Hidden in Plain Sight

Prior to joining The Hidden Genius Project, James Green saw only two paths for his life: “All I ever saw for myself was being and dying in Oakland or ending up in Santa Rita [jail]."

His mother had mentioned the program to him about four years ago when he had dropped out of high school during sophomore year. “My mom was really nervous and trying to get me back on track for something–just anything,” he recalls. “She was just nervous for her son. So, she found out about this program about coding and I’m like, ‘Negative. That does not sound like it’s it.’” 

James brushed off his mother’s nudges, but when his barber mentioned it one day, his curiosity was piqued: “I’m like, why is my barber talking about this? Maybe it’s a little more than I think. So, I looked into it a little more.”

Boldly, he applied for The Hidden Genius Project’s Intensive Immersion Program—a 15-month holistic mentorship experience that provides computer science, software development, leadership, and entrepreneurship training to black male high school students. The last piece came naturally to him, he says, as he grew up with an enterprising spirit, but never knew how to develop it. Weeks later, the news came—he’d been accepted. And with that acceptance he began to discover a new way to learn—a more relatable way, one that kept him invested even when computer science itself remained of little interest.

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OAK4 Hidden Genius Alum, James Green / Photo by DW Johnson Photography

“The way I was being taught my whole life never applied. So, when finally getting here and not being criminalized for my behavior…that was a different approach. It was centered on how to educate a young black man who comes from here. [The staff] shared their stories and I could relate to them and their experiences. They let us know what they went through, what got them here,” says James.

“So, it was seeing a new reality, being exposed to a new reality, and putting that in practice. It was seeing new opportunities.”

James GreenOAK4 Hidden Genius Alum

That kind of leadership, one that was relentless in capturing his attention and holding it in the midst of personal obstacles, led to James finding a connection between his love of sneakers and technology. With help from others in the program, he expanded his self-taught endeavor of sneaker restoration into Fix My Kix, a digital marketplace for sneaker restorers and customizers around the country. His ultimate goal for the company is to teach inner city youth how to use sneaker restoration as an “environmentally sustainable hustle.” 

The Hidden Genius Project has lived up to its name hundreds of times, leading to transformations of all kinds over the past eight years. Ultimately, it is the chance for participants to see themselves beyond their circumstances and be exposed to new opportunities­–providing access to a reality they could never have imagined before.

Nothing of Value is Done Alone

Founded in Oakland, CA, The Hidden Genius Project was started by five black male tech-entrepreneur-friends to meet a need in their local community as they saw high unemployment of black male youth and the plethora of career opportunities within the local technology sector. The high potential of the youth in the area was not represented in the growing tech sector. So, the five founders set out to shine a light on the wealth of untapped brilliance hidden in plain sight. 

In considering who the program would serve, the founders recognized that support, training, and advancement opportunities for youth are often merit-based and not made as readily available to those who may be receiving corrective attention or who are overlooked for not fitting neatly into clean categories of either need or exceptionalism. Instead the founding five wanted to make economic opportunities more widely accessible and saw training in technology as a viable platform for advancement. Given their own experiences as black men in tech, the friends also held a desire to see more people of color in the industry and understood that youth needed to be able to envision themselves in these positions to go after them.  

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Geniuses at work during a day's session. Photo by DW Johnson Photography

Like Robert Buckner, RICH3 Hidden Genius. Robert came into the program with an interest in coding and found that being able to see people in the industry who looked like him impacted his personal relationship to tech. “I think the most important aspect, probably, is that their main goal is to expose African Americans to the tech industry,” says Robert. “To see more black people—people that look like me—leading tech companies, it's like, ‘Oh, I can really do this stuff, because other people that look like me, other people that act like me, are able to do this stuff.’ This program is very encouraging.”

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RICH3 Hidden Genius, Robert Buckner / Photo by DW Johnson Photography

This group of 9th through 11th graders has made the decision to take part in a 15-month Intensive Immersion Program to study all aspects of computer science, as well as leadership and entrepreneurship—three pillars that prepare the students to take ownership of their ideas and execute them well. They will spend more than 800 hours together learning coding languages from Javascript to Rails, visiting with a variety of tech companies during summer Friday business trips, and building their own web applications from the ground up.  

