Ricardo Signes: Welcome back to the Digital Citizen podcast. I’m Ricardo Signes, the CTO of Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Here with me is my colleague, Fastmail COO, Helen Horstmann-Allen.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Hi, I’m Helen. Today, Rik will be talking to Dan Rhoton, the executive director of Hopeworks. Rik for our listeners who don’t already know, what is Hopeworks?
Ricardo Signes: Hopeworks is a job training program located in Camden, New Jersey. They train young people in tech skills, and they help set them up for professional growth.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: So I understand that you are the one who found Hopeworks for us. Can you tell me how you found out about them?
Ricardo Signes: We met some folks from Hopeworks at a local Philly tech event years ago, and I thought it was a very interesting organization and they had an interesting mission. Hopeworks isn’t about building a better internet. They’re not developing open standards to change how the world works. They’re not producing a medium for having online communications. So we could debate, is this really about digital citizenship? But what is clear, is Hopeworks is about engaging with technology and about providing technical training and technical skills to people so that they can effect a positive change in the world. And that’s definitely in the realm of what we’re interested in on this show. And so I thought it’d be really interesting to talk with them about their work.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Awesome. So what did you and Dan end up talking about?
Ricardo Signes: Dan and I are going to talk about Hopeworks’ mission and how it has a big impact on young people in Camden. We’ll be talking about their trauma-informed approaches to healing and how using the trauma-informed approach better sets up Hopeworks graduates for success after they leave the program. We’re also going to talk about technology and how it’s a problem-solving tool that you can use to build tools that solve problems unique to you. And at the end of the episode, we’ll come back and talk about some takeaways, which are things you can actually do to be a better digital citizen. You’ll also be able to find those on our website at fastmail.com/digitalcitizen.
Ricardo Signes: Also, if you want to get involved with this season of the show, check out the survey listed in our show notes and send us a question. We’ll be randomly choosing some to answer in our end of season bonus episode.
Ricardo Signes: Today, we’re talking to Dan Rhoton about Hopeworks, where Dan is the executive director. Could you tell us what Hopeworks is?
Dan Rhoton: Yeah, so fundamentally Hopeworks works with young adults, 17 to 26. When they walk into the front door, these young adults are making less than $400 a year, they’re not working. When they walk out the front door at the end of their time at Hopeworks, right now, on average, they’re making over $43,000 per year and 88.7% of them are still working 12 months later. That’s what we do.
Ricardo Signes: Right. And what do they do while they’re with you?
Dan Rhoton: Yep. So it starts with training in front-end web development, geographic information systems, digital mapping, and data visualization, while they’re working on technology skills. They’re also working with our coaches to develop the social and emotional skills that they need to succeed. We’re also working hard to remove barriers: folks who are struggling with housing, folks who have untreated mental health issues, etc. We want to make sure nothing is in the way of their success. Once they’re done training with us, they’re work ready. They’re technically skilled. They’re socially, and emotionally, and professionally ready, but they still have no experience. So at that point, we hire them into our businesses. Hopeworks runs a full suite of web design services that run websites for companies all over the country. We do GIS, and digital mapping services for Fortune 100 companies like Comcast and American Water. They work for us earning a minimum of 15 bucks an hour in our businesses building a portfolio. And then they move right on to jobs at companies that we partner with all over the region.
Ricardo Signes: When your students are going through the program, you’ve talked about not just learning the technical skills, but learning the other skills they need to acquire and keep these jobs. Do you think there’s a common moment they have of an “aha, this could be a real change in the trajectory of my next year,” of what they’re doing?
Dan Rhoton: The second time, I think it really happens, is when they have the opportunity to do mock interviews or real interviews with some of our corporate partners. And at the end of the day, they do the interview and it’s scary. And the corporate partner’s asking them tough questions. And at the end, they’re waiting for the feedback and oftentimes the first thing to hear is like, “Well, Jorge or hey Joaquin, or hey, George, that interview was better than the last 10 real interviews I’ve done with real candidates.” Where they realize they can do this thing. This is something that they’re capable of. And that’s when it really takes hold.
