“A child’s future should never be dictated by his zip code.”
Kalimah Priforce is a determined man. Maybe it’s the second syllable in his surname or maybe it has to do with where he comes from: Kalimah grew up with his younger brother in a Bed-Stuy group home, staging a hunger strike there at age eight to get more books onto the premises. The strike worked. Kalimah usually makes things work, but the paths to achievement have rarely been easy. Kalimah’s brother never made it out of their tough early environment—he was shot and killed at 18 in the lot behind their childhood elementary school. Yet Kalimah persevered. By 16, he’d already founded his own tech company, Whizz Kidd Computers, training teens to make IT house calls in underserved, low income neighborhoods. You might say STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—saved his life. He believes it can save more.
He founded Qeyno Labs, an education innovation start-up to increase STEM diversity and access, on the notion of turning career discovery into a game.
“$124 billion in talent acquisition was spent last year,” says Kalimah. “Most of it went to recruiting in India and China when it could have gone to kids in East Oakland, South Berkeley, or Bed-Stuy Brooklyn.” It’s often assumed that kids in those troubled neighborhoods are too busy playing games (and worse) to compete in a global economy. Kalimah had a provocative thought: then why not change the game?
So Kalimah developed a multi-player, Web-based “career discovery game” that students can play. Through gaming, kids reveal their interests and aptitudes—and often their hidden genius. Then he plugged in the beautiful part that a lot of tech innovation misses: real people. The real people from the videos, in fact. Based on gaming proclivities and skills, Qeyno students are matched with STEM professional mentors to work on projects together. The Qeyno software functions like a gateway—and not the kind you usually hear about in the ‘hood.In 2010 Kalimah was showing videos of STEM professionals – chemists, geologists, botanists, engineers – at afterschool programs in local schools and churches. The videos were great—smart people talking about what they do and how their work influences the world. But all the kids could do was listen and watch—they couldn’t interact with the people or the careers they were learning about. For a program that was supposed to demonstrate to kids that these careers—these life-changing opportunities—were within reach, the videos lacked any kind of call to action.
Kalimah’s most recent epiphany came during a meeting of 2013 Open Society Black Male Achievement Fellows at an Echoing Green retreat. Breaking news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal on charges he murdered Trayvon Martin jarred the roomful of social entrepreneurs who were busy discussing innovative ways to use technology to lower barriers facing black men and boys.
Kalimah raised his hand and asked the group: “Could an app have saved Trayvon Martin?” One of the BMA Fellows tweeted his question and an online discussion exploded. Back in Oakland, Kalimah hosted a two-day hack-a-thon around the question. With the help of STEM professionals, 52 of Kalimah’s kids who were learning how to code developed 14 apps to help avoid another Trayvon Martin-like tragedy. Three of them were selected and are currently under product development at Qeyno Labs.
The hack-a-thons have added fresh energy and power-in-numbers to the Qeyno Labs vision. Young black men are now being asked about the problems they face, and given the opportunity and tools to solve them. In a sense, with Qeyno Labs, Kalimah has opened the doors to a new kind of group home. He knows the territory because he’s been there. And he’s still hungry and ready to strike.
Kalimah Priforce is a 2013 Open Society Black Male Achievement Fellow, part of the innovative partnership between the Open Society Foundations and Echoing Green dedicated to improving the life outcomes of black men and boys in the U.S. He is also one of the driving forces behind The Hidden Genius Project, an Oakland-based program that trains black male youth in entrepreneurial thinking, software development, and user experience design. In 2014, Kalimah was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change for increasing STEM diversity and access. He has been featured on NPR’s “Tell Me More” and the PBS Newshour, among other media appearances.