The high level of commitment expected from their students is matched with an incredible support system. By taking a holistic approach to training and mentorship, The Hidden Genius Project wraps its arms around their students, whom they refer to as Geniuses, helping them to show up well in every area of their lives. 

“I haven't always known what I was meant to do or what I believed in. But I know now,” says James. “I wake up every day with a purpose now. I didn't have that two years ago. There was a transformation in that. It’s been rough, but it’s been beautiful. It’s a beautiful struggle. It’s been an amazing transition. I never thought I’d be here.”

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OAK4 Hidden Genius Alum, James Green / Photo by DW Johnson Photography

Since The Hidden Genius Project's inception, the organization has served more than 6,200 youth through their Immersion, Catalyst, and Community Partner programs.

As we pull into the parking lot of the RYSE Youth Center in Richmond, CA, high-spirited laughter erupts alongside a blaring beat as students from the center spill onto the blacktop, dancing and cheering one another on. The purity of their energy and joy is on full display and a special sight.  

Inside, the Geniuses of Richmond Cohort 3 (the third group that has been served at The Hidden Genius Project’s Richmond site since it expanded) enter into a classroom after a full day of school to begin their weekly, two-hour training session. Before any teaching, Geniuses and staff spend a brief, intentional time welcoming each other and getting settled. Food is provided courtesy of a local sponsor and everyone grabs a plate. It’s loud like family and everyone looks right at home, comfortable in the flow of things. And they look out for one another. At one point, David Malone, Jr., Innovation Educator and the Richmond Site Coordinator, interrupts the noise to ask the young men to call their brothers who haven’t arrived yet to check on their status. 

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Innovation Educator and Richmond Site Coordinator, David Malone, Jr. / Photo by DW Johnson Photography

“Nothing of use that The Hidden Genius Project has accomplished has been accomplished on our own” says Brandon Nicholson, Founding Executive Director. And the partnership with RYSE Youth Center is a perfect example. 

Construction of the center was really driven by local youth seeking a safe space following heightened violence in their community. For RYSE, partnering with The Hidden Genius Project meant being able to offer the teens who frequent the center a peek into an industry they don’t often see.  

“Here in Richmond, you're not seeing a lot of young black men that are in computer science. So, really thinking that this can be a bridge to show them something different,” says Stephanie Medley, Director of Education and Justice at RYSE.

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Director of Education and Justice at the RYSE Youth Center, Stephanie Medley and Founding Executive Director of The Hidden Genius Project, Brandon Nicholson Photos by DW Johnson Photography

Yet technology is really just a platform to prioritize youth development. The Hidden Genius Project actually empowers their Geniuses to see themselves in leadership roles across diverse fields, providing them with the training, network, and resources to make that happen, including real world experience and connections with local and national businesses.  

For OAK4 Hidden Genius Alum Tre Germany, this proved helpful when it came time for him to find an internship. Through The Hidden Genius Project he was led to an opportunity to work with KP Launch, a partnership with Kaiser Permanente. “I got a chance to learn a completely new language to me, Python, and was able to build a program for the department that met their demand,” says Tre. And the experience encouraged him to continue studying computer science in school, enrolling in an AP course as he looks to pursue the field in college. 

Intersecting Ideas

The Intersection of Technology, Passion, and Social Change

“Look at your community and look at a need, look at a demand or something that can be improved,” recalls Tre of what the Geniuses are encouraged to seek out during their very first summer in the program. These are guidelines for attaching a personal connection to coding­—what many of us may see only as an arrangement of numbers and letters on the back end of a website, serves as a platform to transform the world around us.

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OAK4 Hidden Genius Alum, Tre Germany / Photo by DW Johnson Photography

This style of teaching focuses on the creative side of computer science and how the skills required for success in the field parallel those needed in our everyday lives. At the end of the day, it’s all about problem-solving.  