Ricardo Signes: And when people graduate from Hopeworks, what are some careers they end up pursuing?
Dan Rhoton: So there’s two big categories. There’s our tech placements and then kind of our tech adjacent placements. So our tech placements, our folks end up as GIS technicians at large companies, data analysts, QA and web development, QA junior developers. So those are the folks that land right into tech. And then we have a lot of folks that are tech adjacent. Folks that are doing high-end technical customer service, right? Folks who are doing real social media, SEO work. Those kinds of things that maybe are not hard coding, but those skills you need to be successful.
Ricardo Signes: What is it about Hopeworks that makes its program successful?
Dan Rhoton: I really think at the end of the day, it is the fact that we recognize that a technical certification might get you the job, but you won’t keep it. That what’s most important is that we have a trauma-informed approach where we really work to make folks heal and be emotionally healthy, be ready for the challenges of the world and know how to ask for help. Because that’s the thing, if someone comes into the job that is technically very skilled, but can’t show up every day, can’t ask for help when they need it, can’t control when they feel anxious or worried, they’re not going to be successful. But if someone comes in maybe a little less technically skilled, but they’re able to ask for help, they’re confident in what they’re able to offer, they know how to manage those hard days and the easy days to be there every day. They’re going to pick up those technical gaps and they’re going to be a better employee. And I think that’s probably the difference between your typical Hopeworks person and someone else who comes from somewhere else that’s very capable, but not ready.
Ricardo Signes: You used a phrase that I had written down already that I’d wanted to ask you about before you said it today. You said that you had a trauma-informed approach. And I was really curious, what does this mean about the way in which you’re carrying out your programs?
Dan Rhoton: It’s a great question. And it’s one of those words that can be very technical, but fundamentally I put it like this, a trauma-informed approach means that we know that people have been hurt. And unless you deal with that hurt, they’re never going to be able to excel. You can’t just ignore it. The best analogy is, if we’re all running a race and we’re running down the track and I’ve broken my ankle, I’m never going to be able to finish that race. No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I want it. Until someone says, “Hey, Dan, it looks like you’re having trouble running. It looks like your ankle is broken. It’s not your fault. It’s not because you’re lazy. It’s not because you’re bad. We see this all the time. Let’s put a cast on it. You’re going to have to work. You’re going to have to do some work to get it healed. And we’re going to be doing some physical therapy. But then when it’s healed, you’re going to be able to keep up with the rest of them.”
Dan Rhoton: All the trauma-informed approach really is acknowledging is that fundamental truth. You can’t gut it out. You can’t tough out being hurt. You have to deal with the issues that are keeping you from being successful. You have to help people heal, and then they’re ready to go.
Ricardo Signes: Does everyone at Hopeworks use this trauma-informed approach?
Dan Rhoton: It really is something that we teach every single person at Hopeworks, this trauma-informed approach, because it really is a way of approaching the world. And in fact, one of our businesses, the Youth Healing Team is a group of folks who actually train schools, nonprofits, and even for-profit companies in how to do this with their employees and their students. Because it’s not a Hopeworks thing. It’s a human thing that makes every organization more effective.
Ricardo Signes: So something else I’ve read you say in the past, and I’ll set the stage for people who can only hear us. Dan’s a white guy and Dan in another interview, I had you say something like, “It’d be one thing if we brought in these Black and Brown, young people, and they’re learning programming from a guy who looked like me, like Dan. It’s another thing when they come in and they learn from somebody who looks like them and who’s from the same place as them.” How does the identity of the teachers in your program affect the success of the students?
