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Member Spotlight: Code Your Dreams

Can you introduce yourself and share a little bit about your background?

My name is Bri, and I'm the executive director of Code Your Dreams, a Chicago based non-profit and incubator for youth voice, tech skills and social justice. I am originally from Baltimore, go Ravens!, but came to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago for undergrad, and the City has been my home ever since. Prior to founding Code Your Dreams, I worked for several years as a data scientist with various tech companies, but eventually left the tech industry to focus on the mission of Code Your Dreams.

Can you tell us about your journey that led to the creation of Code Your Dreams?

After undergrad, when I was a data scientist working in tech, the diversity problem became very apparent, very quickly. Where I am very privileged to have attended such a great university, which helped propel me into the career of my dreams, I know as few as 15% of Data scientists are female. This motivated me to create Code Your Dreams.

My journey and that of Code Your Dreams is an interesting one, in particular I think about key moments in my career that led me to create this organization. I think back, unfortunately, to times when I felt very out of place in a room within the tech space. This often happened at team meetings, large conferences, or different tech meetups. The negative experiences I had in tech pushed me to want to create avenues that build more diversity in tech. This also pushed me to want to put the power of technology into the hands of more people and more communities. But I also think about times working in tech where I was surrounded by so much innovation. I am just blown away by the ways technology can make huge and widespread change. I listened to a lot of podcasts about founders. There is a repeated idea that founders like to solve problems that they understand and experience, which is something that rings true for me.

I have been working on this curriculum since I was in college. It took another four years of development for it to actually launch. Our first official partner was in 2018, which is also the year we incorporated. So 2018 was our official start, but it took a pretty long time to get there.

When first starting out I was still working as a data scientist and would constantly be disappearing from the office for 3 hours at a time, taking the closest CTA to a partner site, teaching courses, and then rushing to return to work. Now we hire teachers, all who are much better instructors than I ever was. That sort of growth has been amazing to see.

Can you share more about Code For Community Program and specifically why you leverage human centered design?

In our program students learn design thinking, user research, user experience design, computer programming,and sales and marketing to bring their ideas to reality. An example of student’s work; we have a student who developed the yelp for encounters with police officers. This app allows community members to easily record and upload these encounters, along with a ratings system to create both transparency and accountability in these situations.

We have two main goals, providing students with skills and resources to access some of the fastest growing and high demand jobs, and empowering students to utilize their skills to help make a difference in their communities. At a very high level our curriculum is focussed on human centered design, it is project based, and an experiential curriculum. With regards to this approach, I constantly think of a quote from one of my heroes, Margaret Wheatly, “Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you would never talk to.” Tech exists in order to solve problems. The issue is that too often the developers of the builders of this technology are outside of the communities for which they are developing for. I very much believe that the best people to solve a problem are those experiencing. Talking with people, asking questions, that is how real innovation and real impact happen. In many cases human centered design is becoming the requirement for the development process and not just a trend.

What did you learn from 2020? What are you and your team most looking forward to in 2021?

2020 was just constant learning as well as experimentation. One mammoth piece was how to create an inclusive environment and community in a virtual world. That is something we are still learning. Community for us is the center of everything that we do. It is just harder to create that sense of community . We focus most of our synchronous time on community and relationship building, and a-synchronous time is dedicated more to technical and content focused. It is interesting as there is the community that is built and developed within the organizations between students and instructors, but normally in non-COVID time students would facilitate research around their own communities They would visit parks, coffee shops and other spaces to ask questions and test their prototypes because it is really important to build and create with community members. This was obviously incredibly difficult this past year, but forced us to think of more and more creative ways to bring the community together, especially with technological disparities that can hinder who is able to participate in these conversations.
We also started building our first content library of a-synchronous content. Learning how to build an online course was huge. Where we had originally thought that this would be a task for 5 years from now, COVID drove us to develop this much sooner.

How did you get connected to the Chicago Learning Exchange? What has been the benefit and/or challenge of being part of the CLX network for you and Code Your Dreams?

I’m a huge fan and big admirer of CLX. My first CLX contact was a meetup two or three years ago. It was such a magical experience as there were so many leaders in education, and so many different organizations. Everytime (in-person) you come to a CLX meeting there is a buzz and excitement in the room, and I am always so excited to be there. Of course, the food and coffee are great too!

I feel like we have gotten so much out of being a part of CLX. We met one of our board members, Stacy at a CLX meet up. I remember they were doing introductions for new attendees, and Stacy stood up and introduced herself, and I immediately thought “what an amazing person.” I ran over to meet her and introduce myself since I knew people would be flocking to her. Connecting with her is definitely a highlight from my time with CLX.

The topics covered in meetups are always relevant and people are always so excited and supportive of each other. CLX has done an amazing job building a community that is supportive and impactful.

What would you want to see more of from CLX or what should we stop?

Just keep on building the sense of community that exists with CLX in-person meetups and programming and trying to replicate that as best as possible in a virtual setting.

I am specifically excited about the CSforCHI initiative and excited to be a part of this effort. CLX is always a leader and driver for important change. So keep doing what you're doing!