While most children decorate their walls with Disney and Transformers posters, the withstanding fixture in my brother and my bedrooms is a small card my dad gave us in middle school.
Powerful insights have always been a deep source of inspiration for me.
Whether it’s my friend Jordan Kretchmer saying “You don’t want all of the answers. You want all of the new answers.” or Kate Spade encouraging us to “Eat cake for breakfast,” I constantly reflect on advice that pushes me to be my best self.
The most empowering insight I’ve learned recently stems from Kimberly Bryant, the Founder of Black Girls CODE.
“We need to move from sympathy to empathy to overcome our fear of the other,” she shared at the recent 99U conference.
Before reading further, I urge you take a moment and really think about Kimberly’s insight. It’s hugely powerful and serves as the driving force behind the Black Girls CODE mission to teach one million young women of color to code by 2040.
You can sympathize with people and say, ‘Oh, that’s so terrible.’ But where does that get you in driving the positive social change that’s necessary?
You have to move beyond just feeling sorry for what happened to understanding it; Seeing it through the lens of those who are impacted by these actions.
Sympathy is great, but sympathy doesn’t drive change.
According to Kimberly’s TEDx talk, 50% of middle school girls are interested in computer science. Only four short years later, the number drops to a staggering 2% as they enter high school.
The culprits? Two important trends: Language and lack of role models.
One of my favorite interviews was with the women behind Girls Driving for a Difference, an organization teaching design thinking to middle school girls.
GDD’s Co-founders Natalya Thakur, Rachel Cheng, Katie Kirsch, and Jenna Leonardo are adamant that we stop asking middle school girls ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
The question is restrictive, placing a young girl in a position where she can only share what she knows. Think back to when you were nine years old. How much did you know about the person you are today?
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement reveals the biases we possess as a society speaking to and about young women. This is especially pertinent in the computer science field, where girls aren’t given equally positive feedback, in comparison to their fellow male classmates, that they’re excelling in math and science.
Girls aren’t given the correct messages that they are capable; That really plays a part in them taking themselves out of the game.
The magnitude of Kimberly’s assertion is enormous; At only nine years old a middle school girl hasn’t even started playing.
This is the thesis of Black Girls CODE, to “reverse that perception and give them [young girls] the skills and the self-confidence to stay the path until they get into high school.”
Language matters. It’s really important that we expose that language tends to disempower female students as opposed to empowering them.
The known adage “You can’t be what you can’t see,” is a foundational component of Black Girls CODE, where mentorship is a vital part of the program.
The only way to accomplish the team’s overarching mission to “increase the diversity of women of color in the tech industry” is to demonstrate that it’s possible.
In addition to providing necessary resources and educational programs, the most important step is “giving young girls the confidence to be creators.”
The genesis of Black Girls CODE stemmed from Kimberly’s daughter Kai, who’s deeply intrigued by video games and computer science.
As both a parent and a woman of color in tech, Kimberly’s highest goal was that her daughter would learn to create video games rather than just play them.
The team’s quest to shift young women from consumers to creators proved successful at this year’s Global Fund for Women Hackathon when a group of Black Girls CODE students created a project called Ohana.
Ohana connects a wearable device to an app that alerts family members, friends, and authorities if a woman feels unsafe. In case you don’t remember from the Disney classic Lilo & Stitch, “Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind.”
Among the central tenets of Kimberly’s work is to “empower young women to see no limitations for themselves as creators and having the divine skills and innate ability to create change in their own lives and communities.”
The mission of helping young girls cultivate the confidence to lead meaningful lives and careers is deeply personal for Kimberly.
When I reflect on legacy and what that means to me, I think about the women like my mother, my aunts, and my grandmother who were born in the 1920s and in the 1930s and grew up during segregation and Jim Crow in the South.
My mother always said she thought she would be an opera singer. That’s what she liked.
Folks told her ‘No, that’s not something for you. That’s not something for a little brown girl who looks like you to do.’
That’s not something she ever pursued or even felt compelled to really push towards. I don’t want the girls who are coming through our programs to feel that they have any limitations.
When it comes to her own daughter wanting to pursue computer science, Kimberly’s committed herself to doing everything in her power to ensure that the no’s don’t impact her.
Four years later, Black Girls CODE runs chapters in eight cities across the United States and one in Johannesburg.
The team expanded to Raleigh, North Carolina last week and will be offering classes in Washington DC this week. Additionally, Black Girls CODE hopes to be operating in Minneapolis, Miami, Dallas, Boston, and Los Angeles in the next 12 months.
To learn more about Black Girls CODE tune into Kimberly’s 33founders episode, follow the team on Twitter, and be sure to reach out on their site if you’d like to get involved.
Here’s a glimpse of what we discuss:
- The language shift and why it matters
- How to keep young women in the pipeline
- The importance of mentorship and how you and your organization can get involved
- How to overcome implicit biases and why we shouldn’t be ashamed of having them