February 28, 2017

A Bay Area program is teaching tech skills to those left behind in the boom

Oakland's Hack the Hood is giving young people of color new opportunities in their own neighborhood

Hack the Hood Oakland graduates receive hands-on training in tech. Photo by Chelsea Kigano/Hack the Hood


Meet the finalists for The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, underwritten by Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $100,000 in grant money. Five winners will be announced March 30 at The Renewal Summit in Washington, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.

Susan Mernit, CEO and co-founder of Hack The Hood, didn’t start her community work in tech. She taught writing to young people in community arts and literacy programs. But when the poet and writer pivoted to tech, her connection to those around her faded. As a tech executive, she felt as though she “lived on the Internet,” not in her actual community.

Now, with Hack the Hood, Mernit helps Oakland’s young people of color and small businesses, “especially those run by women [and] non-native English speakers,” navigate an ever-changing web.

Meet Susan Mernit and follow her on Twitter (@susanmernit), and follow Hack the Hood (@hackthehood).

This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your community?

The core of this work is serving low-income communities, particularly, but not only, those of color where young people ages 16-25 will benefit from hands-on training in tech and workplace skills, and local organizations will bridge the digital divide they experience by becoming more visible to customers on the mobile web. We work across the Bay area with youth, small businesses, local community-based youth organizations, tech companies, and economic development organizations to bring more education and income to the communities we work in. Youth ages 16-25 are at the heart of our community and we appreciate their smarts, resiliency, innovation and problem-solving skills.

What inspired you to do this work?

Hack the Hood started out of two observations: one, young people in North Oakland, where I live, and their families had no knowledge of the tech jobs coming into the region and they had no access to those jobs, meaning they were in danger of being left behind professionally and trapped in the service economy. Two, small businesses in our community, especially those run by women and non-native English speakers weren’t showing up on the Open Web and were in danger of being left behind as search and commerce moved to mobile.

Hack the Hood was created as a way to address both these issues, by training young people to help local small businesses, and then creating more visibility for those businesses online.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

We’ve worked with more than 234 youth since 2014, and we’ve helped young people make substantial changes in their lives. Eighty-three percent of the young people we work with are currently in school, and many of the young people didn’t originally feel like they could afford to go to college and now they are. We’re also seeing young folks be able to work at jobs paying $18 to $25 an hour, and to own their own small businesses. In addition, we’ve helped more than 500 people get mobile-friendly web sites for their businesses and organizations and offered them training in social media and marketing that can improve their bottom line. Finally, we’re bringing low-income young people of color together with supporters, teachers, and mentors in the tech community—people with cutting-edge skills who help them grow in their careers.

What do you love about your community?

I love the creativity and passion of so many of the people I work with! So many of us are passionate about where we live, the prosperity we want to co-create for our neighbors and colleagues, and the equity and inclusion we want to see in the world. We approach ways to build that in very unique and interesting ways.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

Oakland is NOT a new suburb of San Francisco! It is a unique and diverse community where more than 170 languages are spoken. There is a history of black leadership that is still inspiring and alive to many today, And it’s a place where we expect tech companies to be both diverse and to hire and contract with local vendors. (I know, that’s more than one thing.)

What leader or leaders inspired you?

Two women who inspire me are Emma Goldman, who did organizing and community work on the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the century, and Elizabeth Kray, my first boss and my mentor, who ran the Academy of American Poets for many years. Betty sent me out into communities in Harlem and the South Bronx to work as an ally with local writers and institutions (like the library) to bring poetry and literacy work to the people. That model—working with people, not for them, has influenced everything I do. I also continue to be inspired by the legacy of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, whose vision of community service and empowerment still inspires so many of my colleagues and friends.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.