This Isn’t Our America
The America we know and love is under siege, not by immigrants, but by laws and a new administration eager to diminish the power of American values. This Friday’s executive order on immigration is just the beginning. In a week, our country has gone from a place where immigrants are welcomed as job creators and innovators (after all, many of today’s famous tech companies are helmed by immigrants) to one where they are slandered, decried as risks to the safety of this country, and deported back to countries where they are often unwelcome and endangered. In some cases, this risk of deportation has led some to attempt suicide.
This is starkly different from the America I thought I knew and strive to represent. Immigrants have had a tremendous impact on my personal story, the story of Codecademy (the company I started), and the millions of learners around the world that benefit from Codecademy’s free education.
My family is one of migrants. My great grandparents emigrated to America over a century ago, and, while I know that process wasn’t easy, I’d like to think they knew they were coming to a place that would welcome them with open arms and opportunity. My great grandfather began life in America bottling Heinz ketchup. He began at the proverbial “back of the line,” but worked tirelessly to improve the station of his family. He lived to see generations of his progeny find success in America as lawyers, business people, activists, and more. He saw his culture become part of the fabric of America and his family become part of a country held together not by its homogeneity, but by its diversity.
When we first started Codecademy in 2011, we wanted to help provide opportunities for anyone in the world to advance economically. Our mission, “to teach people the skills they need to find jobs,” was in and of itself an expansion of the American dream. We believed that anyone should have the opportunity to learn the skills they need to create a better life for themselves and their families. The company began as two of us in a dorm room at Columbia. After Codecademy’s launch, we worked feverishly to find people who shared this mission and the skills to help us take it to another level. One of the first people we found was Amjad, a developer responsible for an open source project that we’d implemented in an early version of Codecademy. We worked with Amjad from afar, emailing him from New York while he shipped code from Amman, Jordan, and found ourselves becoming closer and closer to someone we’d never met in person.
Working with Amjad made us realize how tremendous he was. On a whim, I bought a plane ticket to Amman, left New York behind, and thought anxiously of what I’d say when I got to Amman and saw Amjad in person for the first time. Only on the plane did it sink in that I was an American heading to a majority Muslim country alone to meet a near total stranger. Over the next few days in Jordan, I spent hours with Amjad, talking about life in Jordan and sharing meals with his family and his girlfriend. On my last day in town, I told Amjad I wasn’t leaving unless I convinced him to move to the United States and work on Codecademy with us full time. At the time, the details seemed irrelevant. Visas, living arrangements, and personal lives seemed to pale in comparison to the change we thought we’d make in the world. My naïveté as a twenty one year old and a fresh entrepreneur reminds me now of the world that should exist.
Months after applying for a visa, Amjad became a core part of our company in its early years and, eventually, his girlfriend (and now wife) joined him in New York as well. Our next employee had been a friend for years from abroad. Countless additional members of our team joined from elsewhere (Finland, Mexico, and beyond). It never seemed odd to me that Codecademy, in its early days, was a melting pot of cultures from around the world. It just seemed American.
Nothing has made me prouder than what’s happened to that early group since. We were all lucky to work together for a few years, helping Codecademy to reach tens of millions of learners around the world. We wanted more people to gain access to the American dream. In the years since then, those early employees have only amplified their positive impacts on Americans (and the world). Now, another early employee has started a company of his own that promises to employ Americans and help them as it grows. Amjad’s started Repl.it (with his wife and cofounder Haya), a company founded on the open source project that brought us together more than five years ago. He’s raised venture capital, started to employ Americans, and built a product that enables teachers around the world to teach programming skills to their students in their classrooms, furthering a similar mission to Codecademy’s. If Repl.it and Codecademy are successful, they will both contribute to giving millions of people upward mobility and the chance to live a better life. Amjad’s story is the story of the American dream. His story is integral to me not just as a part of Codecademy and the impact we’ve been lucky to have around the world, but as a broader symbol of what American is and can be.
Codecademy has helped each of our learners to access skills and create new things in the world. We believe in a world of opportunity for our learners. We believe that students all of our students should have their shot at impacting the world. We believe they should have access to the country that has given us the iPhone and the Tesla.
That world is sadly now at risk. With the Trump Administration’s ban on immigration, we are stifling not just the potential of economic growth, but the growth of the American dream and of the American values many of us hold dear. I, like many others, have spent days wondering how to cope with a country that has rapidly started to represent itself as something I think it’s not. I am heartened by the millions of people around the world that are standing up for the rights of immigrants.
I encourage all of you to do what you can to make sure that this country remains not just our America, but an America that is a shining example to people around the world of inclusion, freedom, and upward mobility. For me, that’s meant speaking out, demonstrating, donating to worthy causes (the ACLU is the most obvious after their victories yesterday in court), and remaining ever vigilant. The future of our families, our companies, and our sacred values is at risk. I hope you find an outlet of your own. If you don’t use your rights now, you might find they’re gone the next time there’s something else to protest.
Technologists around the world have already begun creating projects that speak out against this breach of American values. I hope the skills we have taught our students will play a small role in some of those technology-oriented solutions. I take heart in the fact that Codecademy provides education for everyone, whether refugee, American citizen, or citizen of the world. I hope we can all use those skills to create a world that promises opportunity for all. If you’re a Codecademy learner who needs help with your project to stand up for our rights as Americans, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to help.