JESSICA SANTANA ON ENDING GENERATIONAL POVERTY
ABOUT THE COMPASS LEADERS
EdLoC’s Third Way Values drive all we do- they ground us in our work and help us chart a path forward. Within our membership there are leaders whose example serves as a compass, a North Star, guiding us in our own work by their example. Our Compass Leaders series is a chance to see what our values look like in action and to lift up members who are truly exemplifying one of our values in all they do.
This month, we focus on our value of Ending Generational Poverty- a key tenant in our work. In order to create a more equitable world, we have to break the cycle of poverty through high quality educational experiences, and our member, Jessica Santana, is doing just that. Hear how her experience in the tech industry inspired her to found America on Tech, a nonprofit dedicated to providing technical training to young people of color so they can access high-paying, high-demand jobs when they graduate college.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?
In the early 1960s my Puerto Rican parents left their island to pursue their American dream: freedom, wealth and prosperity for generations that would follow them. Behind they left everything familiar so my siblings could lead successful lives. Little did they know that finding the means to move to New York was only the first barrier they would encounter in trying to uplift their family out of poverty. Upon arriving in the big city, they were met with low-wage jobs, public housing and little knowledge about how to navigate the systems that help citizens of this country make informed decisions about work and life.
However, my parents were pretty resourceful. Every Sunday, my mom would cook a huge pot of rice and beans and call the neighbors from other floors to give them plates of food to bring back to their families. They didn’t have a lot, but were able to share. That was a very important value they instilled in me early on.
Born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn and a product of NYC public schools, I recognize now how difficult it is for low-income families to remain seen in a city that is constantly changing. The Brooklyn that I know is very different from the “new” Brooklyn. I grew up in an area that had limited resources. However, with the support of my parents, community and help from nonprofits, I was the first in my family to graduate from college and pursue a career in technology.
I grew up surrounded by poverty, crime and violence, but I could always see the talent all around me. My friends were geniuses and some of the most intelligent people I have met to date. However, their dreams were deferred because we operated in systems that were not designed for us to thrive. You’d call me “one of the lucky ones”.
It was my early life experiences, and the experiences of those whom I love the most, that contributed to my desire to establish an organization that would allow students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race or gender, to believe and realize there is a space for them in the fastest growing industry in our nation.
What inspired you to found America on Tech?
After graduating from college, I jumped right into the world of technology consulting, working in predominantly white and male settings and earning nearly four times my parents’ annual income. I felt isolated. I didn’t have access to people who reflected my story in the workplace and very little access to mentors who could empathize with my experience as a first-generation Latina. I wanted to make sure that students in the community I am from, who looked like me, had an opportunity to access innovation in the way I was able to. Along with my co-founder, Evin Floyd Robinson, we came up with a plan on the back of coffee shop napkins to start a pilot with 20 students in September 2014. By February 2015, we had raised about $100,000 in cash and commitments and I left my job to take the organization full-time. The five months that followed my departure from corporate America, we spent refining our model and seeking investment to grow America on Tech (AOT).
Six years later, we are a national nonprofit organization with offices in New York and Los Angeles. We have been able to work with more than 2,500+ students across all of our programs. Eighty-five percent of our students are majoring in technology-related fields or have obtained employment. We currently work with more than 70 schools in both regions, have worked with 1,000+ volunteers, 100+ corporate partners, and have hired 47 of our alums as peer mentors back into America On Tech classrooms. It has been quite a journey, but I am constantly reminded about the importance of this work when students share their successes with us.
What inspired you to dedicate your work to ending generational poverty? How does this concentration drive your decision-making?
I did not understand the importance of economic mobility until I realized that my pursuit of a higher education and employment in professional services enabled me to obtain a high paying career straight out of college. That job in technology granted me a salary nearly four times my parents’ annual income. When I got my first job offer, I projected what my life-time income could be and immediately saw the faces of my mom, dad and family members who worked so hard for me to get to that point in my career. Low-income communities of color are disproportionately represented in cycles of generational poverty and in thinking about what it takes to end that cycle, I am constantly conscious of the decisions I make as a leader in our organization.
