Bronx Nonprofit Promotes Tech in Schools With Subway Ad Contest


A Bronx-based nonprofit called C/I wants to make sure that every student has access to computer science education — especially those who are deemed “at risk.”

As part of its “Creative for a Cause” initiative, C/I teamed up with the online marketplace Fiverr, as well as the magazines Advertising Age and Creativity, to put out a call for submissions for a subway ad promoting C/I’s Code/Interactive program, which brings programming curricula right into the classroom. At Internet Week New York, which took place in Manhattan from May 18–24, a panel of judges selected the winning design, which, beginning in August, will appear on 350 subway platforms throughout the five boroughs.

“What was really surprising to me, as I’ve sat back and watched folks make submissions, was how absolutely important [Code/Interactive] was to the folks who were submitting to the campaign,” says Michael Denton, the executive director of C/I. “As the head of a nonprofit, you often find yourself standing up and shouting as loud as you can about the issue you’re trying to tackle, and it sometimes feels a little lonely and isolated. But to see people genuinely think about and have empathy toward the challenge you’re facing is very, very powerful.”

More than 250 submissions were submitted from designers across the globe. The winning design, titled “Escape,” comes from designer Christian Liu and copywriter Jaume Rodriguez, who work at Alma Advertising Agency in Miami. Both used to live in New York, and both had dreamed of having one of their designs grace the subway system’s ad spaces. Here’s the winning ad:

Adam Swart, Fiverr’s marketing director, says Fiverr and C/I decided on a subway ad in order to reach as many people as possible. “We really wanted all New Yorkers to be aware of diversity in tech, even if you don’t have an internet connection. We think it’s really important that everyone has equal access to technology and education.”

The campaign also marks a moment of expansion for C/I. Once a small community organization, it has begun to extend its reach beyond the Bronx. The nonprofit was founded in the Kingsbridge area of the Bronx in 2001 as Camp Interactive (a name the group has now discarded in favor of the punchier initialism). Its goal was to close the digital divide. The founders opened a community center filled with computers and offered tutoring to students who didn’t have access to computers or the internet at home.

But around 2009, C/I’s leadership realized their program no longer met the needs of its participants. “We recognized that there was really no need to provide kids with access to the internet any longer,” Denton says. “Our responsibility had changed. We needed to begin teaching students what they could do with access to the internet in order to participate in the 21st-century economy.”

C/I had more students coming to their community center than the space would fit. So they decided to integrate their programs into local schools. “The reality is, there is no universally acceptable computer science curriculum,” Denton says. In 2011, the organization began training teachers at participating Bronx schools about computer science, and how to teach it to their own students. C/I’s program managers hold sessions for teachers before school starts, and periodically go into the classrooms to help facilitate curriculum alongside the teachers.

For the 2015–2016 school year, C/I’s coding classes will be available in twelve schools in the Bronx, three in Brooklyn, and three in Manhattan. Over the summer, Denton hopes to get schools in Queens on board as well. And of course, the program is open only to those who meet the criteria for at-risk youth. Denton says the most common measure for the students who enroll in the program is that they qualify for free school lunches. All students must maintain a B average and keep up their attendance in order to remain in the program.

Code/Interactive has garnered the support of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who founded the City Council’s Technology Committee in 2002, when she was a councilmember. “Technology in 2015 is very different from what it was in 2002 or 2003,” Brewer says. Schools still struggle with broadband issues and old equipment, and above all, many school administrators are suspicious of tech companies trying to shill their wares. This is where Brewer’s involvement comes in handy.

“Teachers and principals get nervous about groups they don’t know, particularly in tech,” she says. “So when we send an email or a letter stating, ‘This is a good organization,’ they tend to pay attention.”

Lara Zarum reports for the Voice on gun violence, city life, television, movies, comedy, and hipster mattress companies.