For many people all over the world, Drupal is a fun hobby or even a means to a career. But for some young men in South Los Angeles, it’s more than that: it’s a ticket to a better life.
Teens Exploring Technology is the brainchild of Oscar Menjivar, a social entrepreneur, programmer, and Drupal user. The program serves young men who are at risk of recruitment by gangs in Los Angeles’ southern neighborhoods by bringing them off the streets and educating them on community, leadership, academics, and technology.
Each year, thirty or more high-school boys are selected to participate in the program. Through it, they are introduced to computers and computing, and attend weekly classes held by the program and hosted in one of the classrooms at the University of Southern California (USC). Classes are instructed by volunteers who donate their time and expertise to the program, teaching the boys to improve their lives and their community through technological innovation.
“Currently, we partner with USC but we are starting to look at other universities for expansion” said Menjivar. “Our program is in demand and we need to expand. Right now, we’re building relationships with other universities, so in the next few years we’ll probably be meeting at USC and another university in the area."
The program, which is completely free for its students, has already made waves in its local community. Numerous alumni of Teens Exploring Technology are currently studying Computer Science and Information Systems at schools such as Stanford, Syracuse, USC, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and elsewhere; the projects that these students completed while participating in Teens Exploring Technology, meanwhile, are still doing good in their communities.
“Last year, one of the groups developed a Drupal website called South LA Run,” said Menjivar. "It’s an interactive map that displays safe places where people in south central LA can run. The site allows users to make accounts, and create and share routes with each other. Our students collected data and research from the community in South LA, then used it to build the site, which launched last summer.
"The project perfectly embodied our mission to help the kids recognize some of the problems in their communities, identify ways they can solve these problems, and give them the resources to solve those problems with technology,” Menjivar added.
Fighting poverty with technology
The program, which has won a Google Rise award, was inspired by Menjivar’s past.
"I grew up in South Los Angeles in the ‘90s and went to one of the worst high schools in the city,” said Menjivar. “They promised me a technology magnet program, but at the time we had nothing but typing classes. The lack of resources at my school made it harder for me to focus on bigger goals in life, like college.”
From a young age, Menjivar had been interested in computing and computer science. "I wanted to do computer science and learn how to code, and [my upbringing] was a huge barrier for me to overcome. Luckily, I had a good friend in college who took me under his wing.” Now, Menjivar is paying the favor forward by giving young men in rough neighborhoods the same help that he once received.
“Seven or eight years ago, I went back to my old high school and spoke to sixty kids. I asked if they knew what a website was, or knew what HTML was, and out of these kids only 5 of them knew what that meant. That was what opened my eyes,” he said. “I thought, there’s something that we need to do about this.”
For most young men who live in the inner cities, survival can be difficult. Many are recruited by gangs, or turn to crime to keep money coming in. "The biggest problem that I encountered with myself was that, in the '90s I had a lot of friends who… one ended up shot, another ended up in jail, and most didn’t go to college,” said Menjivar. "I was lucky because I had good mentors, but most of my friends didn’t have the same opportunity."
Now, Teens Exploring Technology is serving the neighborhood that Menjivar himself grew up in. The program focuses on educating young at-risk men about technology, inspiring them to use technology for social good, and instilling high-integrity values in the process. But Menjivar doesn’t want to stop there.
"The overall vision for what we’re doing is to develop leaders and change makers who can improve world through technology,” Menjivar said. “We want our students to go and use technology for good, and develop solutions for their communities. Our main focus is always on addressing problems in our students’ community, specifically how can we use technology to transform the lives of kids.”
Doing good with Drupal
In the Teens Exploring Technology program, the participants are introduced to a wide range of technologies— and Drupal is by far the most popular.
“We decided to use Drupal because it gives the kids a chance to learn on the spot and not have to wait for something to be pushed out,” Menjivar said. “They can practice their coding skills, and if they make a mistake they can redo it again easily in Drupal. The flexibility of it, the modules that the kids can play with, and the themes that Drupal can do all make it very popular. With kids, you have to be able to give them a choice for how to customize their website and make it their own, and Drupal does that really well.
“Last year, we had 8 different web apps and I would say 4 of them were Drupal-based. The other ones were Wordpress, Android, iPhone, and Shortstack, which is a Facebook app. This year we’re throwing in Unity, so the kids will be able to build games.
