David “Dell” Delmar is driven by a simple philosophy: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Inspired by Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the US, Dell has set out to accomplish the next generation of intervention in a program called Resilient Coders.
Dell didn’t go to school to learn coding. He studied graphic design. Like many young college graduates vying for employment, he exaggerated his technological skill set during a job interview, and upon hiring, was quickly forced to teach himself coding. As he learned, a new love for technology blossomed, bolstered by the possibility that technology would fuel America’s new meritocracy, that success could be based on skill and talent, and not on ethnicity, IQ, or privilege.
He was wrong.
A few years back, Dell traveled to Austin, TX for the South by Southwest film and music festival. There, he explored the tech advances inside the US. He recalls: “I listened to brilliant people come up with solutions to problems we don’t really have…an application to help you better stalk people on LinkedIn…a computer app to help clean your desktop…”
His disappointment in these ideas was what led him to conduct a simple social experiment. Over a 2-day period, he counted all the people of color at the tech meetings. Among the thousands of attendees, only 14 were non-white.
During the festival, Dell’s romantic notion that technology would be the great equalizer was crushed, and upon returning to Boston, he realized an entire community was being left out of the booming tech industry. Non-Caucasian youth living in poverty-stricken areas (20% of the Boston population) have minimal exposure to the world of coding and technology.
Dell has experience with this population. In his spare time, he volunteers with an organization called Sole Train, a nonprofit that provides mentorship through running. High-risk youth meet twice weekly to run and Dell runs with them as a regular mentor.
During one run, Dell was chatting with an incarcerated teen about coding. The boy asked, “Has anyone ever been paid to code?” The tragedy of this question inspired Dell to act.
Through working with both tech entrepreneurs and incarcerated youth, he realized there are many similarities between successful entrepreneurs and youth whose life is defined by surviving the street. “The personality of a successful tech entrepreneur is the same personality that is likely to get you kicked out of school…competitive and disbelieving of social hierarchy. A certain aggressiveness, in which the context of social circumstances leads youth down completely divergent paths.”
If you have these personality traits and have access to supportive networks, education, and money, you will likely be successful in the tech industry. Contrast that with a kid who is getting shot at and has no mentors or even access to the internet. “Kids are smart,” said Dell. “They will invest their energy and emotions where they are bound to see the greatest return on their investments. For many kids, this is on the street instead of memorizing the Pythagorean theorem.”
To redirect high-risk kids’ energy, Dell quit his job at Ebay and founded Resilient Coders. The purpose of Resilient Coders is to teach high-risk youth a craft, to give them a chance at success in an industry that has left them behind. Dell points out: “This is not an academic endeavor, but a new way to think, a new way to sustain life.”
This new way taps into the inherent personality strengths of incarcerated youth: their competitive edge, and their desire to avoid the status quo and earn respect instead of inheriting it. Dell tells all his incarcerated students: “Keep the hustle, keep your street smarts, don’t stop a moving train, just switch the tracks.”
The first group of resilient coders was a cohort of 8 incarcerated teens with the Department of Youth Services. These were his first students. Without access to the Internet, Dell taught them to code and build websites, then saved their work on a flash drive. Beyond HTML and other computer languages, Dell taught them something of even greater importance: how to problem solve.
Resilient Coders’ success hinges on its unique teaching approach. It operates under the theory of HOMAGO (Hang Out, Mess Around, Geek Out), also known as constructionist learning, which involves having a hands-on experience, as well as room for exploration, thinking, and reflection, rather than transmission of knowledge from teacher to student.
Putting kids in a learning model similar to one that already failed them would just lead to more failure. With Resilient Coders, success is not measured by a grade, but by failing and then trying again. Dell said, “We scrape, we tweak, we break. And then we iterate, each time failing smarter than the last.”
The model of Resilient Coders goes beyond teaching kids to code. It helps them translate those skills into a job. Inside Dell’s “Resilient Lab,” students work and have the ability to earn money.
In Boston, 64% of young male offenders reoffend within 5 years, and only 35% of these young men gain employment within a year of release. Dell believes giving youth a trade and passion will keep them off the street and out of jail. He stresses that if the youth put in the time to learn the trade of technology, they will not only stay alive, but also earn a living.
Resilient Coders has grown significantly since that first group met. With grants from the Boston Police Department and Technology Underwriting Greater Good (TUGG), Dell and his volunteers now operate at multiple sites in Boston. Their outreach spans schools, correction facilities, and community centers.
By awakening curiosity, Dell aims to bridge the growing opportunity gap and open doors to young people from communities traditionally underrepresented in technology. Dell hopes this effort will re-instill the belief that technology can be an equalizer, that true skill will bring success, and that social circumstances don’t dictate your future.
It will take time, but Dell hopes this gap will close, one Resilient Coder at a time.
If you are interested in learning more about Resilient Coders or would like to get involved, check out http://www.resilientcoders.org.