Hopeworks wants to find out what can happen to a community when Black and brown youth are provided ongoing space to work after they complete their tech training.
On Thursday, the Camden tech education nonprofit announced the opening of the Burton R. Cohen Technology Center. Located next to the Hopeworks offices, the center was designed to provide Hopeworks trainees and alumni with the space to work remotely or possibly grow businesses. A contribution from The Burton and Mindy Cohen Foundation supported the development and construction of the new space, in addition to support from David and Jane Hummel. Cory Communications, Ancero and TG Communications provided technical support.
Hopeworks Executive Director Dan Rhoton cited the need for participants to have a place to work during the pandemic as a principal reason for the coworking space opening now, especially as the number of remote jobs has increased during the pandemic. The org trains, and pays, youth ages 17 through 26 to do basic coding and design work with the ultimate goal of placing them in full-time, high-wage jobs. (Check out Technical.ly’s How I Got Here interview with Hopeworks alum Caloua Lowe-Gonzalez, who now works as a marketing associate for Northern Liberties’ Seer Interactive.)
As more local and national companies establish themselves in Camden, Rhoton is hopeful that the coworking space can boost professional growth in the young people that Hopeworks trains, which can then overflow into the communities in which they live. He believes that if Camden youth can attain remote jobs in tech, those professionals will reinvest in themselves and their communities.
“One of the key differences about how Hopeworks approaches the work we do, our goal is not to get Black and brown young people interesting in coding,” he said. “Our actual goal is ending poverty. That changes who we work with.”
Providing tech skills is only one part of the puzzle, Rhoton said. Hopeworks trainees often are the first Black or brown young people to have professional jobs in their families, and that can prove to be an isolating experience that is marred by setbacks like imposter syndrome.
With a coworking space, Hopeworks trainees and alumni can build relationships with other technologists working alongside them, and attend networking events and workshops that will allow them to upskill and get promotions.
“All those supports are critical for young people that are [more than] just learning and getting in tech for the first time,” he said.
In an ambitious prediction, Rhoton believes that the future of remote work beyond the pandemic could exist in locations such as the Cohen Technology Center. He pointed out that in addition to having relatively low-cost housing, Camden is just minutes from Philadelphia and about an hour and a half from New York.
“We’re trying to prove that post-COVID, remote work could prove that tech wealth generation could happen everywhere,” he said. “What if Camden is a place you can source remote workers from?”
It remains to be seen whether or not coworking spaces in under-resourced communities can revitalize communities like Camden nationwide, but the establishment of the Cohen Technology Center will be a case study in how community revitalization can possibly start with workforce development.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
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