Dan Rhoton: Yeah, it’s critical. I am a white guy, but it’s notable that I’m one of the few, right? What’s really important is that our staff reflects the young adults who walk through the front door. And in fact, 30% of our staff are actually alumni of our programming. And that’s not because we want to do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do it because we hire the best folks and the best folks are folks who have been through the Hopeworks program, know what we’re about, and know our techniques. One of the key things is the phrase that is a cliche now, but it is true like many cliches says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It is critical that every young person that walks in the front door here at Hopeworks sees individuals who look like them, doing this technical work, doing this tricky, often difficult work, and succeeding at it. Once you see that, then you realize this is a place for you. This is a place where you can go. And then that moment is pretty amazing.
Ricardo Signes: How did you end up at Hopeworks?
Dan Rhoton: So for most of my career, I was a teacher and then a school administrator at a detention facility. Which I got to say was so much fun. Now to be clear, the young men there were all young men who had done bad things. These were tough young men, but I would say to them and I really meant it, “I love teaching there” because they had the drive, they had the passion, they had the will. They just needed to be shown a different path. So I started there and we did great. One of my alumni is an Obama Fellow now, I mean, these are awesome young men.
Dan Rhoton: But I ended up at Hopeworks because there was one frustrating thing I couldn’t get past, which was, that I had these young men who were ready for change. They were ready to do something different with their lives. They were ready to move forward. They were doing it when they were with me, and then they would go back out in the world and nobody would give them that first shot. Nobody would give them that first job. So I came to Hopeworks with the idea that here’s an organization that ran its own businesses, that hired its own folks. This might be a chance to really make a difference. And so that’s how I ended up at Hopeworks.
Ricardo Signes: So to me, this sounds like a mission to help the individuals you can get into the program. And it sounds like it’s successful at that. What else do you want to accomplish by doing this?
Dan Rhoton: It turns out, the thing we’ve figured out at Hopeworks, it turns out the solution to poverty is money. And if we can take folks and rather than doing all these experiments, but just help folks who are experiencing poverty, get the tools they need to enter these high wage, high growth fields. A lot of those problems start going away. And especially in a remote world where folks can make money from anywhere. What if folks were able to make really good money without leaving their neighborhood? Without leaving everything they know behind? Some pretty magical things can happen. And that’s been probably the most exciting part of watching things happen at Hopeworks, we have young people who are getting great jobs and taking care of their families. Then their younger brothers come to Hopeworks, because they see the pathway, then their cousins, their girlfriends, and boyfriends. And then we’ve had folks who then start their own tech businesses and then come back to us to hire their first employees. Now that is a recipe for change. And that’s the exciting moments that we get to see at Hopeworks.
Ricardo Signes: So you’re putting about 100 people into full-time jobs for the people of Camden. What can we do on a larger scale to solve these problems? Is it something that can be addressed on a larger scale?
Dan Rhoton: And in fact it can only be. I mean, one of the things that Hopeworks does, is we can take the folks who are not being reached by our current economy and we can help them engage. Those 100, 150 folks who are really struggling, we can help them get engaged and that’s our job. But what we can’t do is fix the fundamental structural inequities of our economy. The fact that folks have super yachts while other folks are starving. But the nice thing about it is, that it’s not a complicated problem to solve. If you look at just recently, when they expanded the child tax credit, literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of children were lifted out of poverty by a single policy change, right? Small changes in our tax and social infrastructure can have massive benefits in taking folks out of poverty.
Dan Rhoton: Hopeworks and folks like Hopeworks, we will always be there to bridge the gap between the existing structure and the folks who are not served, whether they’re returning citizens or folks experiencing homelessness. And we should really serve as proof that if we can do this with folks who are experiencing the highest level of hardship, then those small policy changes that can have massive impacts across the entire continuum, are worth pursuing for everybody else.
Ricardo Signes: Do you have any advice for people on how to help drive those policy changes forward?
Dan Rhoton: A profound dissatisfaction with the status quo. And if we can hold onto that and continue pushing, then I think we can make change. I think the really dangerous thing, is to imagine that things will stay the way they are, because they won’t. And the future will belong to the people who decide that they won’t. So I think that’s what I’ve seen, if that makes sense.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah. You remind me of the, I think it’s a Luke Winn quote that, “All these things seem unchangeable, but that’s what the king said about the monarchy.”
