Training 100,000 Low-Income Youth to Code: A Q&A with Van Jones

Where are the black and brown Mark Zuckerbergs? That was essentially the question — the challenge — that the musician Prince asked Van Jones, civil rights activist, founder of Green for All, and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. The result is an ambitious initiative called Yes We Code, to prepare 100,000 low-opportunity youth for careers as web developers and computer programmers. Such training is critical for young people — the tech industry is a major driver of job growth. But it’s also important if the United States hopes to retain its technological edge. Without major investments to expand the talent pool, the industry will have one million jobs it cannot fill with qualified American workers within 10 years.
To build a jobs pipeline from low-income communities to Silicon Valley, Yes We Code will work with community-based organizations that are teaching computer skills to youth of color and help turn these skills into careers. PolicyLink Founder and CEO Angela Glover Blackwell spoke with Jones about his vision and strategy.
Angela Glover Blackwell: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and LinkedIn all recently released data on their workforce and the numbers are frankly shameful; at Google, for example, only 2 percent of their overall work force is African American; 3 percent is Latino. At the same time, the U.S. is becoming an increasingly diverse nation. We recognize these trends really do not portend well for the future. Describe the genesis of Yes We Code.
Van Jones: I was at Prince’s house soon after the Trayvon Martin verdict came down.  Prince said, "You know, whenever you see an African American kid wearing a hoodie, people think they’re thugs, but when people see a white kid wearing a hoodie, people think he’s some kind of tech genius." I said glibly, "That's how racism works." Prince said, "Actually it's because we haven't produced enough black Mark Zuckerbergs.” We started talking about what we could do about that.
Angela: Why is it important to focus on this issue now?
Van: Two reasons. First, coding is the new literacy. It’s the key to the future. Second, and I think even more important, the future is not being written in laws in Washington, DC — it is being written in code in Silicon Valley. That’s where change is happening and that’s what’s driving humanity forward. It is very dangerous to have a tiny, tiny demographic control all the technology to build the future. Democratizing the tools to create the future is a civil rights issue, a human rights issue, and a commonsense issue.
Angela: You announced a goal of 100,000 youth to become high-level programmers. How did you arrive at that goal and how does it relate to where we need to be?
Van: In many parts of the economy now, there are three job seekers for every job opening. That’s really brutal for our community. But in the tech sector, it's the reverse — for every three openings, there's only one qualified American to take the job. And it’s going to get worse, to the tune of a one million job shortfall in the tech sector within 10 years. We said we’re going to take responsibility for a tenth of that and make sure that a tenth of those jobs goes to our communities. It’s a doable number and hopefully big enough to inspire cooperation. No one group is going to get us there. This initiative works only if dozens and hundreds of organizations work together.
Angela: We were just in New Orleans where city leaders are working to figure out how to target as many of the 30,000 jobs they think are coming on board in the next decade to the 35,000 unemployed black men there. That's just one city. You could repeat that number in cities all across America. Who is Yes We Code really targeting?
Van: This is a new high-end vocational skill, and nobody realizes that yet. The average salary for a computer coder is $70,000 to $90,000. You don’t have to be a computer genius. If you have basic mathematical literacy, you could be trained and job-ready in three to five months, with no college degree.
Angela: What do you see as the first step in opening doors to tech careers?
Van: The first thing we have to do is prepare ourselves. Companies are not going to relax their standards. They want super-trained, super-qualified folks who can come in and compete with folks from MIT and Stanford. It points to the need for world-class learning opportunities.
Angela: What specific opportunities are needed?
Van: World-class five- to six-month training programs that target African Americans, Latinos, single moms, Native Americans, women of all colors. The vast majority of existing programs in our communities are introductory. They give people the confidence and basic skills to create an application or code a computer. We need those programs to be strong and more numerous. In addition, we need more programs that take people who can make an application and get them trained so they can make a living in this field. That is a totally different challenge.
Angela: Describe a program doing this.
Van: The Flatiron School in New York was able to get funding to do it. A majority of people of color and women of all colors went through the first class. Almost all of them got placed in jobs that pay an average of $70,000 a year. [See our feature on Flatiron School below.] America has to be able to replicate that kind of success across the country.
Angela: As founder of Green for All, you helped focus public attention on the need for equitable workforce development in the rapidly growing green jobs sector. How does that experience inform your strategic thinking about creating pathways to tech?
Van: First, I should point out we are having more success with green jobs than most people know. For instance, there are 80,000 coal miners in America. And yet we already have nearly 200,000 Americans working in the wind and solar industries alone. That said, we did make some mistakes, early in that movement. One, we never gave a specific, quantifiable number of jobs that we were hoping to create. Two, we were relying on Congress to pass a cap-and-trade bill to promote clean energy. When the Tea Party took over the U.S. House of Representatives, we lost a ton of momentum. Today, with Yes We Code, we are very specific: 100,000 people trained to either get a job or start a company. And Congress could not stop the information technology revolution if it wanted to. That’s why we have decided to hitch our wagon to the technology stars in Silicon Valley — and not rely on anything that is happening in Washington, DC.
Angela: How is the tech industry responding to Yes We Code?
Van: There’s real enthusiasm. Silicon Valley (and all its imitators from Austin to Boston) are run on genius. And they know they’re leaving genius on the table in low-opportunity communities. They’re leaving markets and products on the table. They’re leaving profitable solutions on the table — because they don’t know what the problems are in our communities.
Angela: How are communities responding to the initiative?
Van: Some people will say it's very hard to get African Americans and Latinos, especially young men, interested in this field. I want to say as loudly as I can — I would scream myself hoarse every day if I thought it would make a difference — that is not my experience at all.
When I talk to African American, Latino, Native American young people, I ask some simple questions. “Who has a smart phone” And they all hold it up. Then I ask, “Who here has ever downloaded an app?" And they all raise their hands. Then, "Okay, who here has ever uploaded an app?" And then nobody raises a hand. I tell them, "You know, you make money when you upload an app; you make somebody else money when you download an app. You're moving your thumbs around making somebody else money. Now, who here wants to make money?” And that takes about two seconds. And they’re asking, how do I do it? This whole myth that our kids won’t do this is completely false. It's not just white people who come up and tell me that.  We say it to ourselves, too.
Angela: How can people get involved with your work?
Van: Go to If you're a parent or a young person or if you actually teach coding, you can be a part of what we're doing.


Angela Glover Blackwell
Angela Glover Blackwell