Digital NEST Nurtures High-Tech Skills in Low-Income Youth

Jacob Martinez (left) in the co-working space at the Digital NEST.
Jacob Martinez (left) in the co-working space at the Digital NEST. Photo: Lily Dayton.

Issac Rodriguez always dreamed of making movies, but the Watsonville High School junior didn’t think it was something he would ever actually do. His parents worked long hours in the strawberry fields just to make ends meet; the family couldn’t afford a computer—let alone a video camera and editing software.

Now Rodriguez, one of 650 members of the non-profit organization Digital NEST, has access to a state-of-the-art tech facility in downtown Watsonville. The facility’s entrance faces the city plaza, a central gathering place reminiscent of the leafy green plazas of Mexico, where so many residents in this working-class community came from. On any given afternoon, the Digital NEST’s large, open workspace is filled with teenagers—some working on homework, others chatting in small groups. Most sit in front of shiny laptop computers, fingers flying across keyboards.

The NEST acronym stands for “Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology.” Started in 2014 by tech educator and social entrepreneur Jacob Martinez, the organization offers young people ages 12 to 24 a safe place to work and tools to build tech skills, as well as training, mentorship and community.

Though Watsonville lies only 50 miles south of Silicon Valley, its residents are separated from the tech mecca by a wide digital divide. Primarily an agricultural community, Watsonville’s population is 80 percent Latino, 71 percent Spanish-speaking. Twenty-one percent of the city’s residents live below poverty level. And while technology access is something that many youth in California take for granted, youth in Watsonville and the surrounding Pajaro Valley often go without.

This digital divide was immediately apparent to Martinez when he began working in tech education as a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz a decade ago. He was recruited by ETR Associates, a local nonprofit organization, to oversee a program funded by the National Science Foundation to build a technology workforce among underrepresented youth. The program started with bringing after-school tech training to sixth-grade girls in the Pajaro Valley, later expanding to include Latino boys and girls from elementary through high school.

“When we asked these youth, ‘How many of you have computers at home?’ three-quarters would raise their hands. But none of them had any idea how to enter a url into an address bar,” recounts Martinez. “So we started reframing the question: tell me about technology access in your home.”

The answers shared a common theme: “I have a computer but it’s old and slow. I have a computer, but I don’t have Internet. I have a computer, but it’s my uncle’s and he shares it with everyone in the house so I only get to use it once a week.”

With the high cost of living on the central coast of California, many of these low-income kids live in homes with multiple families—and today they struggle with tech access as much as they did ten years ago, says Martinez. “Everybody in a multi-family home is fighting for time on one old computer with tons of viruses, no Internet and no good software.”

Lack of Access Leaves Kids in the Cold

A 2014 survey showed that though 75 percent of Californians have broadband Internet at
home, only 46 percent of Spanish-speaking Latinos do. The Pew Research Center suggests this digital divide may be self-perpetuating: people without Internet access face “substantial challenges” with tasks such as filling out online job applications, finding job openings, creating professional resumes and highlighting skills on social media. Thus, they lose out on employment opportunities that could potentially help them escape their financial predicament.

Students without technology access struggle to compete with more fortunate students who have access. For those who continue beyond high school, Martinez says, “by the time they get to college and finally have access and financial aid to buy the equipment they need, they are five or six years behind their peers.”

This digital divide is only exacerbated at the professional level in the tech industry, says Martinez, “Only about 4 percent of tech jobs are filled by Latinos. These jobs are available, but they’re not going to people of color or women in general. And these are the same populations that are struggling the most economically.”

After running the tech program for years, Martinez grappled with the awareness that without access to technology on a regular basis, the few hours per week of tech exposure these kids got in school—often on outdated equipment with broken keyboards, dirty headsets and limited software—did little to prepare them for college, give them job skills or sustain interest in technology.

Then, on a chilly October evening of 2013, Martinez was browsing through the weekly farmer’s market in the Watsonville plaza—the same plaza where the Digital NEST sits today—when the solution came to him. He spotted a young woman sitting near the edge of the plaza, outside a locked community college building, typing intently at the computer balanced in her lap.

As Martinez came closer, he recognized the woman as a former tech students from his first cohort of sixth-grade girls. When Martinez asked her why she was working out in the cold, she responded that she needed the campus Wi-Fi signal to finish her homework assignment.

“She had no Internet at home and couldn’t afford Starbucks, so she was sitting outside, trying to connect to the Internet,” Martinez remembers.

Flocking to the NEST

Her situation was symbolic of that shared by so many youth he’d encountered through the years: so much potential, so little access. At the same time, the Pajaro Valley was filled with agricultural corporations and other companies big and small, all of which needed technical expertise. None of the local companies could compete with the high wages and glamorous work environments offered by Google, Twitter and other big tech enterprises in Silicon Valley. Yet to fill their open tech positions, the local companies weren’t hiring youth from Watsonville.

Martinez began to wonder: What would happen if we gave these kids access to technology? What if we found a way to get those tech jobs for youth in this community?

And so the seeds for Digital NEST were sown. Martinez imagined a co-working space for youth, modeled after a tech company—with cutting-edge equipment, the latest software, a recording studio, inviting conference rooms, workshops, seminars and even perks like free ice cream and gourmet sandwiches. He brought the idea to Bud Colligan, a local venture capitalist and former CEO of Macromedia, who was immediately on board to help fund the start-up. Martinez remembers his words: “This is going to have a huge impact on our community.”

With grants from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, as well as donations from local agricultural companies and equipment donated from tech companies, by the end of 2014 Martinez was able to open the NEST at a start-up location. He hired a diverse tech staff and offered workshops in topics ranging from web design and computer science to video production, entrepreneurship and agricultural technology. Because of the proximity to Silicon Valley, Martinez had no problem getting volunteers from companies such as Google, Netflix and LinkedIn to teach classes at the NEST.

And the youth of Watsonville kept joining. By November of 2015, the NEST had grown to 450 members—and they had outgrown their space. When they moved to the new, larger space on the plaza at the beginning of 2016, membership swelled to 650 within the first few weeks. One of the keys to the NEST’s success is that young people have created websites, logos and videos for local businesses and organizations. Clients receive tech services at a low cost, while youth gain valuable job experience—and earn above minimum wage.

Through the NEST, Hassyel Rangel, a Pajaro Valley High School senior, recently finished her first job creating a website for a local client. “That was one of the first times I thought, ‘I want to work in this [field]. I can actually do this,’” she says, adding, “It was also really cool to be making money.”

Issac Rodriguez, the would-be filmmaker, recently got involved with the Latino Project, a collaborative film project documenting the voices of people in the Pajaro Valley. He directed two shootings, and he’ll get to see his work screened in front of an audience this fall at the Watsonville Film Festival.

“I actually see a future now,” says Rodriguez. “I thought being a filmmaker was just a dream, but now I think it’s possible to actually accomplish it.”

The NEST has been so successful that plans are underway to open a new facility in East Salinas in 2017. Martinez says, “After we replicate it in East Salinas, I see sites three and four popping up. Then maybe throughout California. We’ll see where we go.”

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