The Fierce Urgency of Now

Earlier today I attended a stakeholder and planning meeting for “The Campus”, the “first technology and wellness hub at a public housing site in the United States.”

Our meeting was at the Howard Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It’s in the Howard Houses that The Campus operates. Brownsville and public housing projects like the Howard Houses have been largely left behind by the surge of investment (and gentrification) in Brooklyn in the last 15-20 years. Brownsville still suffers today from high levels of crime, violence, and poverty.

A key goal of “The Campus” is to provide opportunity to young people, especially young men and women of color who live in public housing. It is hoped that through technology, especially computer science, as well as programs in entrepreneurship and wellness, that we can provide youth the hope, confidence, and career skills with which to turn lives and communities around.

Tragically for one man our work came too late. About twenty minutes before the start of our meeting Rysheen Ervin, 28, still with a whole life ahead of him, was shot immediately outside our meeting room and only a few more feet from a public school. The man died of his wounds. The shooting was witnessed by my friend State Senator Jesse Hamilton, sponsor of The Campus. Senator Hamilton recorded this powerful video immediately after the shooting. This violence had a deep impact on everyone in attendance, including me.

At last week’s CSForAll Summit at The White House a key theme was broadening participation and making sure the “For All” in CSForAll is not just a platitude. On Thursday Mayor Bill De Blasio will give his one year update on New York City’s CSForAll initiative. During his speech we can expect to hear much about the city efforts to keep the “For All” in the forefront.

To complement and magnify CSForAll and the work of its foundation partner CSNYC, Borough President Eric L. Adams (also a sponsor of The Campus), his staff, myself, and a number of non-profit and private sector partners, put together CodeBrooklyn last year. The purpose of the CodeBrooklyn campaign is to champion the expansion of computer science and STEM in our schools, especially in communities like Brownsville, with the goal of establishing computer science in every Brooklyn school in 7 years — 3 years ahead of the city target. We’re still in the early days, but last year were able to help get over 80% of Brooklyn schools to participate in Hour of Code.

Senator Hamilton is a key supporter of CodeBrooklyn. Senator Hamilton held one of the first hackathons in Brownsville last year. Another supporter of CodeBrooklyn is City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who at a CEC 13 meeting in October 2014 literally jumped onto the stage at PS 307 to join CSNYC board chair Fred Wilson to give impromptu, moving testimony about the civil rights case for computer science.

The fight for civil rights brings to mind Dr. King. The death of this man, Mr. Ervin, literally before the eyes of those gathered to plan for The Campus, gave new relevance to these words of Dr. King:

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.'”

For the man murdered today,  and his murderer perhaps as well, we were “too late.”

Let me be clear – computer science education is not a panacea to all of our nation’s problems. The challenges in communities like Brownsville – or McDowell County in West Virginia – are a Gordian knot that can not be swept away with a couple lines of JavaScript. But our commitment to inclusion and participation in computer science education is a right and important first step in creating new opportunity for communities that the economy has left behind.

And so let us resolve to act, in the memory of this man killed today at the Howard Houses, with Dr. King’s “fierce urgency of now”. Let us never be “too late” again.

  • Tragic and sad.

    You’re so right about CS ed not being a solve all.

    It’s the fight we’ve chosen to fight and we can only do the best we can for those within our reach.

    In the mean time, unless and until those in power decide to deal with hard, long term societal issues, all we can do is nip at the fringes.

    • Patriotic Hungarian

      The Campus meeting that Rob took part in included anti-violence groups, job development specialists, the NYCHA Tenant Association President, school principals, dozens of local Community Based Organizations, and a wide range of wellness professionals, with a strong emphasis on mental health. It is getting the active support of not just Senator Hamilton, but Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has contributed $500,000 and Assembly Member Latrice Walker is working on $125,000.

      If you’re reading this, you have some power to help bring up one of the neighborhoods with the worst health and safety statistics in the City. Rob was making the point that this is an urgent issue—it’s not just “tragic and sad,” it’s a fiercely urgent issue. It’s a call to action, not just another tragedy to sit back and shake our heads at.

      So, when you write “until those in power decide to deal with” these issues, I include YOU in that. What is YOUR solution, since you might be suggesting that the broad alliance creating the Campus is just a “nip at the fringes?”

      I do want to hear solution, @zamansky:disqus. There are success stories, and I would like to learn from them.