Dan Rhoton: Right.
Ricardo Signes: Talking about changing people’s paradigms, changing their views. Do you think that your students end up with a different relationship with technology, to the online world at the end of your programs?
Dan Rhoton: I think so, because I think one of the key things is that when many of our young adults start, they are consumers of technology. They use it on their phones, they use it to play apps and games. They use Netflix. They are consumers, but they don’t actually use technology to solve their own problems, because they can’t build it. They don’t understand it in a profound way as a problem-solving tool, they understand it kind of like it’s a difference between eating a hamburger and making one. When our young adults leave Hopeworks, if we’ve done our job, they understand that technology is a force that can be used to solve problems. And if you don’t use it to solve your problems, someone will try to solving them for you.
Ricardo Signes: What type of problems do you see the Hopeworks graduates solve with the technology that they build?
Dan Rhoton: Technology will solve the problem you present it to. Right? So if your problem is increasing profitability, technology can create algorithms and programs very effectively to make your Facebook page make more money at no great cost to humanity. If technology is used to make a more humane, more gentle world, technology could do that too, but only if that’s the task that you set to overcome. And I think that’s why it’s really important that the folks who understand and control technology are not the same old, same old. We need to make sure that other folks do because they’re going to solve fundamentally different problems. The folks with money and comfort, aren’t solving for comfort and wellbeing, they got that. They’re solving for more money. But the folks who need comfort, the folks who need wellbeing, the folks who want to have a sustainable life, if they understand how to do it, they will solve for their problems. And I would say those problems are our problems. And so that’s why having someone different control technology, I think is more important.
Ricardo Signes: So Dan, Hopeworks is in Camden and it sounds like it’s great for the people of Camden, but what is there generally or specifically for people who are in other places?
Dan Rhoton: Sure. Well first and then of course I would be remiss if I didn’t say that in the next year, we’ll be opening in Philadelphia also. And then we’re trying to continue to grow. But I think in other places, what you really want to look for, are places that keep the promises they make to the folks who come through their program. So if you see folks, the programs say, “We do this, we do this, we do this.” And then you don’t see them saying, “Here’s all the folks that are currently working in jobs and here’s what they’re making. And here’s what they’re doing.” Keep looking, right. That’s the thing is, I always joke, but everybody can have a great mission statement. And that’s really, like you said about the founders. Everyone can have a great mission statement, but your real mission statement comes from the outcomes you produce. And so there are great organizations in every city if you look for them and find them.
Ricardo Signes: We’ve been circling around maybe one of the central questions of the whole podcast. On this podcast, Digital Citizen, we talk about digital citizenship and what does this mean? We are all participating in a digital world now. We use social media. We watch videos on the internet. We get our news online. We’re citizens in this online society. What is the advice that you, Dan, would give to somebody who wants to be a better citizen?
Dan Rhoton: I think the first thing I would say is, listen. Go places and be places where you are not in control, that make you uncomfortable, and spend time there. Once that starts happening, all of your actions after that moment will be profoundly different. If you spend enough time there, that’s what I would say.
Ricardo Signes: And is that the same advice for everyone or do you have any special advice you want to give to those people who are already building the technology that underpins our online society?
Dan Rhoton: What I would say there is, understand the power that you have and the choices you make. Look at something as simple as image recognition, and how folks chose to test or not test that on folks with darker skin, right? Such a small example. Somewhere there’s a technician who just completed the algorithm the way they were told to do it. Didn’t imagine other people, didn’t imagine other skin tones, and just moved on. What if that person had said, “I’m in a powerful position, let me do this differently. Let me do this thoughtfully. Let me take this technology and sit with people that I don’t normally sit with and see what they think of it.” How different would that simple example be, right?
