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Interview with Briana Wilson, M.S. from Code Nation Chicago on Educational Nonprofits, STEM Education, and Organizational Collaboration

About Briana Wilson, M.S.: Briana Wilson is Director of Programs at Code Nation Chicago, a branch of the national educational organization Code Nation that works to advance educational equity by partnering with regional high schools and technology companies to provide computer science programming and internship opportunities for underrepresented students. Ms. Wilson has worked for Code Nation for several years, previously holding the roles of Senior Program Manager and Program Manager. Prior to her time at Code Nation, Ms. Wilson worked as a Special Education Teacher and Case Manager for Chicago Public Schools. She also served as a Special Education Teacher and Corps Member for Teach for America.

Ms. Wilson holds a Master of Science in Special Education and Teaching from Dominican University and a Bachelor’s in Communication and Media Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your personal, academic, and professional background? How did you become interested in promoting equity in STEM education for young people and come into your current role as Director of Programs for Code Nation?

[Briana Wilson] Both sides of my family are from Chicago. My mom’s side of the family is from the South Side, and my dad’s side of the family is from the west side of the city. I grew up in Chicago, but I also moved around a bit when I was younger, including a short stint in Florida.

I have had a number of different schooling experiences. I have been in Montessori schools, public schools, and private schools. It was not until private school that I really felt academically challenged. I went to high school at University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which prepared me well for college. I graduated from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in communications and did not know exactly what I wanted to do with that. Then I heard about Teach for America. I had not originally envisioned myself as a teacher, but their mission really resonated with me: a vision in which one day all children will have access to high quality education [“We envision a world where educators, policymakers, parents, and students are working together to ensure that their communities’ children have the foundation they need to learn, lead, thrive, and shape a better future for themselves and all of us.”]

My experience in different education settings made stark the disparate educational experiences that students receive depending on where they live and what their parents can afford. My parents invested significantly in my education by sending me to private schools for my later middle school and high school experiences. That set me up for opportunities that I would not have had otherwise: opportunities that my cousins did not have, despite being equally deserving of them.

My interest and passion center on creating a level playing field in terms of educational access. I started working as a classroom teacher to understand and experience that dynamic. I taught for two years as a special education educator and corps member for Teach for America at a charter school in Little Village, then continued on as a case manager there. I left that position to go to a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) elementary school, where I taught special education to preschoolers and worked as a case manager as well.

I stumbled into the role of case manager because the person in that position at my first school quit, but I ended up loving it. I loved that I had a macro impact on the building beyond just the students in my specific classroom. I was in charge of ensuring that students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) were met and written in ways that were responsive to their needs. I learned pretty quickly that it was not enough to just have the IEP meeting and have the IEP written in order for students to actually benefit. It was critical to make sure that general education teachers spent time with the IEPs and understood how to implement the accommodations. Working with general education teachers to help them implement behavior plans and learning accommodations in their classrooms was really exciting to me. I wanted to do more of that instructional coaching piece.

That led me to the Program Manager role at Code Nation. What really drew me to Code Nation is the mission. There are two aspects to it that I found compelling. First, the ways in which we provide an alternative education model stood out. We come into schools to fill a gap that schools are unable to fill themselves and bring resources into communities.

Second was the focus on technology education. The programs that we run are programs that I wish I had when I was young. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Similarly, you cannot be what you have never seen. I wanted to make opportunities for people who looked like me, who lived in communities like the ones that my family lived in. That is why I came to Code Nation.

[] Would you define how you conceptualize equity in your own practice? In particular, how have your experiences working in special education and with Code Nation informed your perspective on educational equity?

[Briana Wilson] It has become clear to me that equity does not just happen. The nature of systemic inequity is that you have to do intentional, anti-racist work to disrupt it. In serving as a case manager, a special education teacher, and as Program Manager at Code Nation, I have seen that the work to advance educational equity has to be proactive and intentional. If there is not an effort by every institution at every level to put in place policies and resources, and to build capacity toward anti-racist work, it does not happen.

