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Hackathon Organizers Ask, Could A Smart Phone App Have Saved Trayvon?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to talk about technology on the program today. And we want to talk about some of the ways it's being used to solve social problems or social issues. And as part of that conversation, we want to talk about who gets to decide just what is constructive and what isn't. We'll be having that conversation in a few minutes when we talk about how some observers are saying that too many of the feminist debates playing out online too often cross the line these days from constructive dialogue to destructive personal attack. We're coming out of that article in The Nation called "Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars."

We will talk to some of the people who were quoted in the piece and who are part of that debate. That's coming up. But first, we want to talk about how some hackers are trying to use technology to solve social problems. Organizers of a hackathon in Oakland, California are asking whether an app could have saved Trayvon Martin. It's part of Startup Weekend in Oakland, it's being called the first global event for black male achievement. And we are joined now by two organizers of the event. Kalimah Priforce is cofounder of Qeyno Labs. Welcome, thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: And Ayori Selassie is project manager at SalesForce.com, as well as cofounder and director at Pitch Mixer. You might remember from our #BlacksinTech series last year. Ayori, welcome back to you. Thanks for joining us once again.

AYORI SELASSIE: Thank you. Excited to be here.

MARTIN: Kalimah Priforce, could you just start by telling folks who don't know, what is a hackathon?

PRIFORCE: Sure. So a hackathon is an event that usually last 24 hours - 48 hours, and in that moment where developers - that's people who are technologists, designers, artists and innovators, people with ideas to solve big problems - come together and it's kind of a sort of immersive experience. And in those moments that they are together they are able to create a solution, build a solution.

MARTIN: And just to clarify, it isn't just black males who are invited to this hackathon. Just to be clear about that. You know, everybody who wants to participate is invited to participate, but why this particular focus on black male achievement? How did this particular idea come about?

PRIFORCE: So, like - so with hackathons, anyone who walks into your day-to-day hackathon - a hackathon that happens every week, especially in Silicon Valley - what you find is that they tend to be homogenous environments. Hackathons emerge out of big tech companies. They emerge out of sort of Ivy League institutions. And they're predominately white. They're predominately male. And they're predominately sort of middle to upper-income class.

And so recently, people have been exploring this idea of inclusion verticals. And that is hackathons that are able to tackle social issues around, let's say, women's issues. And - but there haven't really been a lot of hackathons that are focused on issues like black male achievement. And so we decided to create that, to create the sort of deeper level of engagement of young black males, their issues and with the larger sort of Silicon Valley, Oakland community.

MARTIN: Ayori, do you want to pick up the thread here? I mean, is part of the idea that if you change the conversation that more people will want to participate in the conversation?

SELASSIE: Oh, yeah. It's even beyond that. Just last night we did a venture design workshop in Oakland at the Impact Hub Oakland, and I was wondering who was going to show up. This was in preparation for our hackathon, which starts on Friday. And we had four young black men in high school, and then we had a bunch of adults as well, and primarily African-American, but there were some Indians there. There were some Asians there as well. And the thing is that - it doesn't shock me anymore - is that when you make a space for them and you say, we especially want you to show up, they show up, and they're excited.

MARTIN: So I have to ask you about this Trayvon Martin issue. It's all over the literature for your event - could an app have saved Trayvon Martin? How?

PRIFORCE: That's a great idea. I mean, that's a great question. So it's - what it points to is that that because of the sort of homogenous environments that exist within the tech world and even in the social entrepreneurship innovation world, then that means that a lot of the problems and solutions become sort of limited in scope. And so could an app have saved Trayvon Martin is a great place to start when we start thinking about OK, are we really building sort of an app ecosystem that is inclusive?

And yeah, so when George Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin, Trayvon Martin had a phone in his hand. And so it engaged people to think about, is there a button that he could have pressed that may have sort of altered the situation? But even bigger than that situation is, well, maybe Trayvon - the app that could have saved Trayvon Martin is an app that probably should have been built by Trayvon Martin. And how do we start building apps for the Trayvon Martins of the world rather than the George Zimmermans?

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, as - Ayori, as you know 'cause you were part of our series in December about #BlacksInTech, and we had, you know, conversations both on the radio, and we also had conversations on social media where we kind of addressed some of these questions. I just want to remind you of a conversation we had with Ciara Chase who's a middle school student. And we spoke with this as part of the series. And she had this idea of an app to help solve kidnapping cases, you know, flowing from the idea that, you know, some people seem to come to the attention of the authorities more quickly than others. And I just want to play a short clip from the conversation we had with her.


