Inner City Youth Put A “Spark” In Our future

“Poverty, hunger, crime, housing…” just one of many responses from a student to the question posed to the class: What are the biggest challenges that face your community today? It was clear even after the first class what these youth knew better than anyone else: Their city, it’s challenges, and what needed to be done to turn the situation around for better. There is an ever growing need to increase digital literacy among youth from inner city communities, provide access to further their education, and provide employment and/or entrepreneurial opportunities.

Tamar Huggins Grant, the Founder and creator of Tech Spark recognized this need early on and decided to make a difference by providing an opportunity for youth to obtain the highest levels of programming and education quality. I had the distinct pleasure of working together with Tamar to create Tech Spark’s very first UX Design program, one of many initiatives focused on increasing digital literacy among youth from inner city communities.

In our class, students get to think critically about the issues surrounding them in their inner communities, and then come up with creative ways to solve those challenges by creating a product or service using platforms, technologies, and paradigms such as mobile phones, tablets, virtual reality, Quantified Self, Internet of Things, digital watches, and websites to name a few. They do this by learning the principles of UX (User Experience) daily, which focuses on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and also their limitations. UX best practices promote improving the quality of the user’s interaction with and perceptions of our product and any related services. After every lesson, the students apply what they have learned to their project, making it progressively better by the end of the cohort.

When the tech industry looks to solve its diversity challenge, no one seems better equipped to tackle the challenges in their community, they are designing solutions for the people the grew up with in their cities, and ultimately themselves. These are very bright students, they have great ideas and a lot of drive and ambition. The barrier that has always kept them from taking these ideas to the next level is access to technology and a high quality of education. Now that they have it, some amazing things are happening, and its fantastic to see it come to fruition. Students are incredibly excited every class because everything they learn provides a new tool in their arsenal that brings them one step closer to solving a growing issue in their community.

When thinking of ways to improve the quality of neighbourhoods and creating sustainable community development were once dreams, they are now bringing them to reality through User Experience Design increasingly becoming an integral part of the equation.

Working with this class has been a wonderful and rewarding experience. The most valuable lessons that I can leave with them beyond UX is to become life long learners, and to know they are special and highly valued individuals. I feel they truly hold the key to our the bright future ahead of us. Now that they have the tools, there is nothing standing in their way to achieving there dreams.

Michael Dedrick

Tech Spark UX Design Educator

Tech Spark Launch Party

Today we launched officially launched Tech Spark to the Weston Mt. Dennis community! We had a very nice breakfast networking gathering with several community members and youth focused organizations. Thank you to all of our attendees. Shout out to Access Alliance for providing the space.

Notable mention goes to York-South Weston MPP Laura Albanese for attending the launch, and supporting our initiative from the beginning!

Check out the pics below:

laura albanese tech spark

tech spark morris

tech spark party

tech spark team

tech spark launch party

Tech Spark Youth Coding Initiative

I’m so happy we made it.

Three years of dedication has brought us to this point. Back in 2012 I started a non profit called DRIVEN that offered an accelerator program to provide start-up training, support and access to capital to minority tech founders. It was during the first two years that Andrew, Carolyn and myself realized in order for DRIVEN to create strong social impact, we had to develop programming that introduced tech to youth at a younger age.

My mind started swimming with ideas. It was during a meeting with an individual that reached out to me after he read an article about DRIVEN in the Globe, that I began toying with the idea of a gaming incubator for youth. No one was offering a gaming style incubator for youth at the time, so it was a great area of opportunity for DRIVEN to venture off into.

I was invited by Trillium to attend a two day design lab for their new social entrepreneurship grant in October of 2012. I almost didn’t go as I was mourning the death of my aunt who was like a mother to me. She passed away during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2012. The last thing she said to me was, “You are the winner”. She said it three times before she passed. Hanging on to those words of strength, I attended the design lab in Kitchener – and I’m so grateful that I did. I had the pleasure of meeting some amazing people from Communitech, Mozilla, Sault Ste.Marie Innovation Centre and CSI. Tonya Surman, CEO of CSI reached out to little ‘ol me and said “I’ve been looking for you – we should talk”. I thought “wow” the CEO of the most innovative social enterprise in Toronto noticed my work with DRIVEN and wants to work with me…damn.

I digress.

It was at that design lab that partnerships formed, and ideas developed. I now had a catalyst for the newest program, DRIVEN Labs as I would call it. I worked my tail off writing a grant I had no idea how to complete, as it was the first time I’d ever written one. I was invited to present my idea to the grant review committee, and waited impatiently for weeks to hear whether DRIVEN Labs would move to the next round. We didn’t. My social gaming incubator idea wasn’t what they were looking for at the time. What I should have pitched was the accelerator program! But it was clear that DRIVEN needed to move in another direction.

In 2013 Trillium invited me to attend another design lab (I love these things) in Scarborough for their newest grant, the Youth Opportunities Fund. I was told by Trillium that the new grant was much better suited to support our social gaming incubator. At this point, DRIVEN labs evolved into a three tier program including gaming, coding and entrepreneurship for inner city youth. When I applied for the YOF grant, I knew we would get it. The idea behind DRIVEN Labs was so unique, no one was creating any tech related program that would aim to challenge the barriers affecting our youth. Again, partnerships were formed, and a much stronger application was submitted. But we didn’t get it. I was so disappointed. I thought, “They just don’t get my idea!” I later learned that although my idea was innovative, I failed to prove how the program would aim to solve social issues, not just economic/education issues.

I love feedback. I took the insight from Trillium and vowed I would apply again. I said to myself, if we don’t get funded the next round, I’m not doing this again. Anyone who has ever written a grant, especially to Trillium knows it takes a lot of energy.

I attended all the grant writing workshops and info sessions the YOF team held prior to writing the next grant in 2014.
DRIVEN teamed up with Access Alliance to submit a grant that proposed the delivery of a youth coding initiative we renamed, Tech Spark. I was so happy when YOF called me and told me the good news. “Thank God and praise Jesus” I said laughing to myself after I hung up the phone, I will not let You down. I know that everyone has a calling in life, and I also know that Tech Spark is part of my calling. You see I have this strong desire to see young people in my community succeed, both socially and economically. I thank my team for seeing the burning passion in my heart, and constantly encouraging me to move forward. I thank God for each and every person that helped bring Tech Spark to this point: YOF Team, Access Alliance, Andrew, Carolyn, Amina. And to all those people that said we would never make it – thank you. We’re here now, and we’re not going anywhere.