My decision-making starts with our users and their needs: our students and families. If what we’re doing does not make sense for their benefit, then we don’t pursue opportunities that don’t put their interests first. As a leader, I ensure that we design solutions with them in mind and their voice at the forefront. This includes presenting them with opportunities to select the kinds of projects they work on, giving them creative freedom to select the companies they want to intern for and helping them make choices about whether they should go to college or a bootcamp. This also means that we are thinking about ending generational poverty, not by subscribing to one-size fits all solutions for our students, but creating multiple pathways for them to achieve success in our programs, in their academics, in their careers and beyond.
Ending generational poverty looks like dismantling systems of oppression that leave marginalized communities out of 21st century opportunities. America On Tech will be successful at ending generational poverty for its students when they have an opportunity to compete fairly for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
How do you think that the COVID-19 crisis will impact the tech industry and your students?
Now, more than ever, technology education, skills development, and workforce opportunities should be highly accessible to the students we’re serving at America On Tech.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected our students and the communities they represent. Particularly in New York City and Los Angeles, the number of COVID-19 cases has been massive in comparison to other cities. Many of our students and their families have experienced high exposure due to their family members being essential workers and high levels of economic stress during this time due to reduced hours and lost wages. Further, rates of infection are higher for low income communities, where there are a higher percentage of people of color: our students’ communities.
To add to the challenges our students already face due to racial, gender and economic disparities, not having access to the tools and resources to compete in this environment leaves our trained young people with newly minted skills nowhere to exercise them during a time where they could be generating income to sustain themselves, their families and, sometimes, their larger community of support.
To add to the challenges our students already face due to racial, gender and economic disparities, technology internships for summer 2020 are being canceled by many companies at a rapid rate. This leaves our trained, young people with newly minted skills and nowhere to exercise them during a time where they could be generating income to sustain themselves, their families and, sometimes, their larger community of support.
It takes a village to end generational poverty and requires us to take a multi-sector and multi-stakeholder approach to ensuring the success of our communities. When I think about what is required, America On Tech has a set of ideas on how portions of this can be achieved. Here are some of them:
- Policymakers have to fund technology education: Implement strong plans to establish robust budgets so schools and communities have access to the necessary resources they need to build capacity for 21st century curriculum, teacher training, and educational experiences. You can’t underfund low-income communities and communities of color and expect for there to be scalable change. Budgets are moral documents.
- Schools should be given the resources to consider curriculum enhancements and provide out-of-school learning opportunities: Schools need to have the funding to vet their current curricula and see if there are opportunities to innovate or provide new ones that are aligned with career and technical opportunities. Building teacher capacity to implement these programs in the classroom is critical for scalable change. Designating a guidance counselor or a work-based learning coordinator at the school to bridge opportunities for students outside of school should be a top priority, as schools cannot bear the entire responsibility of incubating the genius of a student.
- Schools and community-based organizations should mobilize parents and families: Parents and families are partners in the work. They need the resources and tools to continue doing the work at home and to provide a safe environment for learning for their young people. Building their capacity as advocates enables dynamic outcomes for our students’ success.
We want to thank Jessica for taking the time to share these insights with us. Be on the lookout for May’s Compass Leader spotlight on a member who exemplifies Going Beyond Education, and is addressing the holistic needs of our most vulnerable students.
Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) is a community of more than 300 leaders of color working to elevate the leadership, voices and influence of people of color in education and to leading more inclusive efforts to improve education. EdLoC aims to advance a third way that breaks through the polarizing divides that have consumed efforts to improve public education and to forge the alliances needed to realize and sustain EdLoC’s vision of providing low-income children of color expansive and substantive opportunities for the highest levels of academic and economic attainment.