Popular East African basketball program pivots to coding classes

Volunteer Mukhtar Sharif helps Jemila Abdullah, Iftin Kedir and Munera Mohammed (from left) during a coding class for East African youth held by Companion Athletics. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
Volunteer Mukhtar Sharif helps Jemila Abdullah, Iftin Kedir and Munera Mohammed (from left) during a coding class for East African youth held by Companion Athletics. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)

The organizers behind a popular all-East African basketball league in South King County are looking to guide their youth out of the gymnasium and in to the workplace.

All-volunteer organization Companion Athletics has made a name for itself with community-oriented programs that engage close to 300 East African youth in safety, health and especially sports.

But with the help of grant funding from the Social Justice Fund Northwest via EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex), they just graduated their first cohort from a new coding class at the end of January.

“We wanted to give back the community and expose the youth to software development,” says Companion Athletics cofounder and organizer Mukhtar Sharif, who works as front end developer at Microsoft.

He and fellow coordinator Mustafa Ahmed together had themselves attended a programming boot camp given by global skills-training organization General Assembly that helped them land a job at the software giant.

While there are plenty coding classes for youth in Seattle, Sharif notes they are not catered towards East African communities. He says East African youth are less likely than their counterparts in the general population to be exposed to coding and programming early on. For example, he and Ahmed didn’t learn programing after they graduated from college. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, students are starting to program at ten and eleven years old.

The ninth and tenth graders in the new Companion Athletics coding classes said they had some experience in middle school, while 12th graders said it’s their very first time being exposed to these skills.

Zehara Adem, a twelfth grader in the recently graduated cohort, said this was her first time doing anything related to coding.

“I actually didn’t know that you can make your own website completely from scratch for free,” she said.”You can put all the designs you want and everything… yeah, it’s cool.”

Zehara Adem shows off some of her work. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
Zehara Adem shows off some of her work. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)

Drawing from their experience, Sharif and Ahmed agree the opportunity gap had been significant compared with some of their coworkers at Microsoft. They want to narrow that gap primarily for East African youth, Somali and Ethiopian descent, but also others in South Seattle.

Given the wealth of Seattle, Sharif said, East African communities and South Seattle in general, don’t get enough resources.

“Our community needs the support. Things are changing really fast and the climate right now isn’t the friendliest climate to be in,” he said, “This community is grossly underserved.”

Ahmed says at the outset they thought they could take advantage of the popularity of the basketball program to attract youth to participate in skills-development programs. Sharif points out that the odds of landing a job in the NBA is one in hundred thousand, and it goes without saying those opportunities are even worse for girls.

But to the organizers’ surprise, the reception was impressive. Over a hundred youth showed interest in the web design and development class. With capacity for the once a week, four-hour sessions at Rainier Beach Community Center limited to 20 students, Sharif said demand going forward is still high, with many inquiring about the next class.

“We tell them, ‘Hey, we have really smart East African youth who know how to do these things. Can you accept them into your internship programs?'”

Companion Athletics organizers said they will offer the same web design classes again in March, and then plan to combine both cohorts to offer advanced classes like web and mobile application development in the Spring. Not only are the classes given free-of-charge, participants receive a $50 gift card upon completion of all four sessions per month.

“Our resources are super limited,” Sharif said. “We can only have twenty people. We are doing another one in March because the demand is so high.”

Beyond limited resources Ahmed laments that he wished they could have skipped elementary materials at the beginning sessions because once students were let loose to work at their own pace, they went well beyond the assigned tasks.

“The first few hours of the first class, they were very confused and frustrated,” Ahmed said. “As the weeks went by, they are not even asking for help. They know how to search for things. They know how to make the tools work for them.”

Awol Ibrahim (center) and Dursa Mohammed (right) bridged from Companion Athletics sports programs into the coding classes. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
Awol Ibrahim (center) and Dursa Mohammed (right) bridged from Companion Athletics sports programs into the coding classes. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)

Many students who never imagined a career in Computer Science said they are now thinking about it seriously.

A trio of giggly front-row sitters said it was not their first time coding, but that they found the Companion Athletics class a little easier to understand.

“I like [computer science]. Maybe I can make a career out of this…who knows,” said Iftin Kedir, a ninth grader who had long planned to study law. “So far it’s nice that I feel I am getting this,” she said. Her friend Jemila Abdullah expressed an even stronger desire to pursue a career in computing because of the classes.

There’s a growing movement to teach students programming early in education, and some have even suggested that in the future coding will be a required element of literacy, like reading, regardless of whether students want pursue it as a career.

Sharif spoke to that: “Some of the students here, they are really not going into software. But the tools they learn will help them in other things.”

Twelfth graders Awol Ibrahim and Dursa Mohammed, play basketball and soccer with Companion Athletics, respectively. Both want to integrate the skills they learned at Companion Code with their planned business studies at the UW. HTML coding is almost fun as playing sports, especially since it’s new to them, both agreed.

But Sharif still hopes some students will pursue a career in the tech industry, which he said will have millions unfilled jobs in the next decade. He hopes tech companies, who have a well-established diversity problem, will respond positively when approached by graduates of the program.

“We tell them, ‘Hey, we have really smart East African youth who know how to do these things. Can you accept them into your internship programs?'” he said. “We want to make sure that this opens up real world opportunities.”

CA Codes Program Coordinator Mustafa Ahmed  (left) and Cofounder Mukhtar Sharif (right) joined with other volunteers to support paid instructor Leyth Adan in running the coding classes. (Courtesy photo)
CA Codes Program Coordinator Mustafa Ahmed (left) and Cofounder Mukhtar Sharif (right) joined with other volunteers to support paid instructor Leyth Adan in running the coding classes. (Courtesy photo)
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