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Hackathon Aims To Diversify Tech Workforce

Christiaan Colen via Flickr
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Native American students Twylastar Warkie and Madison Castillo laugh and gather in front of a Macbook computer.  They are playing an early version of a game called Jelly Cat Trap.  They designed this game with help from some coding mentors at the Native My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon. The event took place at theEpicenter in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“If you think about it, it’s like a marathon with coding,” said Amy Cliett program director at California-based Qeyno Labs.  


Cliett said a hackathon is a community of developers, designers and students coming together to create apps over the course of a weekend. According to the Qeyno Labs website, their mission is to provide children with technological and educational resources.  She says knowing code is essential for finding work in the tech industry.


“Think about like everything that you use on a daily basis, there's code,” Cliett said. “There's code in your car, there's code everywhere so the possibilities are really endless.”


Qeyno Labs partnered with the Native American Community Academy (NACA) to bring people from local tech businesses to help mentor the young coders.  NACA Executive Director Kara Bobroff said it was her students who said they wanted to learn how to write code. The hackathon brings people of different skill levels together and gives students hand-on experience, she said.


“As they mature I can see, like, videogames might be their interest in middle school right now but as they get older like app development,” Bobroff said.  “And as they get even older, you know, really thinking about like the intersection of technology and solutions to different things that can help our communities.”


Bobroff said hackathons serve multiple purposes.


“One is to raise the awareness of what coding, app development or video game development can be,” Bobroff said. “Two is to connect to the broader community in Albuquerque [with] designers, developers and innovators.”


Bobroff says the third reason is to show Native Americans and other minorities actually do have a presence in the tech field.  


According to the Qeyno Labs website, Whites and Asians dominate the tech workforce in the U.S. whereas less than ten percent identify as Black or Hispanic. Women make up less than 40 percent of tech workers.


Young coders TwylastarWarkie and her partner Madison Castillo pitched their Jelly Cat Trap game to the audience and seem relieved after giving their presentations. “The reason why we wanted to create this is, well, we wanted more girls into technology because there’s not many Native American girls in it,” Warkie said.


Fellow NACA student Michael Connolly designed a complex shooter game based on the premise of conquering different planets. Connolly said the game is called the Battle for Jemhi and is an allegory of the colonization of Native peoples. He said presenting was his biggest challenge.


“What I learned is how to pitch a game. Basically how to set up a presentation, and how basically no one knows what they’re doing when they first start,” Connolly said.


“It's a perfect opportunity for Native youth to get creative with modern technology because everything is in coding these days,” said Craig Benally, one of the mentors helping NACA students.  


Benally works for Cultivating Coders, a coding group that specializes in teaching code to young minorities. They helped with the event as well.


“Someone could design an app for water resources, solar technology, or wind technology,” Benally said. “Whatever these kids can think of, the sky’s the limit for them.”

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