Being in the classroom and working with my students, I never had all of the resources that I needed. I bought things out of my own pocket and used an online platform to crowdfund my classroom. I had to put together all of those different resources to just try and get students the bare minimum of what they needed. It was not just my special education students who were underserved. Teachers were doing this for all of the students in the building, but the special education students were especially vulnerable.

Throughout all of my roles, I have seen that more vulnerable students and students who are historically marginalized get lost in the shuffle if their needs are not elevated. That is the throughline for my work and what I want to continue doing: ensuring equity and access remain front and center, so these students do not get lost.

[] Would you introduce us to Code Nation as an organization and its equity mission? In particular, would you discuss why promoting STEM and computer science education at a young age is so critical to the struggle for educational equity?

[Briana Wilson] Code Nation’s mission is to equip students in under-resourced high schools with the skills, connections, and experiences that, together, create access to careers in technology. The problem that we are grappling with is twofold. The lack of representation in tech not only means that there is a gap in the workforce and jobs to be filled but also, more importantly, that there is a gap in perspective. Not having an industry that is representative of all users and consumers of technology means that there is an opportunity to create products and to modify products that would serve consumers whose needs are not being met.

Having representation is the only way to disrupt bias. If tech companies do not have any voices representing Black communities or non-male consumers, then they are going to get it wrong sometimes. I think representation is a hugely important opportunity for the tech industry to have better, more informed products and practices. For Black and Brown communities, Black and Brown students, and non-male students, there is also a lack of exposure which perpetuates inequities and generational wealth gaps. Like I said before, you cannot be what you have never seen or aspire to a job that you do not know exists.

High school is typically the age at which students who pursue STEM decide that they are going to do so, which is why Code Nation focuses on high schoolers. As they are thinking about their postsecondary experience, we want to help them understand that computer science is an option for them and to help them believe it is an industry they can thrive in as well as an industry that needs them. We are focused on creating a bridge between our students and the tech industry. We want students to be able to see themselves in a tech job, working in a tech office, and we also want the tech industry to be ready to receive our students when they are entering the industry.

[] Would you tell us a bit about your role as Director of Programs? How is your approach to this position guided by your own investments in educational equity?

[Brian Wilson] I came into Code Nation as a program manager. Chicago is our newest region at Code Nation. We are well into our fifth school year, which is really exciting. There are a couple of things that I have learned along the way that guide my current focus.

First, students are at the heart of everything we do and everything I want to create. Chicago is unique in that its tech industry is really still blossoming and emerging. We are not quite at the level of Silicon Valley, but we certainly have a significant tech economy. It can be insular, so building a reputation for Code Nation in Chicago has taken time and care. I have learned a lot about the tech education landscape, the computer science education landscape in Chicago, and what some of the biggest needs are.

These needs have evolved. Four years ago, when Code Nation started in Chicago, was the first year that CPS implemented their requirement for graduating students to complete a computer science course. Subsequently, there was a huge need for computer science exposure courses. Our multi-year program model starts with our year one Introduction to Web Development course, which is really focused on introducing students to computer science. Front-end web development, which requires no prior experience, can be really exciting for students, and kids who love it move on to our more advanced programs.

What we have found over time is that there is still a need for computer science exposure, but there are also more computer science teachers in buildings now. Those teachers offer introductory CS courses and more and more of them are giving students the chance to deepen their content knowledge through AP computer science, robotics, and other fields in the industry. What computer science teachers are often struggling with is how to make that first-touch experience in computer science really engaging for students such that they feel successful and excited and want to continue.

To address this, we are increasingly partnering with computer science teachers who have technical content knowledge but want to use our project-based curriculum in which students get to build websites over the course of the year, be mentored by professional software engineers, get work-based experiences before they leave high school, and take field trips to tech companies. We also have our annual hackathon, which will be held at Google this year. We aim to make that first-touch experience as high-quality and impactful as possible.

The other need that is emerging relates to the more advanced learning experience, where students get to deepen their content knowledge and have an internship-like experience. Our fellowship programs take place at tech companies to really focus on career preparation: getting to see and experience what it is like to be and work in a tech office. They learn directly from tech professionals and build professional skills. Our fellowship partners this year are Google, Grubhub, Basis Technologies, Stripe, Expedia, IMC, and Relativity. Students get to go to an office like Google every week after school and learn JavaScript from professionals there.

