When Oscar Menjivar returned to his hometown of Watts after college, the friends he had grown up with were either incarcerated or not doing much with their lives.
Menjivar was one of the lucky ones. A high school coach had encouraged his interest in computers and to attend college. He eventually graduated from Cal State University, Pomona with a degree in computer information systems.
“Computer science and coding is how I got out,” he said. “I wanted to give that same opportunity to other students.”
That opportunity came when he founded Urban TXT (Teens Exploring Technology). Since 2010, the nonprofit has taught coding and app development to underserved African-American and Latino male high school students in Southern California.
The computer skills they learn help the students build confidence and discipline. The nonprofit receives more than 300 applications each year for the 30 spots in its Summer Coding Leadership Academy. Last year, UrbanTXT welcomed 480 students in its year-round programs.
Xavier Clark, 18, a senior at View Park Prep Charter High School in Los Angeles, attended the nonprofit’s coding academy twice. He now has an app called SAT Fighters in the Android app store. His app provides an interactive way for students to study for the SATs.
“It was solely because of UrbanTXT that I got into developing apps,” he said. “If not, I would probably be playing video games at home.”
In addition to spending 15 weeks developing SAT Fighters, Clark and his academy classmates got to visit Google and Yahoo! headquarters to present their apps in front of executives. The trip to Silicon Valley takes place each year at the end of the summer coding academy.
Now, Clark is working on his college applications, still undecided about his major.
“My mom always wanted me to go to college,” he said. “She’s a super fan of the nonprofit.”
UrbanTXT counts Google, Yahoo! and Durfee Foundation among its funders. But Menjivar says it all started with Edison International.
“Edison is really why we are here five years later,” he said, noting that it was difficult getting grants at first. “They are really the ones that opened the doors for us. Edison decided to take a risk on us, and we want to thank them for everything they’ve done for us.”
Today, most of the graduates of UrbanTXT still keep in touch with Menjivar. Seventy percent of them have gone on to pursue degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering or math).
“I am excited to see their potential, that they are aiming for something bigger,” he said of his students. “That we made an impact on these young men.”