Tech skills on offer for LGBTQ youth

A class offered at the BankNote building teaches technology and career readiness to LGBTQ youth who make less than $50,000 a year. It is the first of its kind dedicated exclusively to LGBTQ youth in the Bronx.

Joseph Cancel, 20, (left) looks on as Chris Mercado (center) edits the resume of Bejan Merz, 29 (right).

Haus of Code prepares young people for the work force

At a recent Thursday night class at the BankNote Building on Lafayette Avenue in Hunts Point, two students huddled around one laptop while their instructor, Chris Mercado, looked on. Like all instructors, he’s committed to making class a safe space. But today is resume day.

“I’m going to make it an uncomfortable space, because that’s where growth happens,” he said. Then, pointing to the resume of one of the students, added “here, you have way too many bullets for one job.”

The class, called Haus of Code, teaches technology and career readiness to LGBTQ youth who make less than $50,000 a year. It meets for three hours twice weekly, and aims to break down barriers in tech by giving students the skills they need for entry-level tech jobs. It is the first of its kind dedicated exclusively to LGBTQ youth in the Bronx.

“The LGBTQ community is tech savvy,” said Dominique Jackson, Director of Programs at Destination Tomorrow, the LGBTQ organization that launched the class in September, “but many don’t have resources for extra education.” Tech classes, like those offered at General Assembly, can cost upwards of $1,250 for a 3-month part-time course.

Jackson added that LGBTQ face additional barriers to learning, like feeling uncomfortable with applications that only include male and female options. Often, in a class without other LGBTQ students, Jackson says, explaining one’s gender identity or sexual orientation can be exhausting — or even dangerous.

Barriers are also present at work. A recent study by the Kapor Center for Social Impact found that LGBTQ employees in tech were more likely to be bullied and leave their job as a result. According to the study, the industry loses valuable talent and billions of dollars a year in replacement costs.

To remove barriers, Haus of Code is free through grants from Citgo and The Elton John AIDS Foundation. In addition, Destination Tomorrow did sensitivity training for The Knowledge House staff, the tech education non-profit that provides instruction, and reworked the intake forms to reflect the experiences of LGBTQ applicants. This included adding a third option, nonbinary, for gender.

“Understanding that this population has its own set of barriers to employment was important,” said Stephany Garcia, 28, Program Manager at The Knowledge House.

Guessan Effi, co-instructor of Haus of Code, found the training helpful. In her first class, she said, “We went around and said pronouns, asked how they like to be called.”

The biggest problem so far: low turnout. Of 12 initial students, only 6 or 7 consistently attend class. Instructors said that some students have trouble getting to class, even though MetroCards are provided.

Those who do come said they feel it is an atmosphere they don’t get elsewhere.

“This is one of my favorite classes,” said Bejan Merz, 29, who travels from Jersey City to attend each week, “I like the size. It’s special and rare to get individual attention.”

“I don’t feel like I’m forced to learn anything or forced to be here,” said Joseph Cancel, 20, who said he left college because it didn’t work out for him. “This is something I voluntarily wanted to learn.”

Besides career instruction, students are learning html/css and JavaScript to build their own websites. Instructors are always on call to provide guidance outside of class, which runs through December.

“If there’s any way I can make it a little easier for someone else I will do that,” said David Echevarria, 25, a co-instructor who is part of the LGBTQ community and from the Bronx. He thinks that more engagement from the community will come with time.

“It had never occurred to me that I could learn this,” Echevarria said of his own journey to a career developing video games – he’s a games supervisor for Gotham Film Studios. “It took one person to motivate me in the right away. And then I had the drive to do it – and I know there are more like me.”

Destination Tomorrow is planning a second session of Haus of Code. It is scheduled to start in January 2018.

“I want maximum impact,” said Mercado. “My big thing is having them feel that they belong in tech.”

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