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Daniela Ushizima: Reaching Out to Help Black Girls Code

March 19, 2015


Daniela Ushizima (standing) helps out at a Black Girls Code hackathon in Oakland in December 2014. In February, she spent three days at a second hackathon.

Between her responsibilities as a staff scientist, deputy lead for the Data Analytics and Visualization Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a data science fellow at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science at UC Berkeley, it seems Daniela Ushizima would look forward to time away from computers and coding. But around once a month, she spends a full day working with young women teaching them about computers, coding, robotics and careers in STEM. Most recently, she spent Feb. 13-15 volunteering at a Black Girls Code Hackathon, helping young women 12-17 years old learn about software development.

During the event, sponsored by the Global Fund for Women and United Nations Women, girls from all over the world spent 24 intense hours hacking solutions to a challenge facing women and girls everywhere: access to safe spaces. Safe spaces include spaces where girls can be free from violence, where they are supported by peer and adult role models, where they have access to education and learning, and where girls’ voices are heard and amplified free from fear or threats.The team of volunteers “taught smart girls how to code an app that can bring safe spaces for girls,” Ushizima said. The next Black Girls Code hackathon is scheduled for June 19-21 in Oakland. Recently, Ushizima talked about what motivates her.

It is not unusual these days to be concerned with the education of underserved girls in very distant parts of the world,...but let’s make sure we do not forget the girls right under our noses.

How did you hear about Black Girls Code and what made you decide to get involved?

I heard about Black Girls Code in one of the tech meetups I participated in the Bay Area. The main motivation of getting involved come from my own struggles as a woman in technology: there are not enough of us; when I got to college, about 10 percent of the students in my computer science course were women. When I got to my graduate studies in physics, I was one of the only women. The overall statistics are not better these days. Something must happen to improve workforce diversity early in the process, so I decided to act for a change through supporting educational programs: Black Girls Code is one of the programs I support.

What do you do at one of these hackathons? Can you describe a session?

There are two types of events: one-day duration workshops and hackathons, which often last more than a day. In my case, events always happened on weekends, so this was my leisure time :) A workshop or hackathon session includes introducing young girls to logic thinking, ideation, software architecture, then we start coding in some language, go through code debugging, trying alternative constructions, etc. This is the bulk of the academic agenda, but a lot of the activities involve working as a team, thinking out of the box, resilience, camaraderie, optimism and focus.

What do you see the girls getting out of this?

That STEM is for them, that they can do it, that engineering ideas through hard work is for girls -- by seeing other women in tech and interacting with their role models, these girls feel assured that they can also be involved in coding. As an example, I taught a girl who was, one could say, highly recommended by her mother to participate in the events - she would reiterate that she hated all of it. After about two days of interacting with this girl, believing in her and studying her aptitudes, we got her a task in the team which she was good at doing. Her attitude changed and she let her creativity and desire to self-improve speak louder - she developed a game within an app for improving self-esteem. This was priceless to me.

Conversely, what are you getting out of it?

Getting out of Black Girls Code? I have learned a lot by participating and teaching with BGC, for example, now I know how to program interactive apps for Android, but mostly I made great friends and brought my daughter to participate of every single event. Fact is: it is not unusual these days to be concerned with the education of underserved girls in very distant parts of the world, which is not bad, but let’s make sure we do not forget the girls right under our noses, for example, the girls in the Bay Area. In summary, BGC gives me a soothing hope that this generation of women can bridge the gender inequality gap currently ruling STEM-based workforce in several workplaces.

Do you know of any other Lab employees who are involved?

Almost every event has counted with another Lab employee: we had participation of Laleh Coté, Ashlee Ingram, Beth Reid, and a former LBNL summer student who worked with me in CRD, Christina deBianchi. I hope my participation makes others excited to get involved within their communities, and perhaps this includes BGC.

If someone wanted to get involved, what should he or she do?

Be a volunteer in your community, may it be through Black Girls Code or Hour of Code or the after school program next to home, it doesn’t matter. You can be an agent of digital democracy in several ways, donating your time or funds to support education of future generations. Also, LBNL has a great program offered by the Workforce Development & Education group, and you can find more information at http://education.lbl.gov/

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