The fellowship program is an experience that builds students’ confidence that this is an industry they can be successful in. Students build connections with people who may help them get jobs later, and they leave us with technical products that stand out on their resumes, whether they are applying to a computer science program for college, an internship or apprenticeship right out of school, or a coding bootcamp. We are building not just technical skills but also confidence and a sense of belonging in the industry.

This is critical to mitigating the imposter syndrome students often encounter in leaving the classroom. I think we are doing students a disservice if we just teach them the content without preparing them for what it is going to be like to work in an industry where they might not see people who look like them — where they will likely think at some point, “I do not belong here. This is not for me.” Providing experiences working in a tech office with tech professionals and intentionally acknowledging imposter syndrome helps combat the attrition that is possible when students get this content expertise but do not feel like the industry is actually accepting of them.

[] Are there particular initiatives or programming you would highlight from your work as Director of Programs in Chicago that you have found to be most impactful or meaningful?

[Briana Wilson] I would spotlight two things. First, I talked before about shifting with the computer science landscape so that we still offer our traditional program in which volunteers come in and teach but we also partner directly with computer science teachers to make that first exposure course really exciting.

I would add that we are expanding access to the fellowship program that we have historically offered to Code Nation students who completed our intro course. We are recognizing that there are students who are getting those skills from programs outside of Code Nation or at their schools. We are currently piloting a direct-to-fellowship program in which applicants who demonstrate that they have the prerequisite skills move right into the fellowship program, which provides an incredible leg up for their future.

Second, there is our Weekend Workshop Series. It is school agnostic, so students across the city are able to apply. It takes place downtown and we often engage tech companies as hosts for those weekends. Students will learn our coding content over the course of three weekends, from professional software developers who volunteer their time. When students finish the weekend intro program, they can move into the fellowship just like students who took the full-year program at their school. In part, we started the weekend model because we were limited in the number of schools that we could take on year-to-year.

Code Nation has grown every year, but still is not able to meet the demand for our programming. The weekend intro program has helped us make our programming more accessible. Last year, we had over 250 students apply to join our Weekend Workshop cohort. We are excited to keep growing.

[] 2023 marked the ten-year anniversary of the founding of Code Nation. Would you reflect on what the organization has accomplished during the last decade and what you see to be its most pressing needs or priorities moving forward? Does the recent Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action inform how you see these priorities?

[Briana Wilson] Ten years is a milestone. The concept of Code Nation came from classroom teachers who saw the opportunity gap within their schools and from students in underserved communities who understood the opportunities within tech for themselves. Ten years later, the organization works across the three regions and has served about 750,000 students. It is a huge accomplishment.

Chicago is the newest region, and we have increased the number of school partners and students served each year since we began in five years ago. Like I mentioned, it has taken time to build a local reputation. We are laser focused on continuing to build momentum and growing our footprint. As we emerge from being one of the best kept secrets in tech education programming to being a premier tech education offering in the city, our priority is to grow our student reach to keep up with the need.

In terms of Affirmative Action, what the ruling really crystallizes for me is what I said before about intentionally disrupting inequity. We are not starting from a level playing field. Institutional inequity has created a reality in which people of color, women, and under-represented people are not afforded the same opportunities as their white male counterparts. The reality is that equity and treating everyone the same are two different things. Equity is meeting the needs of people and acknowledging that those needs are different. The ruling was disappointing to me, but I was not surprised. It just reinforced what I already know to be true — we have a lot of work to do.

[] Based on your experience, do you have advice you would give to educators, practitioners, and administrators seeking to advance educational equity in their own work?

[Briana Wilson] My advice is to always keep students’ voices at the center. We have to work proactively to affirm that students have agency, value, and can add to the conversations we are having and the decisions we are making about their education on their behalf. If at any point we are doing the work and we are not approaching students from an asset-based lens then we are doing them and ourselves a disservice. Keeping students at the center of how we think about and approach our work is critical.

Thank you, Ms. Wilson, for sharing your background working to advance equity in education and introducing us to Code Nation Chicago’s programming, partnerships, and mission to advance equity in STEM.