STEP 1: Recognize inequity when you see it

Seven years earlier, Chris Dovi was a newspaper reporter watching a basketball arc through the air and swoosh through a hoop. All around him, cheers convulsed the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center. Dozens of teams of high school kids from across Virginia were cheering on the action – center court was crawling with hoops-shooting robots on day one of the 2010 Virginia FIRST Tech Challenge “Rebound Rumble.”

Chris was there to cover the story, but only because he’d finally been talked into it by his wife Rebecca, who taught computer science.

The competitors, he couldn’t help but notice, were mostly white, mostly boys. Many wore t-shirts emblazoned with their school name and team sponsor logos that included the likes of NASA and a major department-store chain. Most of the top teams came from prestigious and wealthy Northern Virginia high schools, or local districts with respected computer programs like Hanover and Chesterfield counties, or private and specialty schools like Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.

They rushed their homemade automatons between the court and a cordoned-off area that was half mission control, half pit row. As Chris watched them, one team stood out: Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High School.

Most of that school’s robotics team members were African-American girls. They wore no sponsorship logos; they’d raised their tiny budget from fellow students at basketball shootouts. Their robot’s primary designer was 16-year-old James Kearney II. In the high-pressure swirl of the competition, James was a rock, keeping his teammates focused on their complex engineering tasks. In the end they placed sixteenth out of 59 teams, ahead of even Maggie Walker.

Chris learned James had taught himself Java, the complex computer-programming language that powers everything from the Internet to smartphones. “We’ve got no classes at our school to teach programming, so I just taught myself,” he told Chris. James was his team’s only programmer.

The team coach pointed to the team from nearby Mills Godwin High School in Henrico County, exclaiming, “They have 14 programmers on that team. Fourteen!” Looking ahead to the day when James would eventually graduate, the coach was frustrated – there would probably be no one to replace James on the team because, the coach claimed, Richmond Public Schools didn’t offer a single computer programming class anywhere in the entire district.

Afterward, being a good reporter, Chris called Richmond Public Schools to see if that was true. A spokesperson confirmed it: “We do not provide those course offerings to our students.”

Yet computing was and is one of the fastest growing fields of employment, with rising wages. More than 35,000 computer science jobs go unfilled in Virginia every day. Despite that, out of all the computer-science degrees awarded at U.S. universities, that year only 3.4% went to African Americans.

Chris decided to find out why.


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