“As humans, we tend to be more comfortable around others like us,” said Andrew Manzanero, in his opening remarks at the 2020 USC Diversity & Inclusion Hackathon. “While that’s understandable, it leads to gaps in diversity. We need to take up the responsibility to fill that gap, so that we can become a better society.”
Manzanero, a senior studying computer science at USC Viterbi, kicked off the school’s first-ever hackathon focused on creating a space for underrepresented groups in STEM. Together with USC Viterbi alumnus Xavier Hernandez (B.S. ‘16, M.S. ‘20), he spoke about the importance of levelling the playing field for groups who face structural barriers that limit access to education and career opportunities.
After the opening ceremony on Saturday October 24, 2020, the participants in the competition had 24 hours to create a product that made a difference in the field of diversity and inclusion.
Working in teams of four, they were required to create a prototype and present it to judges on Sunday morning. The prompt was intentionally vague to give participants the freedom to ideate. Anything that helped to level the playing field for members of underrepresented groups would be fair game.
The hackathon was a collaboration between four USC Viterbi student organizations: HackSC, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and Girls in Tech. HackSC is a relatively young organization focused on providing spaces for budding entrepreneurs at USC to innovate and practice using their creativity; their third annual USC-wide hackathon is planned for early Spring 2021. However, they believed that the unusual circumstances of 2020 necessitated a special event.
“The Black Lives Matter movement was incredibly inspirational to us this year,” commented HackSC president Katie Wong. “It shed a light on various sectors that need vast improvements in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, and one of those areas is technology.”
The Diversity and Inclusion Hackathon was open to all, regardless of background or coding experience. All attendees were invited to workshops that offered introductory lessons on web development platforms and coding programs such as Figma, React, and Git. The event also features opportunities to socialize, such as a “Speed Friending” event to randomly meet other participants.
“One of the most magical things about the hackathon is that you are all in that same space for 24 hours straight, watching the innovation occur around you,” Wong said. “We are really trying to replicate that experience virtually.”
After the judging on Sunday morning, the first, second, and third place winners were allocated a sum of money to donate to a charity of their choice. The list of charities included Black Girls Code, Troy Camp, Black Out the Ballot, NSBE Jr. So Cal, the Compton Collective, and the Hispanic Federation.
The money for the prizes was mostly provided by the Boeing Corporation, which sponsored the event.
“This is an incredible opportunity,” said Boeing engineer Norman Harris who represented the company at the event, “to support an event that not only pushes underrepresented groups to the forefront, but gets young minds to think about projects that have an impact on society and can jumpstart movements for social change.” Harris works with Boeing’s Southern California NSBE chapter, and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in computer science at USC Viterbi.
“Until I participated in my first one, I always assumed hackathons were never an option,” said Ashley Perez, Director of the External Relations Committee at SHPE USC and one of the organizers of the event. “As a first-generation, low income student, my priority was my grades and my job. Hackathons were an extra thing that I did not have time for.”
Perez, a sophomore studying computer science, believes that members of underrepresented groups, who often come from similar low income backgrounds, are hesitant to enter hackathons.
“Hackathons should always have resources available for beginners,” she said. “If you’re going to have one, you might as well make it inclusive to everybody.”
The winning team designed an app called Plantily, which connects people in low-income neighborhoods to farmer’s markets and community gardens. The team, consisting of freshmen Raymond Kuan, Martin Liu, Kayla Kelsall and Ariana Deng, wanted to highlight the disparities in nutrition within marginalized communities.
“A lot of people of color aren’t able to get good food and proper nutrition because of historical redlining,” said Deng, a Global Health student from Pleasanton, CA.
“There are very few grocery stores and there’s little access to healthy foods in particular,” added Kelsall, a business major from San Jose. “Our app was designed to help connect these people to community gardens to get more affordable and accessible healthy foods.”
Team Plantily donated their winnings to Troy Camp, a USC-based organization that provides mentorship and tutoring for K-12 students in South Central Los Angeles.
“Since our project was inspired by issues in the Los Angeles area, it was important to us to continue helping the community directly,” explains Deng. “We really liked Troy Camp’s mission and their support of the LA community.”
Nine groups submitted projects to the hackathon, focusing on areas from hate speech to domestic abuse.
“This was the first time we’ve ever done a collaborative hackathon and it was a huge success,” says Perez. “It introduced so many people to the world of hackathons who may have never participated otherwise. We kept asking each other, why haven’t we done this before?”