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Nonprofit looks to close Mission’s digital divide

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Leo Sosa, CEO and executive director of dev/Mission, sits inside the nonprofit’s Mission headquarters in San Francisco on Sept. 5, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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A black-and-white banner imprinted with the words “You Belong Here” spans a wall inside a newly refurbished computer lab at Valencia Gardens, an affordable housing complex at 15th and Valencia streets.

Inside, a handful of youth and young adults are huddled over laptops, tweaking professional websites that they, over the course of 10 weeks, have learned to design and build out themselves.

“This link is still broken,” said Noe Roman, scrolling down his website that features a résumé and a headshot of the 20-year-old — but he now knows how to fix it.

Roman is one of about a dozen graduates of the first dev/Mission cohort, a 4-month-old technology nonprofit (“dev” is short for “developers”) that targets people between the ages of 16 and 24 for a crash course in coding and career development — free of charge.

From refurbishing computers to learning HTML fundamentals and mentorship from tech professionals, the aspiring techies were exposed this summer to a technology-intensive curriculum that they hope will help them to hack into a burgeoning industry that has transformed San Francisco, but that for many remains out of reach.

“For a long time, I was seeing tech happening in the background here in The City and I was like, ‘OK, tech is a thing, but I’m not sure it is for me,’” Roman said on a recent Tuesday. “All I see is mostly people who don’t look like me doing tech.”

Dev/Mission founder Leo Sosa is on a mission to change that.

Emanuel Flores, 19, works on his computer at the dev/Mission headquarters in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

For the last 15 years, the technology enthusiast has worked to level the playing field for those generally overlooked by Silicon Valley’s tech giants — foster, black and brown, undocumented and low-income youth, high school dropouts and the previously incarcerated — by creating a pathway for disadvantaged youth to careers in technology.

His goal is simple. “I want to connect as many young people to technology as I can,” said Sosa, a former courtesy clerk and checker at Safeway. Sosa slipped into the world of technology after an injury forced him to switch careers, and his union offered him career development training in the field.

“I wanted to pursue a career in tech, to be a data warehouse engineer for Oracle. But I didn’t get the job, even though I had the certification and degree,” Sosa said. “So I thought, ‘Well, let me train young people on how to do this.’”

Just under half of the households in the Mission — about 46 percent — were not connected to the internet in 2014, according to a survey by Mission Promise Neighborhood.

“Sixty-five percent of more than 5,000 young people I have ever worked with do not own a computer,” said Sosa, who has previously worked to connect youth through local and national programs such as Youth Net and One Economy Corporation’s Digital Connectors. “That’s pathetic.”

While the San Francisco Unified School District is implementing a new technology and computer science curriculum at the middle school levels, Sosa said that schools are essentially “catching up” with the technology sector’s rampant growth in recent years.

Earlier this year, the 48-year-old founded dev/Mission to supplement the gap between technology education in classrooms and tech jobs. The program is a spin-off of Mission Techies, a tech-skill building and mentorship program for disadvantaged youth that he founded while working as technology training coordinator for the Mission Economic Development Agency.

Sosa estimated he has placed some 125 young adults in technology jobs and connected more than 50 others to computer science majors through his work with Mission Techies and the Digital Connectors program.

After Sosa split from MEDA in March, he began rallying support from community and tech partners to launch his own nonprofit. In April, dev/Mission was granted nonprofit status, and in a collaboration with the Mission Housing Development Corporation, found a home for the nonprofit inside the Mission District affordable housing community.

In exchange for housing, Sosa manages Valencia Garden’s computer lab at 360 Valencia St., out of which he runs his nonprofit. Dev/Mission’s pilot cohort drew participation from three youth from the affordable housing community, which Sosa, who also lives in an affordable housing complex, deemed a success.

Sosa’s landlords agree.

“If we can help one of our kids demonstrate interest in a career path, perhaps connect them to [a] technology job, or open doors to allow them to know they can continue this education at a community college or four year college, that’s a win-win,” said Marcia Contreras, director of operations and resident services at MHDC. “At 16, they are trying figure themselves out. They are hungry. Some of them just need that little bit of support.”

Nancy Okun works on her professional website while at the dev/Mission headquarters. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Of the 20 students who enrolled in dev/Mission’s pilot cohort this summer, 16 have graduated. Half of dev/Mission’s graduates are currently enrolled in computer science classes at City College of San Francisco, and Sosa is currently assisting the others in their job search.

The choice is theirs, Sosa said — and in the end, that is exactly what he intends to leave the youth who walk through his doors with.

“For me, young people choose their pathway. I’m a father of two — if my son wants to be the best janitor, by all means, be the best janitor. But you are going to take responsibility for that,” Sosa said.

For dev/Mission participants, graduation day does not mean that their time in the tech incubator is up.

“For me, every young person that walks in here needs to understand that if you learn a language you are going to share that with your friends, your family and folks that come into our computer lab,” Sosa said.

The alumni return to the lab as often as twice a week, to teach classes, meet with mentors from tech companies like Google, Dropbox and Uber, or to continue their tech development independently.

“I learn a lot every time I visit here. I get to collaborate with my cohort. It’s a little community here,” Roman said. “Having those resources in one place, I’ve never had something like that.”

Others, like 26-year-old Stephanie Cueta, a Mission Techies graduate, now sits on dev/Mission’s advisory board. Cueta, an ethnic studies major who worked in education, said that Sosa’s mentorship has inspired her to pursue a career as a software engineer.

“I was a math major in college, I’m first generation. I didn’t know I could major in computer science. I didn’t know that was a thing,” Cueta said. “With programs like this that target the youth and expose them to [different aspects] of technology, you can completely shift someone’s background. You can teach them skills that will benefit them, that will keep them in San Francisco. It’s economic empowerment.”

Sosa is currently launching an internship and an apprenticeship program to place his graduates inside tech headquarters.

“My model is not to tell these kids, ‘you’re going to get a job in the tech industry.’ I just cannot promise that. My goal is to tell them, ‘You have a talent. You have a skill. Let’s find that skill together, and once you find it, you can take it wherever you want to go,’” Sosa said. “And for us to continue to do this [work], we need those tech companies to get on board.”

Enrollment is currently open for dev/Mission’s second cohort, which starts on Sept. 25.

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