Ricardo Signes: I hope you enjoyed the interview with Dan.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: So Rik, problem-solving tools that are unique to you. I feel like you’d throw those off by the bucket full every single week.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah. I mean, I think that there are a lot of things that are empowering about technology. And talking about this episode in particular, I think the thing to not skip over is one of the most empowering things about technology is that it’s a career that makes good money. And Dan says the solution to poverty isn’t just the education. The solution to poverty is money. And so why do you teach people careers in technology? It’s to get money into the situation.
Ricardo Signes: But putting that aside, putting aside the largest impact of the technical skills. I look at these in my day-to-day life and I think knowing how to write software, knowing how to employ technology in the most efficient way possible, is a big time saver for me. Giving people the tools that they need to automate their lives to things like automatically filtering your mail or how to use a spreadsheet, is like the entry point. And when you get to the point of having the skills to build more software for making your life better, you can actually go ahead and make your life better. It’s not just a gimmick. The point here is to make your life better. And I get really excited when I see people being given the skills to take control of their lives.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: I totally agree. It’s kind of hard for me to remember that we only know Hopeworks through this show. Other than that one meeting, we didn’t really get to know them. But since then, we’ve talked to Dan at a number of places and a number of events and it is interesting to me, from the people standpoint. You’re interested in the technology and how that grows, but it’s also been really interesting to me to get to talk to Dan in other formats: about jobs, and the kinds of jobs people get, and how they spend their time, and what we empower them to do. So I think Dan’s really chosen an interesting path and an interesting mission with Hopeworks. I’m really glad we’ve gotten to profile them.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah, me too. I was really glad. I get worried when I say, “What if we talk to this person?” Because if I’ve suggested we have a guest on and it goes terribly, that’s on me. And I didn’t really think it was going to go badly, but I was very pleased. I thought that they’re a really interesting organization. More people should hear about them. And I hope that people want to end up getting involved with organizations like this.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Well, I mean, that’s incredible, right? Because the thing is, Hopeworks is unique, but there are lots of organizations like them around the country and probably around the world.
So what do you feel like the key takeaways of our conversation today were?
Ricardo Signes: Well, let’s start there. As you say, there’s lots of organizations like Hopeworks. They’re not the only one. And if you listen to this and you thought, “This sounds great, but I don’t live near Camden.” Look around, see what you can find. People who are doing similar work. Beyond just organizations doing this, following the same mission as Hopeworks, think about the situation in the world in general, right? Are you satisfied with the status quo in the world? I’m guessing you’re not, dear listener. And if there are things that you want to change in the world, think about what they are. Hopeworks is working on one part of this.
Ricardo Signes: We talked to a group last season, season one, Digital Rights Watch. They’re working on other kinds of change. They’re talking about people’s digital rights, the people’s right to privacy and to not be surveilled or have their data sold without their knowledge, and that’s another kind of organization you could work with. So find the change that you want to make happen and then find out who you can work with to make it happen.
Ricardo Signes: Beyond that, don’t forget that technology is a means to an end. You’ve got to target the right end. You can be building things that increase your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others, not just building technology for the sake of technology. And as Dan said, go to places where you’re not in control and that make you uncomfortable and spend time there. If you’re someone who builds technology, it’s important to ask yourself if what you’re building serves the people who are going to be using it? And one way to do that is to get multiple voices and multiple perspectives involved when you’re making it. It can’t just be one person or one kind of person. You want a number of voices.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Well, we hope you found some ways to move towards better digital citizenship in your life. We’ll be back in two weeks, so don’t forget to subscribe.
Ricardo Signes: Thanks for listening to Digital Citizen. Digital Citizen is produced by Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Our show’s produced by Haley Hnatuk. Special thanks to the incredible team of people behind Fastmail. Digital Citizen is hosted by me, Fastmail CTO, Ricardo Signes. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast player. For a free one month trial of Fastmail, you can go to fastmail.com/podcast. And for more episodes, transcripts and my takeaways, you can go to digitalcitizenshow.com.