Native Girls Code

iSchool faculty, students help expose Native girls to tech

In difficult conversations about diversity within the tech industry, one group is often left out of the discussion: American Indians. In most company demographic breakdowns, they are relegated to the category “Other.” When they are listed, the numbers are a blip. Intel’s diversity report released earlier this year showed American Indians representing 0.5 percent of its more than 100,000-member workforce.

Combined with the overall imbalance of women in the industry – men still hold 75 percent of all computing workforce jobs in the country – it’s no surprise that the few American Indian women who venture into this white male-dominated field find the experience, as one female Native commentator wrote, “lonely.”

“If you look at how many indigenous women are in the field, it is minuscule and invariably unwelcoming,” says iSchool Assistant Professor Negin Dahya, a specialist in digital youth. She is helping coordinate a new iSchool partnership with the Na’ah Illahee Fund, a local community-based organization that is working hard to link indigenous girls to 21st-century tech skills through its group Native Girls Code.

In the new partnership, iSchool volunteers will host Native Girls Code participants from across the state, helping them develop long-term projects and teaching them some of the basics of the school’s Informatics program – a program that provides a big-picture view of how mobile technologies, social media, web design, and other information systems fit together.

“A crucial part of this program will be an indigenous knowledge component developed in close collaboration with Na’ah Illahee. We want to create opportunities for indigenous histories, knowledge, and issues to be present in teaching, in learning, and in the work girls in the program complete,” says Dahya.

The Na’ah Illahee Fund, which is dedicated to empowering Native women as community leaders, launched Native Girls Code last summer. The group currently includes 10 Puget Sound-area girls, ages 12-18, representing tribes from all over the country. “That’s reflective of our indigenous community in Seattle,” says Program Coordinator Shawn Peterson, of Tlaoquiaht First Nations descent. “It’s very diverse. We are not a homogenous people.”

Leaders hope Native Girls Code will enrich both the girls and their communities. “I see the girls using technology to really look at our indigenous communities and think about the concerns those communities may be having and how to address them,” says Peterson.

For the girls, friendship is one of the perks of participation. “The best part of Native Girls Code for me is being able to bond with all the other girls, and experience things with girls just like me, and grow as an indigenous person,” says one participant.

Na’ah Illahee is a Native Chinook term for Mother Earth, and the earth is very much a part of the holistic approach program leaders are taking. The curriculum is called STEAM and it’s a creative departure from STEM-as-usual. The “S” incorporates both indigenous and Western science learning. The “T” includes coding, applications, websites, filmmaking, and media arts. The “E” is an inspired-by-nature youth curriculum, and the “M” is the study of mathematics concepts through both coding and art design. The all-important added “A” is for the cultural arts, traditional storytelling, and cultural exchanges.

“We never want to leave out the cultural work. That is embedded in everything we do,” says Executive Director Susan Balbas, of Cherokee and Yaqui Nations descent.

The Na’ah Illahee leaders point out that indigenous youth almost always rank at the bottom of standardized tests statewide, especially in STEM subjects. “Our goal is to increase those numbers, get kids to engage with their education, help them broaden their horizons and see more possibilities for their lives,” says Balbas, who holds a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Master of Science in Teaching. 

This year, Native Girls Code participants are deep into the study of traditional plants, learning their historic uses, how plants relate to one another, how they relate to humans, and how they fit into the ecosystem. The girls have made teas and medicine and healing salves from plants they discover in the wild. “We made a movie about how plants have reciprocal relationships and how that relates to other kinds of relationships. If you take something, you always have to give back,” says Siquoy Johnson, 18, a Haida and Tlingit descendant.

Putting new coding skills to work, the group also created a voice-recognition app where users can identify plants and learn to correctly pronounce the plant names in the Native Lushootseed language.

The girls see coding opening avenues to the future. “There aren’t that many coders that are women or are Native. There might be good jobs out there,” says Jayd Valenzuela, 16, a Blackfeet descendant.

Their ventures into the tech world have provoked deep conversations about what, exactly, to share and how to share it. Frustrated by the lack of good information on traditional plants, the girls suggested building a website with the knowledge they’re gaining in class and field studies. “Then we started talking about how do we feel as an indigenous people putting that information on the web for everyone to use?” says Peterson. “Their feelings were mixed. They said maybe it would be better to limit it to an internal site, with internal access.”

The Native Girls Code group has visited a number of tech firms, including Facebook, which donated laptops and filming equipment, and Google, which has been a major funder of the program and has provided the girls much-needed female role models.

In January, the iSchool welcomed the group to the UW for a daylong session. First stop was the planetarium, where the girls learned about the solar system and the stars, and how they link to Native traditions and histories and mythologies. “They asked nonstop questions after that, about the stars, about physics, about why things rotated the way they did. The questions were so in-depth. The girls were fascinated,” says Balbas.

Second stop was the iSchool computer lab, where the girls teamed up to work on coding exercises and create video games.  “That was a wake-up call, to see 12- and 13-year-old girls breezing through code,” says Peterson, who received her bachelor’s degree from the UW in community psychology.

ISchool Ph.D. candidate Sandy Littletree (Diné/Eastern Shoshone) helped facilitate the day’s activities. “Native Girls Code is an important project for our young women to imagine the possibilities of working in an environment like the iSchool or tech jobs. For many Native women, these kinds of careers are unthinkable and out of reach,” says Littletree, who specializes in American Indian knowledge systems and is part of the school’s Indigenous Information Research Group of Ph.D. scholars.

The iSchool is increasingly focused on indigenous studies. “Native North American Indigenous Knowledge is one of our main areas of focus for all our strategic planning,” says Dahya. The school recently hired Clarita Lefthand-Begay as an assistant professor focusing on indigenous knowledge and is seeking to fill a second faculty position in that area.

The iSchool’s partnership with the Na’ah Illahee Fund will kick into gear in the fall, with the Native Girls Code group at the school once a month, October to May. Just being on campus and interacting with professors can have a positive effect on the girls, says Peterson. “Universities can be intimidating and scary for some indigenous folks. So it’s empowering for these kids to be there, to find a voice for themselves and their communities, to put that indigenous perspective in the classroom and feel that it is really valid and important.

“I always say to the girls: ‘Do you want someone else to speak for you or do you want to do it yourself?”