East Palo Alto residents build tech, community at StreetHacks

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(Courtesy of Aubrey Kingston)
(Courtesy of Aubrey Kingston)

Jason Mayden, a native of Chicago’s South Side and former global design director for Nike’s Jordan Brand, faced 44 East Palo Alto residents the morning of Nov. 14. They ranged from elementary school students to adults, most of whom had never worked with code before — until that weekend.

Mayden had been chosen as the opening speaker for StreetHacks, a weekend-long hackathon hosted by StreetCode Academy in East Palo Alto, for the similar background he shared with many residents in the community.

At the front of the room, he spoke rapidly about his life, shuttling between expanses of time — a childhood still urging him on, one of “syrup sandwich” dinners, too-large hand-me-down sneakers and wavering self-esteem; the present he lives in now, waking up each morning to “stay hungry, stay humble” scrawled on his mirror and a future of which he is now certain.

“This is the building of a foundation; this is one brick in a pyramid of opportunities, and you need to decide that you’re going to build together,” Mayden said to the room. “You’re building momentum for your community.”

StreetCode Academy, founded in 2014 by current and former students Shadi Barhoumi ’17, Rafael Cosman ’15 and Olatunde Sobomehin ’03, is the technology education program of Live in Peace, an East Palo Alto organization for youth empowerment. For the past year, StreetCode has worked to create opportunities in and exposure to tech within East Palo Alto through classes and events for the community, most of which are hosted in its building in East Palo Alto.

This past weekend, members of the East Palo Alto area convened at StreetHacks, StreetCode Academy’s first hackathon, to build technology- and community-centered hacks. The two-day event concluded with StreetCode’s second annual TechFest, open to the public, featuring participants’ project presentations and technology demos from guest companies and sponsors, including Facebook and Google. Cash prizes were given to the first-, second- and third-place winners, chosen by a panel of judges from industry and from the community.

The first-place project was Drivic, a virtual reality driving simulator created with Unreal Engine 4, Oculus Rift and Makey Makey. Drivic was built by Jose Guzman, freshman at Cañada College and graduate of Menlo Atherton High School, a nearby public school, with the help former Ohlone College student Salofi Tautua’a, Jr.; eighth-grader Dylan Duncan from Terman Middle School; and mentor Luke Wilson ’16 from Layout, a company for virtual reality education.

“In Guatemala, my mom couldn’t afford a car, but here, the cities are spread out, the jobs are far away. She can’t always walk,” Guzman said. “When she came here, she had to learn how to drive, but she was scared to go behind the wheel.”

Inspired by this memory, his own impending driver’s license test and his love for video games, Guzman wanted to create a safe, virtual space for unlicensed residents to practice driving.

In second place was 34-year-old Lavell Russell, who built a website for his business concept, Everything Two Dollars, a goods delivery service guaranteeing $2 delivery.

Twelve-year-old David Ruiz’s the Messi Game placed third, featuring Argentinian soccer player Lionel Messi as a protagonist in a Super Mario-esque video game built on Construct 2.

One of StreetHacks’ most surprising features was the age range of its participants. Originally, StreetHacks co-organizers Rohun Saxena ’19, Aneesh Pappu ’19 and Akshay Jaggi ’19 recruited participants from East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, East Palo Alto Academy and Eastside College Preparatory School through on-campus visits and flyering. Over the past month, word about StreetHacks traveled through the community at the library, at school and even via Uber rides.

Saxena, Pappu and Jaggi recalled mentioning StreetHacks and passing along information to their Uber driver, Gary Clemons, on their way back from East Palo Alto Academy one time.

A couple hours later, Pappu received a message from Clemons’ wife, Jerri, who ended up spending the weekend at StreetHacks creating a website for Let’s Talk, an idea she had for peer counseling within the community.

“We take a lot of pride in the stories of how we got people out, because one of our biggest challenges was getting people to participate,” Pappu said. “It’s unlike hackathons like CalHacks and TreeHacks, where college students are already interested in tech.”

StreetHacks participant Sergio Flores, an East Palo Alto native and freshman at San Jose State University, spoke about the potential disconnect between technology and the East Palo Alto community.

“Because of the lack of exposure to tech, the idea seems foreign to many people in the community — they haven’t seen people [they know] use that as a tool,” Flores said. “They do their best in the path they see for themselves, and that may not always include tech because they’re focused on stuff like safety, working, parents.”

At StreetHacks, projects ranged from an informational website on East Palo Alto’s housing crisis to a platform for showcasing up-and-coming talent to an app for recipes in response to East Palo Alto’s lack of restaurants. Participants at the hackathon were anywhere from age 8 to age 50, and Sunday’s TechFest saw attendance from teachers, family and coaches of the participants, as well as from Mayor of East Palo Alto Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier on both days.

“Look at the generational effort that’s happening — you have people from different stages of life all building together,” Mayden said during his opening speech, gesturing to Clemons and Ruiz. “This would not be possible without technology, so please embrace this moment.”

In fact, many mentors and workshop leaders such as Roger Luna, an East Palo Alto resident and software engineer at Tecarta, were previously unaware of the participants’ age range. Luna led an Android workshop and spoke about how the age differences didn’t matter.

“It worked out fine because the older folks weren’t afraid to ask questions, and the younger people were helping the older adults,” Luna said.

According to Pappu, other workshops included a design and entrepreneurship workshop to generate project ideas and help people “identify what skills they need to achieve that goal” and developmental workshops in iOS, Android, web, gaming and virtual reality platforms led by industry and community members from East Palo Alto, Stanford and the wider Silicon Valley.

After the workshops, participants worked with mentors in groups of one to three until midnight on Saturday and had all of Sunday morning to complete their hacks.

While the seven-person StreetHacks leadership team hoped participants would walk away with “a cool project,” they also wanted to keep the environment relaxed and fun. Over the past month, they organized with several sponsors such as Facebook, Google and the Kapor Center. Saturday morning kicked off with Zumba, and several musicians including DJ John Asenso performed over the weekend. Both music and basketball were ongoing activities throughout hacking hours.

“It was the most continuous energy I’ve experienced at any hackathon,” said mentor Vicki Niu ’18, who has attended and organized several different hackathons.

Niu said she woke up to an email from one of her mentees the Monday morning after StreetHacks asking for the code he worked on over the weekend.

“I was so happy,” she said. “It meant that the end of StreetHacks wasn’t the end of hacking.”

StreetCode Academy, too, is continuing beyond StreetHacks. Matt Mistele ’17 and Nathaniel Shak ’17, also on the StreetHacks leadership team, are currently developing a winter schedule to teach computer science classes at their center in East Palo Alto and to continue exposing students to technology.

“I saw the community come together, kids running around with their StreetHacks shirts on and asking questions about projects — everybody spending the weekend together learning about programming, gaming, iOS, Android, a little bit of everything,” Luna said. “It just sets an example for the kids growing up that they have access to this technology — it’s nothing to be scared of.”

This post has been updated. A previous version misidentified the East Palo Alto Mayor. The Daily regrets this error.

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Irene Hsu is a music contributing writer, and a former Deputy Desk Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She is a sophomore from San Jose, CA and is double-majoring in English and Symbolic Systems. Contact Irene at ihsu5595 'at' stanford.edu