CIARA CHASE: For our app, it's basically so a parent can post their child's kidnapping because without the app, you have to go through, like, a lot of police reports or post signs and stuff to find your child. But for the app, if you find that your child is missing, you're able to post it. And anyone that has information about the child is able to comment under the post so they can help you in a faster way.

MARTIN: So, you know, Ayori, as I said, this is a middle school student. So I think it speaks to your point that if you ask people the question, you know, sometimes they come up with the answer. You know, but to that end, it's my understanding that some of the big names like Google and Facebook are not participating. Do they normally come to hackathons? And why do you think they're not coming to this one?

SELASSIE: Well, absolutely they are coming. Actually, several of our mentors are from companies like Google, like - not like, but actually from Google, from Salesforce. And so what we've really seen is that the employees have really responded to this, this concept of solving social problems using technology. And what we've done is we've given them the space and the structure to say this is going to be an event where we're able to do all the outreach to actually bring the young people and make sure that the folks who are here are incredibly gifted and talented and really able to leverage the opportunity for mentorship and support that we're giving during this hackathon.

MARTIN: Kalimah, I obviously want to keep the space open for kind of the ideas to come wherever they come from. But what - do you have an idea in your head of what would constitute success for this? Do you need to walk away with a specific app or a specific product, or is it just the fact of people getting together to think about this issue? Is that enough?

PRIFORCE: Well, I believe that - that we're looking at success through several ways. I mean, the metrics of, OK, yes. We have over 50 young black males who we call our trailblazers who are going to be engaged in this process, and an app is going to be produced - several apps are going to be produced. Wonderful. That's great. But, you know, on the other side is the effect that it will have on these professionals who are working alongside them. And that the problem is that - and I've gotten emails where you have developers from Google, from Facebook, from a lot of these companies who are saying, well, I am uncomfortable working with young black males.

MARTIN: Really?

PRIFORCE: And I think...

MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait. You've had people say this to you directly...


MARTIN: ...That they are uncomfortable working with young black males? Why?

PRIFORCE: Yes. I believe it's a distance thing. I believe it's - of course, it's sort of media perceptions, depictions that a lot of conversations that are around black males, especially young black males, tend to be deficit conversations, tends to be what the issues are. Here are the statistics, and here are the problems. But they don't tend to be sort of focused on black male strengths - their potential, their untapped potential. So there aren't asset conversations.

And so, of course - I mean, you know, it's - I don't think it's wholly their fault. It's just a society that we live in where these young black males are attached to these stereotype threats. And so, yeah - so this is really - so if they haven't interacted with young black males in the towns that they're from, from the cities that they're from and also in the companies where they work at, then here it is. They're in Oakland. They're interacting with these young black males. And so I can imagine what the kind of trepidation that they may have. So I don't think it's a harsh judgment coming from them.

MARTIN: Are they going to come? Are some of the people who sent you these emails going to come, or are they saying - or did they say to you, that's why I am not coming 'cause I'm not comfortable?

PRIFORCE: Well, I think that that's been the work that Ayori and I have in trying to communicate what the black male achievement - what the black male achievement message is, is that we - that when we work together, especially as Americans, you know, in this country - that when we work together and we start to sort of tear down the walls that separate us, especially the walls in our minds, then we can build some really amazing things together.

And so when we convey that message, that's what lets them go, OK, all right, I'm there. And what's really important that I have to add as well is that when we found out that a lot of our trailblazers don't have laptops to participate, some of them have said, hey, you know, I have an extra laptop, or I have a Chromebook or something I want to provide. And so it's been a really community-driven support.

MARTIN: Ayori...

SELASSIE: Yeah, I wanted to...

MARTIN: ...You only have 30 seconds left. Give me a final thought, please.

SELASSIE: Yeah, I think the main thing that we're focused on is empathy, community engagement and passion and excitement. And what we really want to do is give all of these young people, all of these people in our community, an opportunity to get addicted - joyfully addicted to entrepreneurship and technology. And I believe that's exactly the outcome that we're going to get from this event. And it's going to be a game changer, and we're going to see this replicated all around the world. And I'm excited for that

MARTIN: OK, well, you got to come back and tell us what are some of the ideas that they came up with, assuming they're not secret. OK, Ayori Selassie is product manager at SalesForce.com, as well as cofounder and director of Pitch Mixer. Kalimah Priforce is cofounder of Qeyno Labs. They both joined us from member station KQED just ahead of Startup Weekend Oakland - Black Male Achievement, which runs this weekend. Thank you both so much for joining us.

PRIFORCE: Thank you.

SELASSIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.