As a researcher of digital literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’m interested in finding stories about how marginalized people use digital technology to better their lives and speak truth to power, so to speak. Stories already circulate in Silicon Valley, but they recount how white men grew small start-ups into the worldwide tech giants that make the Valley, and the world of tech, possible today. But those stories imply that women and people of color had no role in Tech’s growth, that they are not as good with digital technology. I hope recounting the stories of people of color’s “lives in the digital” can help change the view that marginalized people are deficient in learning new technologies and help promote more equitable policies for digital literacy education.
When I first started doing this research last year, I had tried searching for a community of African Americans who were doing or learning how to code. Whether they were at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the community, or in the workplace, I wanted to see how to add them to the tech canon of stories. But each avenue led nowhere. And then in the summer of that year another graduate student suggested I consider YWeb—it seemed that my research interests matched the academy’s larger goal to serve racial justice in the Madison community.
While I knew that they, like some other code boot-camps across the nation, trained underrepresented people in front-end software development, I was intrigued by the number of directions students could take after finishing: seek full-time employment, “test” the waters of working in tech through an internship, jump into freelance web design, or use the YWeb course as credit at the local community college. YWeb is invested in meeting students where they and YWeb offers itself as a free resource that creates a foundation for new opportunities.
That kind of flexibility made YWeb a great place for crafting stories. As they learn software development, students made stories for themselves to make sense of their learning and how they hoped what they learned would work for their future goals after graduating from YWeb. One interesting thing I’ve noticed while doing research at YWeb is that some students had never used programming language before; they had seen code by accident after bringing up Google Chrome’s Inspect Element or had noticed code in movies about hackers, but for some code had been a distant thing. Despite their experience, many told stories of having “come home,” as one student described what finding YWeb was like. Their previous journeys with digital technology seemed to fit well with learning how to code. This common thought in their stories shows that coding is open to those who simply love messing around with digital technology, that coding is a continuation of past curiosity in how things work. I look forward to uncovering more stories like this that point to the unique learning lives of the YWeb students.