Where Are the Stories About Women Like Me?
A love of reading and tinkering — and unease about how young black women are portrayed in books — leads to a passion for coding.
I’ve always loved books. No matter how old I was, what I was going through, how I felt in any moment a book was always a means of escape. A way to dive into a new world and become a new character. I could learn, love, laugh and grow all from a book. I also loved tinkering. I was constantly asking questions about everything. I always wanted to learn more and expand my mind. Books and tinkering were my first steps into a world of creativity, knowledge and exploration. Once I was in middle school, I was told that engineering was a way to turn my tinkering into a career. My family boasted that I was going to be a successful engineer. Once I got to high school I still supported this idea, but I began to love mentoring and impacting people’s lives directly much more.
Starting in the 9th grade, I co-founded a science camp for girls aged 7–13 in my city. I wanted to show them that despite who they see as the major scientists and mathematicians, they too could partake in advanced science projects and create on their own. We did projects such as creating crystal radios from scratch, building geodesic domes with newspaper and tape, dissecting fish, building hydroponic systems, and using solar energy to power toy cars and lights. We held seven camps and worked with more than 100 girls over my four years of high school. I watched these girls grow throughout the years from hesitant about science to extremely confident and excited about STEM. They often told me they wanted to be a science honor student like me when they got to high school. I loved showing the girls that they could empower themselves through learning any type of skill they wanted to. This felt like my life’s mission.
In high school I still loved reading and I would go to the library almost every day after school. I tended to pick up three or four books to read a week. Reading served a great escape for a nerdy black girl in high school who had often felt very different than most of my peers. It was in high school I also started to became more conscious about how being a black woman affects my life. In learning about challenges I face as a woman of color, my relationship with books started to change. As I picked out my weekly books from the library I paid more attention to how the characters were described. Yes, books were a means of escapism, but why did I constantly have to imagine myself as a white teen girl with blonde or brown hair and blue eyes? I searched long and hard, scouring the library for young adult books that had a character with brown skin, brown eyes and curly hair. There was one section with maybe 10 or so urban fiction books. I read all the urban fiction, many of which featured black teens dropping out of high school, selling drugs, and getting pregnant. But where were the books with girls like me? Black girls who loved books, learning and tinkering. Was the literary world trying to tell me that girls like me weren’t important enough to write about?
I knew then I had to do something so I continued searching. Instead of scouring the library, I scoured the Internet and found that there were books with multifaceted characters of color out there! But why weren’t they in the libraries or on the online bookstores’ home sites? I felt empowered that I found the information but lost at how I could get it to all the other kids of color who probably felt the same way as me. So I tucked the idea in the back of my mind and knew I had to return to it someday.
I started college still entertaining the idea of being a engineer, specifically an environmental engineer but not really feeling my heart in it. Most of the research and projects were studying ice in Alaska or some far away place away from people. I love people so I knew I didn’t want to work in a career that wasn’t constantly engaged with people. Winter break came and my idea regarding books for children of color came to the forefront. I started searching again and I put all the books I found into a word document. I ended up with over 500 books listed. But then I thought to myself, now what?
I was watching TED talks when I came across one given by Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code. She said it was important for black girls not only be consumers of technology but to be able to create the technology themselves. This set a lightbulb off in my head. I’ve always loved tinkering and technology, WHY DON’T I KNOW HOW TO CODE?! Right away, I set up an account on Codecademy and spent the rest of my winter break learning how to code. I was hooked. I signed up for an introductory Computer Science course for winter term and from then on I knew I wanted to be a Computer Science major. What about my book resource idea? Well I knew now that I was learning these new skills I could use programming to get the information to young people of color like myself. During the end of my freshmen year I started working at Tiltfactor, a game design lab for social change. I loved how I could use technology to impact the users and work with them to make a better product, but also help change stereotypes by creating software that had women and people of color at the forefront.
Summer came along and I still hadn’t brought my book resource idea to life. I was interning at Time Inc. and was lucky enough to have an incredibly accomplished woman as my boss and mentor. She opened up my eyes to how it is completely possible to become an influential contributor and mentor in the industry regardless of your background. She saw my potential and gave me the opportunity to make an impact in her technical team. Kimberly Bryant had also become a great mentor to me by this time. Once I caught the coding bug I started volunteering with Black Girls Code. I felt my life’s mission at work again every time I helped the young girls open their eyes to a whole new world in which they could create whatever they wanted through programming. I reached out to Kimberly Bryant to thank her for founding the organization and she has been so supportive ever since.
I decided to create a iPhone app that would showcase all the great books I found written by authors of color featuring characters of color. I was working on an iPhone application during my internship so I was learning all about iOS every minute I had. I tried various tutorials and learned how to connect an app to APIs, how to manage your own database, and more. I learned how to design views and make the flow to each view seamless. I devoured all this information just as I did as a young girl reading my books. This was a new world to me except the character in it was me. I was becoming my own creator. Creating stories through code and connecting with people through the product I created. I felt empowered and I couldn’t wait to release my project out to the world. I named the application We Read Too to signify that representation for children and teens of color in literature is important. After launching the application in the iTunes Store people from all over the country and eventually the world started to download my app. Parents, educators, and students reviewed the app and relayed how important and helpful it was that I created it. I was overwhelmed with joy. I felt my life’s mission in work again. I knew that if my app had even helped one person feel represented and show them that their stories are being told too, I had done the right thing. This is why technology needs a diverse set of developers making software. We all have stories to tell and we all have communities we love, let’s make technology for us and for those communities.