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Charlotte James

While we are often reminded that big business can be bad, we rarely acknowledge that when leveraged for good, big and small business are essential in reviving any struggling city. We are often led to believe that the non-profit and private sectors are diametrically opposed when in reality, the relationship between the two is mutually beneficial.

As we pump trillions of dollars into unnecessary wars overseas, Americans, disproportionately Black and Brown youth, are not being provided quality social and educational services. Baltimore, a minority-majority city, is particularly familiar with this vicious reality. According to the 2015 Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS) District Profile report, 83% of BCPSS students qualify to participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch (FARM) program. Eighty-three percent of the school population also happens to be Black. Though this does not represent a one-to-one correlation, the numbers certainly speak to the harsh reality many minority youth face on a daily basis.

However, these grim statistics do not represent all Baltimore residents. Despite its gritty reputation, Baltimore has attracted a new class of entrepreneurs. Known as a do-it-yourself kind of city, Baltimore encourages exploration of new solutions for old problems. Co-working spaces are popping up across the city from Station North to Fed Hill encouraging collaboration between non-profits, start-ups, and established companies. This is particularly evident in the blossoming tech sector. Tech education non-profits and start-ups are quickly multiplying; numerous public schools and rec centers are beginning to offer coding classes and robotics clubs, and in 2015, Maryland instituted a mandatory technology credit as a prerequisite for high school graduation.

These changes are largely motivated by evidence that shows that by the year 2020 there will be 1,000,000 unfilled jobs in the broad field of computer science. According to Code.org, this is a $500 billion dollar opportunity we cannot overlook. We must prepare our students to meet the demands of the modern work world while simultaneously pushing companies to employ the scores of untapped locals.

The trend in STEM education recognizes the need to equip students with 21st century skills that prepare them to move on to secondary education and eventually, the professional world. Unfortunately, as with all aspects of public education, Black and Brown students are disproportionately under-served in STEM curriculum, and underfunded urban schools regularly lack the materials needed to administer such a curriculum. Creative tech-ed non-profits and their backers (largely privately funded grants, sponsorships from tech companies, and donations) are filling this gray area, the space where people, especially poor Black and Brown youth, easily fall through the cracks. Through in-school and after-school classes, paid internship programs, and workforce development, this new ecosystem of support hopes to strengthen Baltimore’s reputation as a city of innovation.

These partnerships are not just beneficial for educational outcomes but have positive economic benefits as well. There is solid evidence showing the importance of workplace diversity yet the tech center continues to be dominated by White and Asian men. Through tech workforce development programs (WDP) like the White House TechHire Initiative, we can directly impact the diversification of the tech sector. By creating strategic relationships between education non-profits, WDP, and private companies we can ensure that Baltimore youth are not left behind, yet again.

Charlotte James is the communications director for Code in the Schools (CITS), a Baltimore based non-profit providing quality computer science education to under-served and under-represented youth in Baltimore City. This year, CITS ran a successful pilot program matching talented high school seniors with local tech companies in paid internship opportunities.