SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Silicon Valley has a diversity problem. African-Americans make up just 1 percent of technical employees at companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google. But in Atlanta, black techies are helping to school a new and more diverse generation of tech leaders. For our Code Switch team, Tasnim Shamma of member station WABE team reports.
TASNIM SHAMMA, BYLINE: At Tech Square Labs in midtown Atlanta, you'll find glass walls and high ceilings. It follows the typical design trends of today's hip coworking office spaces. It's also where 14 low-income African-American students are learning how to code in Java.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What you're really doing is you're saying, hey, bus, move this many degrees on that X-Y coordinate for this long.
SHAMMA: Code Start is a free, year-long training program for low-income people between 18 and 24. They must have high school diploma or GED, but not a college degree. Katiana Stevens says the program is intense, but having classmates she can relate to helps.
KATIANA STEVENS: A lot of us have been on the verge of tears after the first week. However, we've all muscled through. We support each other and tell each other to keep going.
SHAMMA: Rodney Sampson started the program he calls Code Start...
RODNEY SAMPSON: ...An experiment on whether or not we can take disconnected youth and teach them how to be a junior level software engineer or developer.
SHAMMA: Sampson is all about diversifying the tech industry by empowering African-Americans to start their own companies. And helping candidates overcome cultural differences is still crucial, even for African-Americans who have strong academic credentials. During a recent class at Morehouse College, Michael Street was teaching freshmen how to code in a language called Python.
MICHAEL STREET: And we'll give you 10 minutes starting now to just give us an idea of what the approach would be. All right? And go.
SHAMMA: Through his group Black Men Code, Street preaches the gospel of STEM at his alma mater. But even at the historic Morehouse, famous for graduates like Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee, there's an understanding that the color of your skin can limit access to capital, resources and opportunities in the overwhelmingly white tech sector.
STREET: So you have an institution that's largely homogenous. And you may have the skills to get in there, but they're going to say, you're a bad cultural fit.
SHAMMA: And Street knows it's not just inside the tech industry where students will face challenges.
STREET: There's still so much latent cultural bias in day-to-day interactions which we see playing out in police officers and black males.
SHAMMA: That sort of bias hit close to home recently for Code Start founder Rodney Sampson.
SAMPSON: I was actually in a meeting - very important meeting. And I got a call from my resident director that says, you need to leave your meeting now. You need to come down to the Atlanta Check Cashing Outlet on Forsyth Street.
SHAMMA: One of his Code Start students had tried to cash his monthly $500 stipend, but the clerk suspect the postal money order was fake. She took his ID and told him to call the police on himself. When Sampson arrived, the 19-year-old was in handcuffs in the back of a police car. And when Sampson spoke up for his student, officers immediately began to grill him about the money order.
SAMPSON: And so they were like, well, do you have a receipt? You know, first, I was like, well, I don't have to prove that I purchased something, you know? But here I am pulling out a receipt on Forsyth Street in downtown Atlanta, showing these officers that I purchased all of these money orders, so I was little uncomfortable doing that.
SHAMMA: After 30 minutes of back and forth, the student was released from police custody. He got his money order and ID back, but the incident shook him so much that he dropped out of the program. Still, Sampson says, he's not giving up on this student or his mission to help the other young people transform their lives.
SAMPSON: What we're realizing is they're not just hacking the tech industry. The learning to hack themselves and changing the perspectives of how other people see them.
SHAMMA: Sampson is going to be teaching those lessons, including resume writing and interviewing skills and cleaning up social media profiles, as Code Start continues this summer. For NPR News, I'm Tasnim Shamma in Atlanta.
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