An Engineering School Of The Streets Teaches Marginalized Bay Area Youth Tech Skills
John Weiss is the founder and director of the Bayview Boom, a technology mentoring program that shows at-risk youth in San Francisco how to make their own boomboxes by hand from scratch.
The program depends on volunteers and Weiss is always looking for hardware, mechanical and electrical engineers to put in time and share their expertise.
It’s a way to “raise the bar on the educational experiences that we provide our teenage apprentices,” Weiss said.
“What I’ve experienced working with these kids is they are just a continual outpouring of innovation and originality. To me that’s incredibly exciting and valuable and our society undervalues these folks.” — John Weiss, Bayview Boom.
This search for volunteers brought Weiss to the Black Enterprise Tech ConneXt Summit in San Francisco in October.
Why does Weiss do this work?
“When I was a teen I had the benefit of adult mentors who guided me and introduced me to engineering,” he told Moguldom on the sidelines of the summit. “My dad studied electronics with the Navy in World War II. I had mentors in high school who gave me some guidance in programming, software as well as electronics and hardware development, and this has had a lifelong benefit for me professionally intellectually. I wanted to give the opportunity to young people that don’t have this advantage.”
Weiss talked to Moguldom about Boom Tech, his apprenticeship program, and how he hopes to find a market for the hand-made products built by at-risk San Francisco youth.
Moguldom: Who have you worked for?
John Weiss: Before I started this project, I worked for many global corporations as a computer consultant programmer — Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Apple Computer, Merck Pharmaceuticals. There are not a lot of people of color in those companies and I thought it was important to create opportunities for people who have been left behind by the new economy, the internet economy and the tech economy.
John Weiss: I know from personal experience that sometimes people who are on the margins of society contribute the most innovative ideas to society. In my experience working with young people in low-income at-risk communities, there’s this incredible vibrant talent that is out there in these neighborhoods and communities that don’t have the opportunities and mentors and guidance to flourish. I feel that the American society at large is missing out on people who can contribute their vital talent and ideas to the general society. It’s sort of win-win for everybody. These young people who are at risk for prison, substance abuse, prison, gangs and violence are a vital resource that, given the right opportunity, can create things that will benefit all of us.
Moguldom: You said you learned from experience from being on the margins. Talk more about that.
John Weiss: Go to Google Images and search for the word “ghetto” and you’ll get two kinds of images: Black ghettos in America and Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe. As a Jewish person, I grew up with a sense that we’re a little outside the mainstream. Despite that, Jewish communities have cultivated a tremendous amount of intellectual and creative ideas to society and science and art and culture. I believe that one of the reasons is that we are marginalized people.
Back in the ’80s, a new buzzword became very trendy: “Think outside the box.” These kids in the ghetto, they live outside the box. Their whole existence is outside the box so it’s not difficult for them to think outside the box. And what I’ve experienced working with these kids is they are just a continual outpouring of innovation and originality. To me, that’s incredibly exciting and valuable and our society undervalues these folks.
Moguldom: What does it look like when you are working with the kids with your program?
John Weiss: The goal of the Boom is to raise the bar in terms of what youths can accomplish, particularly these youths. A group of professional engineers whom I have gathered have contributed to our curriculum and helped us develop the program we teach our teenagers. It’s not a free-for-all — it’s not like a hackerspace. It’s a very formal structured program designed to be a learning experience. We’ve created a project that we teach our apprentices and this project encapsulates many design solutions — mechanical design solutions, electronic, user experience design solutions. By building this project hands-on, our teenagers learn. They internalize in the most intimate way these lessons, so our build project is our textbook.
We’re developing a product that we’re going to sell and the product is a boom box. It’s a loudspeaker. We guide our apprentices through every step of building that product. They do circuit building, they do soldering with printed circuit boards, they do mechanical assembly, they work with a variety of tools.
One of our priorities is to give our apprentices experience with many different kinds of tools and materials. It’s an introduction to many arts and the expectation is that they will conclude our program being empowered with knowledge, skills, terminology that will give them a leg up in a future career.
We work with our apprentices. They meet with us generally a few times a week and over the course of a few weeks, they build the project. Once they complete the project they become eligible to fabricate the product that we sell.
So the first project is the boombox that they get to keep. This is part of our incentive program, and that’s essential. We’ve made the effort to build into our program a variety of incentives. They all want a free boombox but that’s also their training experience. Then they have the skills and experience to build our consumer product.
The consumer product the same thing — a boombox. The product we’re selling is not a factory manufactured product. It’s a handmade product made by our apprentices. One of my goals is to bring hand craftsmanship back into consumer products because so much of what we get today is factory manufactured. I believe there is still a place for hand craftsmanship by individual craftsmen.
Moguldom: What kind of scale are you talking about? How many boomboxes are you making?
John Weiss: We haven’t started to sell yet so I don’t know what our scale is going to be once we hit the market, but that doesn’t matter. The purpose of this experience of building and selling a product is that it’s an educational and developmental experience for our apprentices. We don’t have to sell millions. Of course the more product we sell the more youth can benefit. However as a nonprofit our exisence is not dependent on sales of product. Sale of the product is just part of the curriculum. We’re a nonprofit 501c3 organization
Moguldom: How many schools are you in? How many kids do you work with?
John Weiss: One of the priorities of this project is to reach the most marginalized teenagers — that is kids on probation, kids who are at risk of going to prison or have already been to prison, teens in substance abuse treatment and teens who have been expelled from school. Therefore we don’t work with schools.
It’s really a core part of our philosophy that we work with teens in the neighborhood where they live, where they hang out. There’s another reason that we don’t partner with schools: we don’t want to be part of the school’s prison pipeline.
There are police and guards in schools. We don’t want to be associated with the authoritarian or militaristic institutional environment. We don’t want our educational process to be defined by the institutional environment. We’re trying to create a new educational experience based on what works with these teenagers that we’re trying to work with
Moguldom: How do you reach teenagers?
John Weiss: We work with after-school programs and community centers. We’re offered as one of the learning experience that they offer to the kids who come to their program. The other way is that we just go into the neighborhoods, into the housing projects and work with teenagers. We’ll set up a bunch of tools and equipment on a picnic table in somebody’s backyard and we’ll work with kids right there on the street.
Moguldom: What is your wish list?
John Weiss: I believe that in the startup universe there are a lot of startups that are able to get an incredible amount of funding before they even have a working a product. We’re trying to teach our teens to do something that’s real — that it’s not good enough to be all talk — that you’ve actually got to deliver something.
Before we even try to get funding, we’re focused on developing a viable hardware consumer product. To help us achieve that we’re always looking for hardware engineers in electronics and mechanical engineering who would like to volunteer with us and donate their expertise to help us to develop our program and product design.
We’re also looking for retailers who would like to carry our product once we’re ready to start selling. And we’re looking for visual designers, content developers and marketing companies who would like to donate their services to us as well. In the long term, we are very open to funding. At the moment, I’m a volunteer. We’re a volunteer project but in the long run, that’s not really sustainable.
Moguldom: How many kids do you work with and how many volunteers do you have?
John Weiss: About 50 teens have gone through the program. We are still in the early stages. In terms of volunteers, our core team includes engineers from some of the top tech companies in the world. We’ve had probably hundreds of volunteers in the past six years who have worked with us — everything from web design, engineering, and marketing.