“My touch is to actually relate it to real life,” says David. “So, if I could somehow relate that lesson to a problem-solving scenario in life, then I can engage them.” Looking at it from that perspective also serves as a bridge between teaching and mentoring, giving the Innovation Educators the chance to share their personal journeys with the geniuses, speaking on the mistakes and unexpected turns that they’ve overcome­—a testament to what lies on the other side of trying and giving it your all.  

That open dialogue is continued in the leadership portion of the program. This time in their training lends space for the Geniuses to discuss their thoughts on current events, social issues, and personal situations they may be facing, offering them a chance to both express their point of view and think through solutions collaboratively.  

To Robert, these moments are significant. “I like what David says: We use it as an opportunity to sharpen each other. Being able to share my ideas about a topic, with other people, hopefully gives them a new perspective on something and is definitely my favorite part about the day.”  

Much like the founding of The Hidden Genius Project, emphasis is placed on caring enough for the community to be moved to action. Beginning with a willingness to learn, that action continues in understanding the need for the Geniuses to see themselves as a part of the solution, and lands with the recognition that what they create can have a real impact on their neighborhoods and social circles. Perhaps the most concrete example of this is the web application that every Genius presents at the end of their time in the program.

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RICH2 Hidden Genius Alum, Jayden Cummings / Photo by DW Johnson Photography

17-year-old Jayden Cummings, a RICH2 Hidden Genius Alum and Youth Educator, lights up when talking about iBlinkCo, the social media management platform he created during his time in the Immersion Program. The idea came at the intersection of Jayden’s interest in social media and his desire to help his community. Noticing the number of small businesses, particularly those that were black-owned, closing due to a changing neighborhood, he saw a community problem he could solve with technology. In helping small businesses increase their social media presence by giving them a platform to more simply market themselves online, Jayden’s site allows them to expand their reach beyond word-of-mouth. Last year, he was awarded winner of the 2019 Congressional App Challenge for his work.  

When I ask Jayden about his hope for the app, he pauses and says, “I want people to know that a teenage black man started that. And that I am very skilled, and I feel like I'm a good-hearted person and I do want to give back to the community. I want them to look at a growing corporation that is willing to give back to the community, that planted this seed. That’s what I want them to know.”

Geniuses are being developed to take what they have learned and offer it back to the world around them.  Every part of the program is rooted in education through practical application and students are encouraged to look beyond themselves, seeing how they can code in creative ways to solve problems they face every day. 

Really, it’s an incredible thought: These Geniuses are community leaders, learning the skills to recode their futures.

A Brother’s Bond

Grounding the work of The Hidden Genius Project is the philosophy of Ubuntu: “I am because we are.” Derived from the Zulu language, it is hard to find words in English that encapsulate the concept fully, but colloquially the phrase speaks to a shared bond in humanity. We are not able to look at ourselves without seeing our neighbor; one simply does not exist without the other.  

That belief serves as the heartbeat of the organization. Whether looking at the genuine friendships built among the Geniuses, the diligent service of mentors within the program, or the continued support of outside partners, it seems that everyone is mindful of their shared place within this lively network.

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Over the course of their time in the 15-month program, Geniuses build lasting friendships. / Photos by DW Johnson Photography

It is also the consistent thread expressed by everyone I spoke with: Brotherhood. It is built into the very fabric of the program, as Geniuses spend more than a year with one another, and is reinforced in the day-to-day practices: each new group of entering students at each site are referred to as a cohort and lessons are often peppered with African Proverbs that emphasize unity.  

While each of them may come in as individuals and strangers, they leave with a sense that they belong to something bigger than themselves. Aside from the constant championing they receive from the staff, they will graduate with, and be forever bonded to, a network of peers they can leverage and lean on.  

“For my son it was like, ‘Oh, you have 25, 26 other brothers. Okay.’ And they really think like that. They work together. If someone's falling short on a project or they're having a difficult time with the coding, they help each other,” says Remi Payne, a parent of a RICH2 Genius and frequent volunteer. “They're calling on the phone, ‘Do this. Do that. Add this app,’....just to see how much he's grown and how much he's learned in the past year and a half, we are so grateful to them.”

