By Ian Williams
Separating the Mission, and its increasingly distinct sub-districts, is the street that bears its name. West of the street lie the boutique cafes and record stores. To the east, the few family owned businesses that have managed to hold their ground. Between the two, on the corner of 19th and Mission, is MEDA.
Silicon Valley, ground zero of the tech explosion, has drawn in a mass of educated young professionals fresh from the graduation podium for years now. As new companies situate themselves along the peninsula, the hungry job seekers follow suit. Many have settled in San Francisco, and in particular, the Mission.
Job opportunities are opening up, money is coming and the neighborhood is changing. Most of this, unfortunately, is unavailable to the community that has lived in the district for generations. Unable to keep up with rent soaring to match the income of the Mission’s new residents, families are moving out of the neighborhood, and often, out of the city all together.
The Mission Economic Development Agency is taking steps to keep the community together and relevant in the new economy. One program, known as Mission Techies, gives youth an opportunity to step into the growing field.
“Our goal is to bridge the gap and connect our youth to the technology industry,” said Marisela Perez-Ruiz, MEDA’s workforce development program manager. “They have a thirst for knowledge and want to learn about technology.”
Mission Techies teaches participants 17 to 24 years of age the essentials of IT, including hardware, software, coding and networking. MEDA, however, doesn’t do it alone. The nonprofit works with major tech companies such as Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn and Double Dutch.
“We have partnered with companies that provide mentorship. They open up their facilities to our students,” Perez-Ruiz said. Knowing the fundamentals of IT is invaluable to a career in tech, but knowing how to communicate and network with potential peers is equally important she continued.
The partnered companies invite groups of students, called cohorts, to their campuses for tours and workshops. “We talk about confidence and a sense of ownership. You have to feel like you belong there,” Perez-Ruiz said. “We focus on that quite a bit. It’s a challenge this particular population faces. They don’t see role models.”
To introduce mentors into the student’s lives, MEDA brings in professionals from the industry to teach the cohorts. “I got the opportunity to come down here to work with an invaluable program and teach people from the community hands on technical and soft skills,” said Michael Garay, who has been in tech for 20 years at companies such as Wells Fargo and Charles Schwab. “My goal is to give them the benefit of what I know. It’s not just technology, you need some personal skills,” he said.
The curriculum, unlike similar tech incubation programs, is loosely structured, instead focusing on individual student needs and training levels. This approach lends itself to a smaller class size with more teacher-student time. Although the small size of the cohorts is intentional, the program is also limited by other factors.
“It depends on the funding, we are constrained by how many we can enroll from each funding source,” Perez-Ruiz said. The majority of funds are sourced from the mayor’s office, around sixty percent, according to Perez-Ruiz. The other forty is provided by the tech companies that MEDA works in conjunction with.
The partnered tech companies also provide hardware for the program, including monitors and computers, which the students–referred to as clients—fix and give back to the community. The clients also create web pages for local shops—a valuable asset to small businesses recently pushed off their lease and forced to sell products from home. A common symptom of the tech sector’s growing presence in the district.
“We have a housing piece, assistance with foreclosures and evictions. We are also developing properties that are affordable for our communities,” Perez-Ruiz said. “There’s a couple of different things, you can look at the positive—it creates opportunities and jobs. But we also see displacement with the housing situation. Some of our students are coming from farther away.”
For Jordy Cabrera, 18, it takes an hour to get to class. “I walk for 30 minutes, then I take the 14R,” he said. Cabrera, who aspires to be a full stack web developer, has taken initiative to get into the tech industry.
“I’m learning different languages. So far I’ve learned HTML, CSS and C++. I’m currently learning Python with another classmate from here. We’re doing that on our own,” he said.
Cabrera, although only two weeks into the program, has received hands-on experience with hardware, having set up the computer lab and its jungle of cables. Despite this, the program can at times feel slow.
Cabrera would like to see administrators “make the program itself more engaging,” he said. “For example, setting up this whole room, I thought that was really interesting. But right now they’re just trying to figure out the curriculum. It’s getting a little boring, but I understand, it’s not easy.”
Known as ESL learners, many of the students speak English as a second language. The cohorts are diverse, and have students from Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Venezuela, among other countries.
“There are many different barriers,” Perez-Ruiz said. “After the Nov. 8, election, it really hit our youth. They have family that is undocumented, there is fear. It was a more diverse cohort (before the election.)”
Some young parents enrolled in the program were required to have notarized statements that declared someone could take care of their children in the event they were deported.
The program, however, remains optimistic, “When we see a client we don’t see their barriers, we see their gifts,” Perez-Ruiz added. As an added incentive, the program affords each student a $500 stipend, often parceling out some at the beginning of the course to help with travel expenses and the like.
Instead of fighting against the wave of new jobs and necessary skills, MEDA is working its way into the seemingly foreign culture. “Technology has changed the city, especially in the Mission District. Startups are coming in, there’s a lot of opportunity here,” Garay said. “People are being forced out. If you don’t have the skills to come in, it’s hard to take advantage of that opportunity.”
For many in the Mission, the tech industry has never seemed accessible—in large part because the necessary resources have never been presented to the community. According to Cabrera “most people in the Mission don’t have that information. It’s something that we need to make happen for everybody.”