(Photo by Lalita Clozel)
“My cousin fell out a window. My cousin died in a fire. I wear a size 8.”
It’s the ice breaker after a beginner coding session, and Sabrina is challenging a bunch of other girls to guess the one false statement she made.
“Why you lying?” a friend on her right quips, forcing Sabrina to finally admit, after a hearty chuckle, “I wear a size 10.”
For two Saturdays in July, the girls — who all live in affordable housing residences in D.C. — have gathered inside a computer lab at Greenleaf Gardens, the sprawling affordable D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) complex in Southwest D.C., to create websites about the coolest things they know of.
Meshyla, 13, created an ode to her three favorite hobbies: gymnastics, shoes and getting her nails done. Going for a more alternative aesthetic, Dayonna, a 15-year-old who wants to study photography, made a website about her favorite band, The 1975.
The coding workshops are part of a broader push from D.C. government officials to improve access to digital resources for public housing residents. The initiative — called dcConnectHome — kicked off last July, when DCHA joined a federal program of the same name.
ConnectHome, which was launched by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, encourages the development of public-private partnerships but does not provide additional federal funds for cities that wish to participate.
DCHA was instead able to tap into an already-existing public resource: a publicly-owned broadband network called DC-NET, which is managed by the District’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) and primarily serves the local government.
The public housing agency teamed up with OCTO to set up a series of new access points to this public network in its properties. In about a year, government officials more than doubled the number of DCHA resident households with access to free public WiFi, to a total 1,510, according to OCTO.
The agencies have also set up 10 new public WiFi spots in the facilities and sent around its Mobile Tech Lab — an old bookmobile reconverted into a digital workspace — to show parents how to sign their kids up online for the school lottery.
Several local organizations, like ByteBack, Project Reboot and the University of the District of Columbia, have also agreed to participate in the dcConnectHome program by offering free digital literacy education to public housing residents.
On this Saturday, the coding workshop is led by 16-year-old Kavya Kopparapu, who was paired with the girls through AspireIT, a program organized by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
Kopparapu displays impeccable leadership skills in front of her near-peers. She didn’t have a hard time motivating them, she says. “They’re really fast learners.”
Inside the computer lab, the atmosphere is playful, bordering on rowdy, but the girls are clearly proud of their work. And they’re letting their new buddies show off, too.
“There are four or five communities in this room, and as you know, we are territorial,” says Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, who represents residents in the DCHA Board of Commissioners and who has embraced her role as the honorary cool grandma — digitally uncouth but welcome to join in group selfies with the girls. “This has been an opportunity for them to bond and to talk.”
At an age when personal tragedies are easily slipped into jokes and friendships bloom in a matter of hours, coding can be lots of fun. But it’s also one small opening to the opportunities of the digital era.
“The pretty pictures and websites are nice, but it is what they are learning that is a little bit deeper,” says Sherrill Hampton, the director of the office of resident services at DCHA, who pops in to quiet things down. “You have to be able to use a computer or some digital device in the work world.”