Tech with a dose of social justice: Enza Academy aims to empower youth of color


Students who were accepted to Enza Academy, a new "innovation and leadership" program held at Stanford University last week, had to complete homework before they even arrived.

Their assignments: a series of online coding lessons and seven "think pieces," including a YouTube video of Maya Angelou reading her poem, "Love Liberates"; video footage of the arrest of Sandra Bland, a young black woman whose traffic-stop arrest and subsequent death in a Texas jail have further amplified national debate about the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color; and an interactive, animated map on illustrating the American slave trade.

Enza Academy, a free five-day program for high school students of color, sits at the intersection of technology and social justice. It was founded by a group of college students from around the country — City College of New York City, Columbia University, Morehouse College, Stanford — who call themselves "consciouspreneurs." They want to expose more youth of color to technology and business innovation as well as to culture, history and civic engagement.

"I remember in high school, people really doubted me as a young black male," said Enza co-founder Brandon Hill, a Stanford student. He said as a black high school student in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he was told he wouldn't be successful, and he had no exposure to the world of technology.

"There are so many structural inequalities that are blocking their ability to cultivate and advance their creative genius," Hill said of youth of color. "One of the manifestations of that social injustice is a cracked pipeline that results in a lack of diversity among races and genders in Silicon Valley.

"We said, 'How can we develop a lasting, impactful solution for that?'"

Enza began with a three-day pilot at the Columbia University Teachers College in New York last year and grew to this year's five-day residential camp at Stanford.

This summer, 26 students were selected to participate — mostly from the Bay Area, including East Palo Alto, Los Altos, Milbrae, Milpitas, Mountain View, Oakland and Palo Alto, as well as a handful from the Sacramento area, one from Arkansas and one from North Carolina. The program was sponsored by #YesWeCode, the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, Stanford Black Community Services Center, Stanford's School of Engineering and The K&K Investment Group in New York, as well as through personal contributions.

A Stanford senior and Enza Academy's chief academic officer, Alizabeth McGowan, designed and taught the program's social-justice curriculum. The students analyzed historical textbooks, wrote personal narratives and talked in small groups about topics like colorism, police brutality, current events and "being the smartest student in the class and not feeling like they are authentically black," McGowan said.

Another activity involved the students answering questions like, "Does your race, sexual orientation or gender affect you?"

Then students took coding and business classes, learning about the differences between running nonprofit and for-profit corporations, how to monetize a smartphone application and conscious capitalism. They also visited the Google campus.

The students split into groups based on their interest in various topics — education, health, justice — and then went to work designing their apps, which were presented to a panel of tech professionals at a pitch night Sunday with the potential for being awarded real seed money.

Kayla Choates, a rising sophomore at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, chose justice. She said she wants to sit on the Supreme Court one day. She had never done any coding — or even really knew what it was — before Enza Academy.

Her group's app, H.E.L.P. ("harness everyone's limitless power"), aims to use technology to improve police-community relations. During the group's pitch, one member delivered an impassioned spoken word piece on race relations in the United States.

The app allows users to input a police officer's badge number (Kayla said that many people are unaware that officers have to disclose that number when asked), which then pulls up a profile with the name, photo, department location and user-generated reviews. As soon as the user inputs the officer's badge number, the app automatically starts recording a video, which is uploaded to the user's profile in real time (but can be deleted if he or she wants). Another section directs users to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) "Know Your Rights" web page. There's also a police-brutality discussion forum.

The H.E.L.P. logo is an exclamation point, with the circle shaped as a police badge. It's supposed to communicate a "sign of urgency ... (that) this needs to stop now," one group member explained during the pitch.

In an interview with the Weekly, Choates described how her father was once pulled over in Milpitas, where the family lives. The police officer asked for his license and registration.

"My father gave it to him and said, 'Can I ask why I was pulled over?' He (the police officer) was like, 'I was just trying to make sure you belonged here,'" Choates said.

She said the group was inspired by incidents like that and, of course, current events. But during its pitch, the group stressed that H.E.L.P. is supposed to highlight both the good and bad in police interactions.

