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At this Kansas City summer camp, kids of color learn to code — and embrace their inner geek

Several youth are gathered around a table inside a technology room, digging into plastic totes and piles of computer doo dads
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Campers at the 2023 Summer of Code program on Tuesday, Aug. 1. They were building custom, programmable robots and testing command prompts.

The 2023 Summer of Code is a weeklong initiative dedicated to introducing underserved youths to the world of computer science and programming. It's hosted by the nonprofit WeCode KC, dedicated to bridging the digital divide in the metro.

Jackson Winsett was inspired to get into technology because he grew up watching his father work on computers.

“I started by taking apart spare laptops and phones just to learn more about the hardware,” he says.

Now, giving instruction to more than 20 kids in a computer lab on the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the 17-year-old understands clearly why he’s here and what his job is.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to those kids as a Black man that was more fortunate,” says Winsett.

He fulfills that responsibility as an intern at WeCode KC, where he once was a student himself. The nonprofit is hosting the 2023 Summer of Code camp this week, dedicated to engage kids who lack access to the tech industry because of financial barriers and underfunded schools.

Winsett, a self-proclaimed nerd and incoming senior at Lee’s Summit West High School, noticed early on that there weren’t many people who looked like him in technology spaces.

His observations are supported by numbers. According to the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility, African Americans make up less than 8% of the tech industry workforce.

"We are very underrepresented in the Black community for things like cybersecurity and technology," Winsett says. "So being able to give those skills to the future generation, it's very comforting for me to know that maybe I can help spark a little kid's future."

Adrienne Story handles administrative duties for the camp, and says the financial burden — $325 per student — is normally the biggest obstacle for parents.

A young girl seated at right types on a small laptop inside a classroom. Several other kids can be seen in the background working on laptops
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Student intern Kamryn Harris and a group a students in WeCode KC's robot lab on Tuesday, Aug. 1. Harris taught a lesson about how to program the components of a VEX IQ robot, a plastic snap-together system that's designed to be highly-functional and easy to learn.

“A lot of our students involved do not have the funds to pay for a program such as this, so our donors provided 35 scholarships," she says.

This year the camp includes 40 kids, ranging from 7 years old to 17.

Most will participate in hands-on workshops to learn the basics of various tech concepts like how to build pocket-sized PCs called Raspberry Pi Jam, create apps and games for phones and websites, build and program robots, and use virtual reality and the Internet of Things.

Intermediate and advanced students who already have some coding experience will learn how to use the coding language called Python, and elements of music production, taught by WeCode KC Program Director Ben Richardson, an electrical engineer.

"We don't get to see people that are engineers or computer scientists where we come from so, giving them an opportunity to see Black people working in the field, the kids can say to themselves, 'Maybe I can be an engineer, build my own website, or start my own business,'" says Richardson.

Passing down knowledge

WeCode KC student-instructor Gram Zavos, 16, gives lessons on VEX IQ programmable robots and Roblox Studio, which lets kids create and play around in their own 3D universes.

Zavos learned coding as a student at Liberty High School, and says he is grateful for the opportunity to teach underserved kids what he learned in one of the better-funded public school systems in Kansas City.

“These kids might not even know that some of these technologies even exist and, even if they do, they might not be able to understand them using just online resources,” he says. “So we can help teach them how to use the software to make their own games and learn these programming skills."

Several young people sit at a long table working on computer keyboards.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Tyco West, in the foreground, and other WeCode KC students tested pocket-sized, single-board computers they built, called Raspberry Pi Jams, on Tuesday, Aug. 1.

The experience of helping improve students' lives benefits Zavos, too.

“Sometimes there are kids who come in looking like they woke up on the wrong side of bed, but then you start teaching them and a few hours later they're, like, excited,” he says. "They're adding a bunch of ideas they come up with on their own to really make the best of this experience."

William Drake, a 13-year-old who lives in Grandview, has been coming to WeCode KC for two years.

He says teachers here “helped me a lot with Python, and learning coding in general."

“Depending on if I get enough experience here, I may not have to go to college for coding," he says.

WeCode KC is counting on the help of newcomers and veterans like Drake to grow the program after the camp ends Friday. The nonprofit holds free classes on the first three Saturdays of every month.

Winsett, the WeCode KC intern, says joining up is the perfect first step in preparing for college, expanding professional opportunities and building a more supportive tech community.

"Software development, hardware engineering, and network development are just of few of the wide variety of jobs available in tech," he says. "You can start learning skills at WeCode so you can eventually build your way up to what you want to do in a technology career."

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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