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Parent, Remi Payne / Photo by DW Johnson Photography

With long-lasting friendship at the core of leadership at The Hidden Genius Project, Geniuses are encouraged to maintain relationships with their peers beyond the program, highlighting the personal and professional significance of brotherhood. Whether they go on to hold one another accountable as they pursue similar majors in college, collaborate with each other on new business endeavors, or find strength in their position as black men in society, they will always pull from their collective time in the program as they journey through life.  

OAK2 Hidden Genius Alum and Youth Educator Zebreon Wallace noted the culture of the organization was the most important aspect for him: “I was just fully comfortable with being myself because they were like, ‘I don't want nothing else. I don't want a fake side of you. I want the real you.’ That's what it felt like. And I feel like all the Geniuses feel that way. Like, be the real you.” 

James agreed. “They’re all my brothers and we all have something to contribute—a different perspective of life to help us better understand the world we’re living in, and our experiences as black men.”  

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

This year, The Hidden Genius Project is adding a third site to its operation: Los Angeles. The expansion represents a new chapter for the group as they venture beyond their Bay Area roots, expecting to welcome its first LA cohort in June 2020. What began as a labor of love with no budget (volunteers during the first year of the program readily took turns teaching the curriculum throughout the day by rotating their lunch breaks at their full-time jobs), is now scaling with a full staff and multiple locations.   

Of course, as Geniuses complete the program, they are given the chance to participate as alumni—and they are often eager to play a part in sharing what they’ve learned with others. Called Youth Educators, alums facilitate workshops using curriculum that they have a hand in creating. With similar hours as the Intensive Immersion Program, this becomes their contribution back to the organization and gives them work experience valued far beyond the walls of The Hidden Genius Project. Through community partnerships, Youth Educators are able to find placements teaching basic computer literacy in their communities, whether at elementary school programs for five-year-olds in West Oakland, or Chinese elders at a public housing development in Richmond. 

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In addition to the weekly cohort meetings, Geniuses also receive help during "office hours" with mentors once a week. / Photos by DW Johnson Photography

Additionally, The Hidden Genius Project hosts one-day and multi-day Catalyst Events which are open to the public and allow the Youth Educators to serve a wider audience. Last year, for example, they served just over 2,000 youth in these off-site events. It is here that the impact of the program reaches other underrepresented groups in the tech industry, including women and Latinx students.  

Occasions to host Catalyst Events have also been shared worldwide, notably in London and South Africa. Zebreon, when teaching in South Africa as a Youth Educator, experienced a happy coincidence sparked by his haircut: “They were so excited that I had waves.” A student actually offered to sell him a durag to maintain the pattern. “The crazy thing is we had a lesson on entrepreneurship, and he did that before the entrepreneurship…I’m like, ‘Keep going. This is the knowledge you already got. Just got to express it.’” 

In providing that push to go to the next level, Geniuses are empowered to embrace the potential that already lies within them, becoming examples of what’s possible to everyone around them.

Each Genius’ choice to take part in The Hidden Genius Project creates a ripple effect of positive motivations leading them into additional pathways to teach and support those coming up behind them.  

That commitment, that ongoing decision to pour into others and be poured into, is a give and take scenario— from the staff, to the volunteers, to the students, and to the alumni who give back. “We're just trying to continue to do our part and to really empower young people and we just aren't comfortable with there being entire swaths of the world…where people aren't getting empowered with competence networks and skills to help them press forward towards their goal,” says Brandon.  

The Hidden Genius Project proves that “genius” is not a label highlighting the ability of a few—it’s a revelation to anyone willing to commit to the journey of uncovering it within themselves and within others.   

Editor's Note

The Hidden Genius Project's philosophies of seeing one another, engaging one another, and meeting each other where they are is a true vision of love and leadership. As different seasons render us seemingly more vulnerable than others, I am encouraged by this group of visionaries, participating and mentoring, who see beyond the obstacles and make the ongoing commitment of a better way forward, together.

A heartfelt thank you to Denzel Russell and Brandon Nicholson at The Hidden Genius Project for graciously facilitating—and for the work you do, and to our contributors Britnie Dates, David Johnson and Brandon Ritter for bringing their story together in a beautiful way.

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Lori Parkerson

Editor, Bittersweet Monthly

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