April 19, 2017

Agents of Change: Susan Mernit

Hacking into the job market

By OMCA Staff

Susan Mernit is co-founder of Hack the Hood, a nonprofit organization that teaches web skills to low-income youth of color in Oakland. OMCA spoke to her in 2016 about what changes she sees coming as the technology sector is pushed to diversify.

Why did you co-found Hack the Hood?

By 2012, it was clear the dynamics in Oakland were changing. I saw my neighbors getting frustrated and resentful of the tech buses—they felt they were being shut out. It was like they were taking those buses to the moon. I thought there should be a program to expose young people to tech careers so they could understand them and see themselves doing that work.

How can cities bridge that disconnect?

One of the things about many tech companies is this feeling that they live in the Internet, not in a place. They hadn’t really started looking at how to give back to their community. Once you understand you’re not living in the interwebs but in a location where your employees live and you pay taxes and go out for beers, isn’t the logical next step to create career pathways for people in that community?

How would you like to see the tech sector evolve?

I’d like to see city governments offer incentives to tech companies for hiring local residents. It would be fantastic to have people recognize the economic benefit of bringing in people who work here and went to college here. I’m not sure it’ll happen. But from a policy standpoint, how do we encourage companies to diversify? Prepare people to join the workforce, and then step up to receive them.

What’s the next step for Hack the Hood?

We’ve seen we can do a good job of getting young people of color excited about technology and helping them identify careers and train for them. Now we’re focused on partnering with companies so we can make that sense of “otherness” go away. Paid, part-time internships with hands-on experience—that’s where we want to go.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California's Member magazine.