Shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, liberal activist Van Jones was talking with his friend Prince—yes, that Prince—about the circumstances of the shooting.
“I think he made the observation,” Jones told TIME, “that when African-American young people wear hoodies people think they’re thugs, but when white kids wear hoodies you assume that they’re going to be dot-com billionaires,” a reference to the outerwear favored by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. “We just started thinking: ‘Well, how do we turn that around?’”
Out of that spark was born Yes We Code, an ambitious initiative of Jones’ Rebuild the Dream organization aimed at preparing 100,000 low-income children for careers writing computer code. While good-paying blue-collar jobs continue to disappear in the U.S., computer science is a rare bright spot of opportunity for people without a college education. “This is another opportunity for people to make a really serious, solid middle-class income,” said Jones, a former environmental aide in the Obama Administration.
It’s an old yarn by now that computer science is one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying career paths in America. By 2020, half of all jobs in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) fields will be in computing, according to the Association for Computer Machinery. The latest salary survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers says the average starting salary for computer science majors in 2014 is more than $61,000—just about $1,000 shy of the top earners, engineering grads.
Contrast that with the fact that computer science education in STEM has seen a decrease in enrollment in the last 20 years, with a particularly precipitous drop in the past decade as school districts have reconfigured curriculums to meet standards set by the No Child Left Behind initiative. Those students who do enroll in computer science are overwhelmingly white and male. In 11 states last year, not a single black student took the Computer Science Advanced Placement exam for college credit. That may not mean much in a place like Maine, but in Mississippi, where more than 37 percent of the population is black, the statistic takes on a whole new significance.
Put simply, many parts of the country have systematically reduced educational opportunities in the growing field of computer science for students who depend on the public school system. “It has become privileged knowledge,” said Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teacher’s Association. “The haves have continued to get access and the have-nots, however you want to define that, have not.”
There are dozens of organizations around the country working to address this disparity—Black Girls Code, Hack the Hood, and many others. What Yes We Code hopes to do is connect those groups with the tools and resources to radically scale up. “There’s a ton of wasted genius in low-opportunity communities,” Jones said, adding that Yes We Code does not exist solely to serve black children. “African-American, Latino, low-income Asian, Native American, Appalachian. We aren’t only for African-Americans,” he said.
Beginning with a launch at the 20th annual Essence Festival in New Orleans on July 4—Prince agreed to headline the event on the condition that Yes We Code be included in the festivities—the group will unveil its website to connect coding education organizations with low-income pupils. At the festival, Yes We Code will also launch a fundraising drive to amass a $10 million scholarship fund to pay for the cost of coding education for kids who can’t afford it on their own. (Disclosure: The Essence Festival is a production of Essence magazine, which is owned by Time Inc., the parent company of TIME.)
The cadre of young, poor kids Jones hopes to help teach to write code will not be young forever and Jones hopes they won’t be poor forever either, creating a new generation of role models he sees as lacking in their communities today.
“Athletes, or rappers, or hustlers or President Obama. That’s it. All four of those are very hard and unlikely pathways for success,” Jones said. “We just haven’t really been putting a spotlight on this opportunity.” Yes We Code intends to turn on that spotlight.
“The future,” Jones told TIME, ”is being written in code.”