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New school board member unites SF youngsters with tech industry

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Stevon Cook speaks during a Mission Bit demonstration event at Unity Technologies in San Francisco’s South of Market District December 14, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Inside a tech startup off a corner of Market Street, the front desk clerk apologized for assigning a gender to a person walking in. Down a flight of stairs, a diverse group of teenagers and young adults mingled in a room with high ceilings and exposed brick. Snack dispensers lined a back wall, and food was plenty.

This was the scene at Unity Technologies on a recent Wednesday, where 31-year-old Stevon Cook presented the work of his students over their last term at Mission Bit.

Cook, one of two new members elected to the San Francisco’s Board of Education, has been the CEO of Mission Bit for almost two years. His goal is to open doors to the tech industry for low-income high schoolers through computer programming courses they would otherwise not receive at school.

Though he works in technology, Cook is not without criticism of the recent foothold that the tech industry has taken on San Francisco. The industry has drawn blame for exacerbating the housing crisis that Cook himself is all too familiar with as a native of The City.

But he is focused on ensuring black and Latino students, in particular, can have a share of the wealth.

“If you look out across the Bay Area, there are 100,000 students who attend high school in schools that are high concentrations of low-income students with no access to computer science courses,” Cook told those in attendance at the startup.

“One hundred thousand students are living in a region, as a part of an economy, where they are completely [excluded from] jobs that are being created all around.”

That’s where Mission Bit comes in.

At the demonstration, a group of boys stood up from a row of seats that look like steps in a movie theater to present their game, “Tanks.” In the game, two players shoot at each other until one player’s lives are depleted. It was a simple game, like the others presented that evening, but the students had to overcome challenges to create it and learned to code in the process.

Computer coding is one road to success for teenagers living in the hub of the tech industry. But it wasn’t the path forward for Cook, who has worked with schools and children in San Francisco since he returned from college in Massachusetts.

Growing up in San Francisco, Cook has witnessed The City change. Cook spent the first decade of his life in Diamond Heights, where he and his parents lived in subsidized housing in the Glenridge Cooperative Apartments. But when trouble arose for his parents, Cook moved to his grandparents’ home in Hayes Valley.

“It was common things that happened in black homes in the 1980s,” Cook said, though he did not explain further. “My parents didn’t have the tools to overcome it at the time. So my grandparents stepped in.”

It was good that his grandparents did. While it did not compare to the violence that happened in Hunter’s Point, Glenridge was filled with drugs, drug dealers and drug addicts, according to Cook. Many of his neighbors became pimps, prostitutes and gang-bangers.

“I became a politician,” he said.

Life changed when Cook moved in with his grandparents. His grandmother went to church every day and volunteered at Laguna Honda Hospital, where Cook remembers pushing patients from their beds to the chapel.

His grandmother made him read in the car and recite speeches in front of audiences. The first speech he ever recited was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” which he said gave him focus after growing up in a community that was self-destructive.

Back in Hayes Valley, Cook remembers the neighborhood — then referred to more commonly as the Fillmore — as “the Harlem of the West.”

Before the quirky cafes, expensive restaurants and boutique shops, Hayes Valley was a black neighborhood that lived under the economic shadow of a double-decker freeway. But when parts of the Central Freeway were demolished following the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, gentrification set in.

Developers have since built luxury condos on the long-vacant plot where the freeway once stood between Fell, Hickory and Laguna streets and Octavia Boulevard, just a block away from his grandparents’ home on Oak Street.

“It’s overpriced. It’s chic. It’s filled mostly with people that are from somewhere else,” Cook said. “It’s a trip.”

Cook has embraced the change. But he is also pushing back against one proposed change that is literally in his backyard. According to Cook, a wealthy tech worker is attempting to add stories to a home he purchased on Hickory Street behind Cook’s grandparents’ home on Oak Street.

Cook fears the project would cause his grandparent’s property value to plummet, and so he’s helping his grandmother and her neighbors fight the proposal before the Planning Commission.

“The irony is that the kids I’m working with are locked out of the opportunities that allowed this guy to build his home,” Cook said.

Another bone that Cook has to pick with gentrification is when transplants are disassociated with their new community, he said. It’s a problem that stretches beyond Hayes Valley and into parts of the tech industry.

Before it moved to its current space in the Financial District, Mission Bit used to be headquartered at Mission High School and Zynga, a game development company. Unlike Unity Technologies, where Cook held his presentation, Cook said Zynga was seemingly less interested in being part of the community.

“I didn’t feel comfortable there at all,” he said, noting that companies create amenities to compete for talent that isolate their workers from the rest of San Francisco. “It was really troubling how much of a bubble you could create and be disconnected from The City.”

Though he heads a technology company, he is not a typical tech worker for other reasons besides growing up in public housing.

Cook does not know how to code. He went to college on a full-ride to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he majored in American Studies. He also worked at a nonprofit called the San Francisco Education Fund, coordinating high school programs, before working at Mission Bit.

As a school board member, Cook hopes to tackle the issues that many teachers face because of the housing crunch in San Francisco.

“Stevon Cook is exactly the kind of person who should be on the school board,” said Board of Education President Matt Haney. “He has not only lived his life in San Francisco and as a part of the school system, he has also dedicated himself in the service of the children of San Francisco.”

Haney, who first worked with Cook on a committee overseeing the district’s Public Enrichment Education Fund, said he expects Cook to push the board “to work with our kids particularly in the area of technology as well creating access to computer science.”

While next year’s board meetings will likely be filled with discussions about finding the new superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, Cook said he will also pay special attention to teacher housing and teacher salaries.

The district is considering building housing in San Francisco for educators, since many have been pushed out of The City by the skyrocketing cost of living.

“The people that had the greatest impact on my life are the teachers,” Cook said, beckoning back to his time at Thurgood Marshall High School. Like his grandparents before him, Cook is a product of the SFUSD.

The United Educators of San Francisco endorsed Cook this November and two years ago, when he ran for school board the first time but lost. In the time sense, UESF Executive Vice President Susan Solomon said she has seen him garner a greater understanding of the issues surrounding teachers and the district.

“We think that he’s really authentic and that he comes from our schools and benefited from them,” Solomon said.

Solomon said Cook understands that teachers cannot help students unless they can support themselves. In February, UESF will begin contract negotiations with the school district, and the union expects Cook and the other board members it endorsed to support them if the school district’s bargaining offer is “too low,” Solomon said.

Cook will take his seat on the school board Jan. 5. Also elected this November was Mark Sanchez, a former board member of eight years who will be returning to the school board after serving as principal of various schools in the district.

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