"There are so many more good cops out there than there are bad cops, and all we do right now — we're just hearing bad cases," Choates said. "Our app really focuses on empowering not only the people but the officers who are here to protect us, to know we can all do better."

Choates said she still remains committed to a career path in social justice rather than tech, but Enza Academy opened her eyes to new avenues within the field.

"When they said, 'You guys are justice. Come up with an application; come up with (something) that involves coding,' I was like, 'How do you do that?' It made me realize that I can do so much more with justice and with law than I (thought)."

Naima Castañeda-Isaac, a rising sophomore at Palo Alto High School who grew up in East Palo Alto, also came to Enza with a passion for social justice, as well as for education.

She said her mother, Tasha Castañeda — an Stanford-educated engineer who also taught in the Ravenswood City School District for several years and serves on the board of local nonprofit East Palo Alto Kids Foundation — instilled this in her from a young age. Castañeda-Isaac is also a member of the National Society of Black Engineers junior chapter, attends College Track in East Palo Alto and the Greene Scholars Program, which aims to expose youth of color to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Despite her mother's background and participation in these programs, Castañeda said it wasn't until Enza Academy that Castañeda-Isaac truly became excited about and engaged in STEM topics.

And this is even more important for Castañeda-Isaac as a young black woman attending school in Palo Alto, her mother said.

"There's often this divide between kids that come from East Palo Alto and teacher expectations and all sorts of questions of race and class and what people expect her to do," Castañeda said.

Castañeda-Isaac remembers walking into her honors geometry class the first day of freshman year at Paly and another student telling her, "The algebra 1 class is over there."

At Enza, Castañeda-Isaac selected the education group, which developed the camp's first-place app, EduText, whose slogan is "Textbooks available for everyone."

"The problem we want to solve is, how can we give equal opportunities to children who attend schools in low-income communities as to those who attend schools in wealthier communities?" another group member told the audience during the pitch.

EduText's main product is free, online access to the most up-to-date editions of textbooks, but there's also a real-time chat feature that allows students to talk with others in their class and ask their teachers questions while doing the reading at home. A future feature could be live annotation, much like when multiple people are editing a Google document at the same time.

Teachers can also create assignment-based student chat groups for their classes, and parents can log in to set up online parent-teacher conferences. EduText would make money by offering annual subscriptions to school districts and distribution partnerships with publishers, the group explained.

On pitch night on Sunday, a panel of seven judges — including the scaled education lead at YouTube, head of product at TechCrunch and a senior associate from venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson — sat at a long table next to a full audience of the students' families and friends in Stanford's Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center.

The judges selected EduText as the academy's first-place app. The group won $750, which it can use as it pleases but ideally as seed money to make its pitch a reality.

She2U, which connects female athletes with recruiters to create a stronger pipeline for women in sports, won second place with $500 and Culturize, a social media-like app that also promotes social activism, won third place with $250.

Enza is a Zulu verb meaning "to do, to perform, to generate." In that spirit, its founders are already thinking far beyond the impact they've had on 26 students in five days. Future expansion could include an accelerator program that allows students to actually build a company over a series of weeks.

"We think that Enza could really be more of a movement as opposed to just these siloed programmatic pieces," said Frederick Groce, a recent Stanford graduate and Enza's chief financial officer.

Similarly, co-founder Hill wrote in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post, "At Enza, we push our scholars to design their revolution."

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7 people like this
Posted by Kayla
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 7, 2015 at 10:27 am

I love this article! And I really like the concept of Enza.

5 people like this
Posted by Latasha
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2015 at 1:25 pm

Investing in our children's future while incorporating entrepreneurship; mixed with awareness for social injustices will help change lives.

5 people like this
Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 8, 2015 at 9:37 am

Terrific article Elena, and congratulations to Brandon and the entire Enza team for their impactful work, and to all of the students who participated, truly a transformative experience. Also wonderful to see the support in the Valley for this initiative. Nice coverage in TechCrunch also!

4 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 10, 2015 at 11:22 am

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 10, 2015 at 12:40 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]

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