How The Hidden Genius Project Nurtures Black Male Youth in Tech & Beyond

6 minutes

There are tons of organizations working hard to address the racial gap in tech and make the industry more diverse by empowering people from underrepresented groups with the skills they need to lead lucrative and fulfilling careers. To commemorate Black History and Futures Month, we sat down with one organization to learn more about what empowering communities of color looks like in practice. Introducing: The Hidden Genius Project.

The Hidden Genius Project is a national organization that equips Black male high school students with technical skills and mentorship opportunities so they can work towards successful careers in tech and beyond. “We mentor Black male youth in technology creation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills to transform their lives and communities,” says Craig Tinsley, a Product Manager turned Innovation Educator at The Hidden Genius Project. The nonprofit was founded in Oakland in 2012 and now has programming sites in Richmond, CA, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, and their newest location in Baltimore launching this spring.

The Hidden Genius Project has several initiatives, including single-day catalyst programs, community events, and a 15-month Intensive Immersion Program where cohorts of Black male students are mentored and taught foundational coding skills by alumni. “That’s the beauty of our work,” says Denzel Russell, The Hidden Genius Project’s Communications Director. “Our Geniuses continue to come back and support the work that we’ve done because they found a place where they can love, support, and uplift each other.” 

Ahead, Craig and Denzel share how they train Black youth to succeed in tech, the challenges and obstacles that hinder them from pursuing careers in the field, some of the organization’s greatest accomplishments, and more.

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What unique challenges or obstacles do young Black men face when trying to get into tech?

Craig: “A lot of times in the home, we don’t have a lot of family support within technology. Access to technology in early and continuing education, especially for generations past, has been relatively limited in large scale across the United States. So, I think having the focus on technology as a career path isn’t the first thing that comes up for a lot of young people.

The other part is the educational systems of the United States struggling to meet young Black men where they are and [not] understanding their interests and ambitions, the complexities of the backgrounds they come from, and their psychological makeup. We want to provide a foundational kind of playground for these young men to start to tap into different aspects of technology; not just programming, but also understanding how it all fits together and how many different ways they can innovate to bring about new technologies and add our culture and way of being to the technological landscape.”

How do you bring Black boys into the tech space? What skills do you teach them, and what does your training look like? 

Craig: “What’s most important for us is establishing brotherhood amongst each of our cohorts. That’s a really huge thing, because we know that it takes a village to raise a child; but networking is also one of the main ways that you can move through your career more effectively. As we established these cohorts and the curriculum around them, we wanted to make sure that our Geniuses could collaborate amongst themselves, and that they’re encouraged to do so within and outside of this program.

We approach a lot of our education from the Ubuntu standpoint of, ‘I am because we are and therefore we are because I am.’ I believe that having a mindset of collaborative education and co-ownership of the space that we provide gives [our Geniuses] a lot more confidence and assertiveness in learning about technology and the different leadership aspects that we bring to the table.

A lot of that leadership is helping them understand the importance that they play in their generation, as well as in the larger community of Black culture, America, and the world. We want to make sure they know they’re global citizens, and that it’s important for them to have a keen focus on their future so they can look for and capitalize on the opportunities that can help them excel.

As far as technology, we teach the principles of programming, software development, and software development life cycles. We teach Python, JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. We also teach game development with C#, and we’re constantly looking at the bleeding edges of technology to find the best places to plug in curriculum so that [our Geniuses] are current with the movements of the industry.”

With the rise of AI and a very competitive job market, how are you helping prepare your cohorts for today’s tech world?

Denzel: “The Hidden Genius Project has been around since 2012. Obviously, technologies change year over year, and one of our values is innovation through focus and iteration — we understand that we must continuously change and evolve our curriculum to ensure it’s aligned with emerging technology trends such as artificial intelligence.

We offer a rich set of holistic services, and we’re here to mentor and support our Geniuses through the lens of technology and entrepreneurship. When Black boys and young men join our Immersion Programs, they can pick a lane — creating their own websites, apps, or entire business models from scratch. And now, we’ve created an opportunity for them to create their own AI projects and products, like chatbots, which is really cool.”

What are The Hidden Genius Project’s greatest accomplishments? 

Craig: “From an organic standpoint, I’d say our greatest accomplishment is that our Geniuses graduate from our Intensive Immersion Program with their heads held high and knowing that they are capable, they are loved, and they have a community behind them. And we also have a very high percentage of graduates that end up going to computer science programs in different colleges, some of which are HBCUs.”

Denzel: “Our Immersion Program is 15 months — two seven-week summers and a whole school year — so every summer we have a cohort that’s starting the program, and one that’s finishing the program. And at all of our sites, we see mentorship between outgoing Geniuses and those who are just starting. Then they become alumni who have an opportunity to come back and support the organization as youth educators which is a beautiful thing.”

What advice do you have for young Black people who want to get into software development?

Craig: “I would say think about how you want to show up in technology. Do you want to be a creative? Do you want to play the leadership or CEO role and figure out how you can utilize tech to be more efficient and manage different things? Hop on Google and find out what different technologies are out there; jump on ChatGPT and look into the different options. Start a conversation with your friends about technology and spread that conversation into your families and communities. And really start to explore the different opportunities — what kind of world can be created with the technologies that you’re interested in?

I’d also say do a small project, whether it’s a quick little HTML website or a Python ‘Hello, World.’ Find the smallest thing to start with, and then work your way up from there. Just keep pushing forward and understand that this is a lifelong journey.”

Denzel: “Seek out organizations, communities, and resources in your area. There are so many other great organizations doing really amazing work that can help support your interests. You can also lean on The Hidden Genius Project. If you’re trying to find what your path is or need help and don’t know who to talk to — let us be that resource for you. Hopefully, we can connect you with somebody that can support you in your path and/or at least point you in the right direction.

I also want to say to all Black boys, young men, and youth of color: You’re capable, and you’re brilliant. Don’t let people dim your light; let it shine bright. I just think it’s so important to really empower and uplift our young people.”

Conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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