LOS ANGELES — As Cassie Betts heads into work, the Inglewood native knows exactly how she wants to help the youth in her traditionally underserved community.
“We want to own our own narratives. We want to promote our own narratives, distribute our own narratives and profit from our own narratives,” she said.
Betts leads technology and innovation at the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation, a community-based nonprofit that provides resources to entrepreneurs and businesses.
Betts said she relates to local youth with her own story.
“I was that kid,” she said. “I was a kid from South LA. I used to sleep on bus stop benches and cardboard boxes and I know what it’s like to come from nothing and become somebody.”
Betts escaped homelessness as a teen and eventually became a tech entrepreneur. Now, she wants South LA youngsters to push themselves and aim for high-paying tech careers that lack Black and Latino workers.
Betts said she pushed hard for the nonprofit to create a center where youth can learn technical skills including coding, robotics and engineering, but she faced challenges when reaching beyond the community for support.
“People said that you can’t teach South Central kids to code. They literally said that to my face,” she said. “I literally had donors and sponsors that wanted to sponsor janitorial boot camps. They wanted to sponsor secretary learning camps and like basic skills and I said, ‘No, I know we can teach them to be engineers.’”
After six years, her dream turned into a reality as the South LA Best Buy Teen Tech Center opened Thursday in partnership with the Annenberg Foundation, Greater LA Education Foundation and Best Buy.
The 2,000-square-foot center offers free afterschool classes to teens and access to tech tools. It also aims to close the digital divide in the community.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 6.4% of households in Los Angeles County do not have a computer and 13% do not have access to internet. Black and Latino households are only one-third as likely to have internet access compared to white households according to the city of LA.
Teens like tenth grader Stephanie Mejia, can attend the center for free classes. She’s learning how to produce music.
“We’re just placing different types of beats, like these are the drums,” she explained while using music production software.
Mejia also learned about recording equipment, which is something she wouldn’t normally get to do at school. She lives nearby and wants to pursue a career in music.
“I grew up with a place where my family loves music and so I have always wanted to make something related to it or study a career about it,” she said.
Anyone between the ages of 10 and 18 can attend the center and learn everything from coding to digital marketing to 3D printing, according to Thai Buckman, a consultant with the nonprofit.
“We expose them to even new things like NFTs and cryptocurrency. We expose them to film, animation, so many different things,” she said.
Betts said she still can’t believe the center finally opened.
“It’s amazing when you have a dream and everybody tells you that you can’t do it,” she said. “And then your dream becomes other people’s dreams and they are all rallying with you to the point where it’s amazing that this has taken on a life of its own.”