“Every year we experiment a lot but Drupal always stays at the core of what we do,” said Menjivar.
How Teens Exploring Technology is changing South Los Angeles
The pilot program for Teens Exploring Technology began five years ago.
“At first, we did recruiting,” said Menjivar. “We went out into the community and approached kids about participating in the program that first year, but it’s all word of mouth now. The kids call themselves TxTrs, and they really spread the word. It happens often that, in schools, an 8th or 9th grader will come to a current student and say 'I want to do this, how do I do this.’
“In the community, we feel that people are starting to recognize potential with technology. We had 150 applications this past year, and even though we were only able to pick 45 participants, we’ve created a database of kids who didn’t get in and their parents. We reach out to give them information whenever we can, and pretty soon we’ll have an open space that we’re opening up so that everyone can come, build with technology, and take workshops on different tools,” Menjivar added.
Helping at-risk young men build better lives for themselves and for their communities is at the heart of what Menjivar does— but he doesn’t plan to stop just with Teens Exploring Technology. Currently, the Teens Exploring Technology team is working to expand the program so that everyone in South Los Angeles has an opportunity to learn and grow.
Menjivar’s vision for the Hackerspace isn’t one of a formal classroom, but rather a safe space for knowledge-sharing where people can help each other out-- or, in his words, “We want a ‘learn by doing’ space.”
“We want to build an organic community of technology culture so people can come in and do peer to peer teaching,” Menjivar said. “We want it to be a place where you can come hang out and have fun while learning to build online products. We aim to build culture of knowledge using the latest dev tools.”
“I find that the best way to build knowledge is together, instead of just doing workshops all the time,” Menjivar added.
“When we began setting the place up, picture a big mess right in the middle of the room: chairs everywhere and stucco and paint all over the place,” said Menjivar. “People came in and asked us what we were doing, and when we told them they could come and learn to develop, they got excited. In fact, as soon as we announced the Hackerspace to the community, we had tons of people coming in and asking how they could get involved.
“The community in South LA has a lot of talent, but it just isn’t being nurtured and fostered. So that’s what we want to do,” said Menjivar.
Alumni of the Teens Exploring Technology program give back to the program by donating their expertise and recruiting for the community— but the program’s expansion means that more help is needed.
“Right now, we’ve got a summer leadership academy going on for boys who are between 14 and 17 years old,” said Menjivar. “We put the kids in production and development groups, and then everyone picks a different role: product developer, project manager, and so on. The boys go through process of identifying a problem and then using the technology to solve that problem, and to make this happen, we need mentors.
“Finding volunteers with exceptional skills is critical. We don’t just want people to volunteer, we want them to build relationships. Our volunteers become role models to the kids, become people they can look up to. Finding volunteers who can commit an hour to the program, and who are willing to stay in touch with the kids afterwards, can be a challenge.”
Beyond the need for more volunteers, resources are tight with the program. “getting funding is a challenge, especially since it’s a completely free program for the students,” said Menjivar. “Many of the boys we serve are from low income families, families whose annual income is about $15,000. In order for us to serve more students and provide new opportunities, we need to increase our income. This year we were invited to a startup weekend but we didn’t have transportation so going was difficult. Funding is definitely a challenge.”
“One of the questions we ask ourselves a lot is, how do we use this program to continue helping the Drupal community grow, and how do we get the Drupal community more involved in the future? One thing that would help would be sponsorship from companies for the program and for its volunteers.
“Our summer volunteers put in 20-25 hours a week helping the boys, and do so for no pay. Right now we’re looking for people or companies who can sponsor those volunteers, and maybe even give them a stipend,” said Menjivar.
"Currently, the culture of creating technology doesn’t exist in South L.A., so we’re building that technical dream and people are recognizing that. We’ve become the place where, if you want to learn to build or create, you go to Teens Exploring Technology or you go to Hackerspace. It’s a small space but I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of it,” said Menjivar.
"Above all, the emphasis for me is our pillars of community, leadership, academics, and technology, because that’s what we anchor ourselves around. We want to help our kids understand how those pillars change the world, and really understand the technology that will make a difference in their lives and the lives of others as they become a developer."
For more information on the program, or to get involved, please contact the Teens Exploring Technology team, or reach out to Oscar Menjivar via Twitter at @urbantxt.