For These Native American Girls, Coding Became the Language to Discuss Mental Health

Jul 31, 2019

Kindra Locklear was tuned in to CNN one day last fall when she came across a segment about a nonprofit organization that aims to close the gender gap in technology by teaching young girls to code. It struck a chord.

Locklear works in the information technology department at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and sees first-hand how women are underrepresented in the field. An effort to bring more females into the field, she thought, might do her own community some good.

UNC Pembroke, located in a small, rural town in south-central North Carolina, was founded as a school for American Indians, and today still serves and employs many members of the Lumbee Tribe, of which Locklear is a member.

As a Lumbee woman, and a woman in tech living in a rural area, Locklear kept thinking about the nonprofit she saw on TV—Girls Who Code—and wondering if she could establish a chapter in Pembroke.

Girls Who Code has over 6,500 clubs across the country, including groups that have formed in public housing, women’s prisons, mosques and among Native American communities, says Andrea Jordan, vice president of programs for the organization. “It doesn’t necessarily happen at schools. It happens all across the country, in pockets we wouldn’t necessarily anticipate or expect,” Jordan tells EdSurge.

Through summer immersion camps and clubs like the one Locklear helped establish in Pembroke earlier this year, the organization has helped more than 185,000 girls learn to code since its founding in 2012.

'Ready to Go'

In January, Locklear contacted the director of the local Boys and Girls Club about her idea: What if they teamed up to help their middle school girls learn to code? A few emails and meetings later, a plan was in motion. The Boys and Girls Club would help recruit students for the program and would shuttle the girls to the UNC Pembroke campus, just a few minutes down the road, for weekly coding lessons.

Kindra Locklear and her colleague Mary Beth Locklear (no relation) worried that they wouldn’t get much interest in the program. But out of about 20 seventh and eighth grade girls, 15 signed up and stuck with it, says Chelse Hunt, the youth coordinator at the Lumbee Tribe Boys and Girls Club in Pembroke.

“At first they were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, IT is for boys. What are we going to do?’” Hunt says. “But as they started going to UNCP, they became excited about it and all ‘I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go.’”

The 10-week program started in February. Using lesson plans and curriculum from Girls Who Code, Kindra, Mary Beth and other university volunteers taught the girls—all of whom are members of the Lumbee Tribe—how to code using Scratch. They also sought to foster skills like creativity, innovation and sisterhood, Kindra says. Some weeks of the program featured guest speakers, including women from the technology company Cisco, who discussed their own entry into the field.

The Girls Who Code club at UNC Pembroke is made up of members of the Lumbee Tribe. The students used their impact project to address mental health issues in the community. (UNCP)

“We thought it was important to make it a holistic endeavor,” says Mary Beth, who is director of the Office for Regional Initiatives at UNC Pembroke. “And we really wanted it to be on campus so they have exposure to the college environment. We wanted that aspect to be in tact.”

Though the college is not far from where the girls live, most of them had never visited campus before joining the Girls Who Code club, Kindra says. “It’s our hope that we sparked some type of fire in them, and that they’d want to come back—to UNCP or to another institution of higher education,” she says.

Taking on Mental Health

As the weeks passed, the girls had to begin thinking about their impact project, which is the final component of all Girls Who Code clubs and asks the girls to use their newly honed computer science skills to solve a real-world problem.

“A lot of times they pick something really near and dear to their hearts—we’ve had groups focus on homelessness, on the Flint water crisis,” Jordan says. “They’re shaping and making changing in the greater community.”

As they brainstormed about their own impact project, the Lumbee girls kept coming back to themes of bullying, depression and suicide within their tribal community.

“Someone said, ‘We don’t have anyone to talk to about it. There are no resources,’” Kindra recalls. “The girls all said they would talk to their grandmother or mom, who would tell them to pray about it.”

With the help of a campus counselor who came in one week to talk with the girls about mental health and suggest ways they could focus their topic, the girls decided to build a website that aggregates mental health resources for their community. The 15 of them divided into five groups to explore different facets of mental health on their own microsites: cultural identity, cyberbullying, anger, suicide and anxiety. On each web page, the girls explain what the condition is, what is known about it and resources available to help—whether they be 24/7 hotlines, meditation apps or counseling services.

“I thought their project was amazing,” Hunt, from the Boys and Girls Club, says, “because mental health is a large issue within our tribal community. The fact that the girls chose that was really inspiring to me. It’s not something just adults notice, but they notice as well.”

Mary Beth says she felt like their final project—both the topic they chose and the way it turned out—was further evidence that starting a Girls Who Code club in their community was the right thing to do. “These girls come from single-parent homes, exposed to things young girls shouldn’t be, raised by grandparents. They’re seeing deficits in their own communities, their own families. Why else did they choose mental health?” she says. “We are Lumbee women who are in roles where we make decisions. It was a no-brainer. We had to take this on.”

The program wrapped up in late April, but both Mary Beth and Kindra hope that the inaugural class was just the beginning.

“The goal is to make it scalable to other middle schools adjacent to the university,” Mary Beth says. “It’s certainly not exclusive to the Lumbee Tribe.”

In the next iteration, the women hope that the pilot class of girls might return to go deeper into their computer science education and to impart some of their knowledge on the new members who sign up.

In the meantime, they used funds from a small Girls Who Code grant to purchase a robot for the girls to keep at the Boys and Girls Club. “We challenged them to teach other kids in the club to learn coding and use the robot,” Mary Beth says. “We’re hoping now that they’re exposed to a new language they’ll be able to utilize it and capitalize on it more.”


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