July 13, 2017

This tech boot camp in Cleveland offers skills for a lifetime, and for some, a refuge from violence

In a city overwhelmed by gun violence, the nonprofit DigitalC provides skills training and a safe haven for young people

Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.) is a nonprofit workforce development organization that serves teens and young adults in economically distressed areas in the Cleveland area. This summer, the nonprofit DigitalC has partnered to provide a technology boot camp for participants. Photo courtesy of DigitalC

One (of many!) odd things about me as a child was my obsession with reading the newspaper every day. Growing up in the 1980s, newspaper subscriptions were a staple in my suburban, middle-class neighborhood, but I’m pretty sure most were being read by adults, not 8-year-olds. Over 20 years later, and despite the decline of the newspaper industry, I remain a steadfast subscriber to my city’s local paper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was while perusing the Sunday edition recently that I read a story that stopped me in my tracks. Focused on the upcoming summer vacation for local high school students, the article featured quote after quote from youth in the city afraid of the impending summer break, due to the rampant violence in their neighborhoods. Teenagers so fearful of being caught in the crossfire of a neighborhood shootout that they said they’d rather be in school year round.

“It’s going to be hectic this summer,” said Dre, a 16-year-old sophomore. “There’s going to be a lot of killing.”

“I’m hoping to stay out the way [this summer]. I don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m not trying to get shot. Especially if I’m not doing nothing.”

“We can’t go outside or just sit outside because you can be caught in a crossfire,” said Dontasia Wall, a 16-year-old who lives not far from the school in the city’s Hough neighborhood.

“People have already been dying throughout the year,” she said. “When it gets hot. It’ll be worse.”

As a Cleveland resident, I’m sadly familiar with the issues surrounding crime in my city, but this story told from this perspective was a new narrative for me. I flashed back to my high school summer breaks when my biggest concern was how I’d earn enough at my part time job to buy concert tickets, while still getting plenty of time at the beach with my friends. Meanwhile, the youth profiled in the article spoke candidly of their plans to stay indoors as much as possible, all summer. Several said they would sleep to pass the time. Their hopelessness translated across the page.

A few of the students mentioned being lucky enough to land summer jobs that would keep them busy, with less time to spend out on the streets. One such jobs program highlighted in the article is the Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.) Summer Employment Program. The popular program connects area employers with young adults ages 14-24 from economically distressed areas for six-week summer jobs. Last year, the program employed over 2,500 youth, with approximately 100 participants being offered permanent positions after completing their summer stints.

This summer, my organization DigitalC, a local nonprofit focused on leveraging technology for community impact, is proud to partner with Y.O.U. as a Summer Employment Program worksite, with a twist. Sixteen girls and young women (and I’m so proud to say our entire class is female!!) at the DigitalC office are spending eight weeks in a technology skills-building boot camp, modeled off of DigitalC’s ReStart Program.

The boot camp, which launched June 20, began with basic digital literacy (typing, using the internet, creating and emailing a resume, etc.). Since then, the participants have moved on to Microsoft Office training, where they are taking a deeper dive into Word, Excel, Access, Outlook, and PowerPoint. Upon completion, they’ll have the opportunity to sit for a Microsoft certification exam that earns them an industry-recognized credential certificate. Following the Microsoft training, the girls also will be introduced to coding and programming concepts as well as networking and hardware fundamentals. The boot camp will wrap up in mid-August with a chance for the participants to meet and hear from women working in technology, offering advice and guidance on building a career using tech skills.

As we enter into the third week of the boot camp, summer is in full swing and Cleveland is once again filled with the vibrancy of long days of sunshine and endless fun, outdoor activities. Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about those students in that Plain Dealer article, stuck inside, waiting for summer to end. Avoiding bullets. Wishing they had somewhere, anywhere, to go where they could feel safe. I think about the girls I see every day in our boot camp class and wonder where they would be if they weren’t here. Where do they go after they leave? I wonder how I, and we as a community, can do more.

I’m so grateful to Y.O.U. for the opportunity to offer DigitalC’s ReStart Program to the 16 young women in our group. I see their enthusiasm and excitement to learn and I’m glad they have a space that is not just safe, but also full of opportunities for empowerment and personal growth. But I remain worried about those left out. Those sitting at home, waiting for the school year to start. Those to whom “summer break” has a totally different meaning.

It is my hope that this one boot camp, while impactful, is not the end of the story. That this pilot program and others like it continue to grow, and that we as a community do more, so that fewer of our city’s youth have to spend their summer in hiding.

This article first appeared on DigitalC’s website.

Liz Forester


Liz Forester is DigitalC's Director of Programs and Partnerships, designing pilot programs and events that use technology to create smart, connected, inclusive, and globally competitive communities.