Earlier this week I had the opportunity to share a bit of the story behind how Hack My Future came to be. The more I thought about everything that happened to get us to this point, the more I knew I needed to share this story in a more public forum.
Without getting into too much detail I can say I’ve always had the desire to teach. In my younger years I thought this would lead me to the classroom when I got older and after I had made “my money” working in the tech field. Obviously God knew something I didn’t because I never made a fortune working in the tech industry and some years were definitely better than others. Through all of it though, the desire to teach always sat in the back of my mind.
Then on February 26, 2012, something happened 1,000 miles away that would impact people everywhere, even if we didn’t know how at the time. That night at around 7pm local time, Trayvon Martin would be killed while walking home from the store.I won’t rehash that whole situation, since most of us are aware. However, that night soon put in place a series of events that would eventually give me the platform to do what I do today.
A few months later two men I didn’t know at the time, Van Jones and Kalimah Priforce, would get together a group of young men in Oakland, CA and put on an event around the idea of “could an app have saved Trayvon Martin’s life”. This event was a common thing in other communities but relatively new to the black community, a “hackathon”. The general idea is that a group of people get together over the course of a few days and come up with ideas to solve issues and create new products. This particular weekend over 60 kids got together and came up with app ideas that could have possibly saved the life of Trayvon and also made the world a safer place for us all.
Flashing forward another few months, I would see an invite on Twitter for a hackathon at the 2014 Essence Festival in New Orleans and immediately knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. I immediately submitted my info to be a mentor for the event as well as signing up my oldest nephew to be a participant. A little time went by and we were approved and on the first weekend of July we drove out to New Orleans full of excitement yet not fully knowing what we were getting ourselves into.
When we arrived at the New Orleans Convention Center we got registered and moved into the main room to meet all the other participants. As is typical with hackathons, everyone was allowed to come up with ideas about apps they were interested in building and then we had to pitch the rest of the group to recruit members for our team. It was during this process, I initially met a young man by the name of Isaiah Martin. We were both interested in building apps to better connect students, parents, and teachers so we decided to combine forces to build out a stronger team. At the time Isaiah had just completed his freshman year of high school, but you would have never known that from listening to him talk.
This same day I would also be introduced to the phenom better known as Victoria Pannell. She and her mom drove to the hackathon all the way from New York and were still on the way when we were pitching our ideas. Not to be left out, she quickly decided to create a video to pitch her idea and forward it to Kalimah and his team. This was just the first of many brilliant moves I’ve seen her make in the time that I’ve known her.
Once our teams were formed, I met another brilliant young man who decided to join our team, Kyle Brown. Kyle was a pretty sharp contrast to Isaiah in that he was more reserved and quite, but no less brilliant. As we initially began working on our team I tried to get to know each of the kids a bit and was blown away that both Kyle and Isaiah knew multiple programming languages, Kyle had even hacked his Chromebook to run Linux, which was no small feat for someone heading into their freshman year of high school.
Ultimately we worked round the clock over the course of the weekend and ultimately ended up winning first place in the best business development category. It was a truly inspiring experience that I’ll never forget, I still carry the Facebook bag we won around everyday as my work bag as a reminder of what we accomplished.
Towards the end of the event we learned more about how it all came together. In a nutshell, Essence wanted to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Prince’s Purple Rain album. After a number of conversations with Van Jones, he agreed to perform with the stipulation that the hackathon had to also be held. He didn’t stop there, and also provided the funds to make the hackathon possible.
Besides winning the overall event, one of the most memorable moments came when I was walking through the halls of the convention center and bumped into Trayvon Martin’s mom, Mrs. Sabrina Fulton. It was in that moment that everything about that weekend came full circle as the purpose of it all became evident. Ironically that same morning, one of the young men on my team also just happened to wear a hoodie, the thing that labels far too many of our youth as dangerous. He had been wearing the hoodie all morning, but I didn’t make the connection until I saw Mrs. Fulton, and in that moment I knew we were on to something.
After everything concluded, my nephew Tyler and I drove back to Dallas and came home to a city that had no idea what we had just done. Everything here was business as normal and I didn’t know of anyone working to change the image of young black kids in hoodies from inspiring fear to inspiring possibilities. As luck would have it, I soon had a meeting with Kevin Mondy of Project Still I Rise and learned of his phenomenal programs teaching kids robotics and engineering. We just so happened to be looking for each other at the same time because he was looking for someone to add coding to their curriculum.
Over the next two years, Kevin and I worked on a number of initiatives together including the Dallas’ first hackathon targeting kids from underrepresented communities, and a number of coding classes and events. We still support each other whenever possible because our ultimate goal is the same, exposing kids to things they aren’t currently being exposed to. Just yesterday Project Still I Rise held their annual luncheon to celebrate the students who are graduating this year and heading into adulthood. It truly makes me smile to see all the great students we’ve worked with over the years, taking the next step in life and heading to college to study fields like engineering and computer science.
Originally I came up with the name Hack The Future, but when I decided to work on this endeavor full time I decided to change the name to Hack My Future. I felt the change was necessary because I want the students we work with to own and personalize the process. They are at the center of all the events we do and need to be represented as such.
I mentioned three of the students I met in New Orleans not only because of the way they have inspired me over the last few years, but also because they are at the point of moving to the next stages of their lives. Victoria Pannell is heading to Duke University this fall with a full scholarship and even some extra money to fund the research projects of her choice during her undergrad years. Isaiah Martin is graduating and heading to Dartmouth University in the fall to study computer science. Kyle Brown is heading into his senior year of high school and I have no doubt this time next year I’ll be celebrating his graduation and choice of college.
These students and the many others I’ve worked with over the last three years illustrate a point that it’s possible to achieve anything you put your mind to. They also illustrate the importance of adults getting involved in their lives and opening doors and opportunities to help them be successful. Thankfully with these three I didn’t have to do very much because they had strong support systems before we ever met. However, this shows there is a recipe here that works and will continue to work for as long as we invest in it.
It’s truly a tragedy that Trayvon lost his life that night in 2012, but I’m glad that people all over the country have used the event to inspire action that will change the world forever. Together we will all take a stand and hack the future. That is something I’m sure are making Trayvon and Prince proud as they look down on us. We’re committed to continuing this work for as long as we’re needed.