to help a local business or nonprofit build a website — part of the social justice mission of the workshop.

“Back in October youth in Ferguson wanted to do a boycott of large corporations and use their dollar and invest in small businesses, but when you search online on Google search, the people with the most ad money and website design has the biggest space,” Bobé explained. “We couldn’t find local black-owned businesses. The businesses are out there, there just aren’t websites, and there’s no advertisements and there’s no media for these black-owned businesses. So our commitment is that these students will go back and build up (websites for black-owned businesses and organizations).”

According to Bobé, the laptops, stipends, food and other materials for the workshop series is funded through $11,000 raised in a crowdsourcing campaign. Technology incubator T-REX is donating the space for them to learn. Web developers and tech experts from the St. Louis area and across the country are volunteering their time to help teach the participants.

Bobé sees the workshop series as a pilot program, and hopes to organize more in the future.

Marcus Mucherson (left) uses HTML to build the beginnings of a website as local web developer Bryan Maynard looks on, ready to help if needed.
Credit Camille Phillips | St.Louis Public Radio
Marcus Mucherson (left) uses HTML to build the beginnings of a website as local web developer Bryan Maynard looks on, ready to help if needed.

Marcus Mucherson is one of the 10 participants in the pilot program. The 20-year-old was active at protests in Ferguson during the summer before taking a step back to focus on his education. He is studying secondary education at Harris Stowe State University.

He said he wants to be part of changing the stereotypes about people who work with computers.

“Some people think only white guys and nerds do tech and things like that. No. Everyone can do this,” Mucherson said. “That way you don’t have to pay someone to do it. You can do it yourself and you can also start your own business. Because I don’t even think there’s a black-owned business here that does tech support, so somewhere here could do it. I could do it.”

Mucherson also hopes to use the skills he learns in the Tech Impact workshops to help build a web presence for a mentorship program he wants to start with his brother, and to help promote his music. He performs spoken word and hip-hop under the stage name Enigma.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.