What can I do to help?

The Philosopher Developer

June 13, 2020

These past couple of weeks have been surreal. On the Bitbucket team, I have sensed ambient levels of sadness, frustration, and numbness as everyone makes an effort to be productive and contribute to their teams' projects, even while I’m sure many of us have had a voice in our heads asking how any of the work we’re doing matters in the shadow of the terrible systemic problems facing our society: police brutality, systemic racism, and a pandemic that is disproportionately killing the poor and underprivileged, just to name a few.

If you’re like me, something you may occasionally be experiencing is the sensation of being utterly useless. It is a strange feeling, recognizing that I am the beneficiary of an unjust system, wanting to contribute to a solution, while at the same time understanding that I have much to learn. As a software engineer, I am acutely aware that in a complex system, work that is well-intentioned but ill-informed is a deadly combination that often does more harm than good as a result of unwanted side effects.

A common theme in most of the articles I’ve read and videos I’ve watched from African Americans providing guidance to their fellow citizens is that many of us need to educate ourselves. Mike Cannon-Brookes recently shared a blog post publicly; he also shared a version of this post internally with a great list of books and other resources. I have started to work through this list, along with recommendations from friends and other figures I admire.

But what can I do to help right now?

Last week my wife and I watched the Oprah special Where do we go from here? in which Oprah interviews a number of thought leaders from the African American community about what’s happening in America right now and what needs to happen next. In Part 2 of the special, the filmmaker Ava DuVernay talks about her own experience and speaks to the role that she can play as an artist and storyteller. Her point is that we all can do something; and what that is will depend on our skills, our background, our social connections—as she puts it, “working with what you have, where you are”.

Personally, despite all of the uncertainty, I feel grateful to be a part of one organization in particular that I can confidently say is doing good; and that is Code2College, a non-profit in Austin that provides computer science education to high school students from underrepresented groups throughout Austin and neighboring cities. The organization’s goal is clear: to prepare students from these groups to pursue college degrees in STEM fields and reduce attrition rates, in turn improving the economic outlook for these students, their families, and their communities.

65% of African American college students drop out of STEM
65% of African American college students drop out of STEM fields

The work I do with Code2College will not stop any unnecessary acts of police violence today, or tomorrow. It will not stop the spread of COVID-19. But it is a small piece of a larger picture—made up of the efforts of everyone working with what they have, where they are—of what is needed to address the root causes of many of our society’s problems in the long term.

I’ve spent many years working in software engineering, and it hasn’t always been obvious to me how the skills I’ve acquired in this field could be valuable in the fight against inequality. Whether or not you’re an engineer, you may feel the same way. But when we look for ways to put our skills to use, by seeking organizations that need what we have to offer, we just might find opportunities to help out—even as we continue to work on our own self-education.

I know that I will keep educating myself by reading and listening, and I’m sure I have a long way to go before I’m delivering all of the value that I should. I’ve written this post to encourage others who might be feeling similarly to me, not to put the books down, but to also seek out organizations like Code2College in your area, to find out what good you might be able to do with what you have, where you are—and to do it.