Growing your own community: Vancouver’s Youth Innovation Lab

Youth Innovation Lab

We all want collective success in our respective technology communities. Arguably the well being and future prosperity of our cities, provinces, and country depend on it. Yet can we simply define community success by those who are successful? We also have to consider how our communities help those people on the margins, the social fringe or the other side of the digital divide succeed.

With care and commitment, an exceptional group of people and organizations have come together to open a meaningful door. Vancouver’s Youth Innovation Lab is welcoming eight young people into an ambitious pilot program. They are not a trust fund crew or kids of privilege either.

“two of the most important skill-sets for the coming age are software-skills and entrepreneurial-skills.”

Over the course of 16 weeks they’ll be building the Youth Innovation Lab website, developing an iOS app, and job shadowing. This isn’t just about learning to code. They’ll be learning key life skills, too. Things like leadership and teamwork will prepare them for a mentorship role, and to work with new students.

Colin Ford is the Lab Director, and seeing the doors open has been the culmination of two years of hard work. He shared the source of inspiration was seeing “the short video about 2 years ago (What Most Schools Don’t Teach). It floored me. The basic premise was that the world needed more coders to keep up with the demand of the technology industry and it wasn’t being taught enough in school. I am a youth worker and I know how adept young people are with technology. It just seemed like a good fit. I want to provide access to technology skills, mentorship, team building, leadership and entrepreneurial for youth who may be falling through the cracks or just simply a square peg in a round hole of the education system. “

Ford started by teaming up with St Leonard’s Youth and Family Services (STLEO), which since its inception in 1967, has been providing a range of services to improve the lives of children, youth and their families. In the past, STLEO was involved in youth justice work, providing an outward bound program, a Horse Resource for girls as well as other recreational and educational programs. Today, the agency specializes in providing services to youth in care.

According to Renata Aebi (Executive Director of STLEO), “it was a no brainer for our agency to work with Colin to move forward this innovative idea.  We don’t want to see the youth that we serve left out of the incredible possibilities that a coding school could offer them. And we know that the relationships made, the mentorship received is as important to their success as learning to code itself.”

Youth Innovation Lab Colin Ford

Other community partners adding guidance, support or funding include:  Vancouver Foundation, Vancity, the Burnaby School District, Rethink Communications, Launch Academy, Lighthouse labs and Bardel Entertainment.  “We hope to build on this list to include other leaders in technology,” added Ford.

For Roger Patterson (Co-founder, Launch Academy), “the Youth Innovation Lab is so necessary because what it’s trying to do is so difficult: bringing coding skills to, and opening doors for the youth that are having the hardest time in school, and that have the least number of options.”

Furthermore Patterson says, “I feel that two of the most important skill-sets for the coming age are software-skills and entrepreneurial-skills. For at-risk youth, opportunities are in limited supply.  We have a chance to introduce this world and these opportunities to a group of young people who need it most.”

Great care has gone into every element of designing the program, with the kids being at the centre of the process. Teachers from the Burnaby School District found youth that they felt would be a good fit. From there, the eight young people were chosen based on their ability to work best together as a team. They will receive school credits for their participation as well.

Led by instructors from ReThink, Leah Gregg, Matthew Gomes and Scorpio, Ford credits them as “being teachers are at the top of the technology field. Our students will be learning and working beside a very enthusiastic team who are generously donating their time for a project that they believe in.”

Supporting this program “means everything to us,” according to Lighthouse Lab co-founder Jeremy Shaki, He added, “We really believe that coding is an equalizer, an opportunity for people to make an impact regardless of their background, education, financial situations and location. The Youth Innovation Lab is an amazing organization and gives our teachers, students and organization an opportunity to take the amazing opportunities in education that we have all been given and pay it forward to the next generation of coding enthusiasts!”

Future plans are for the program to expand based on the outcomes of this pilot evaluation. In addition, they’ll be looking to partner further with the Vancouver tech community to help them to build the program into a sustainable model. And more importantly, having a community supporting the Youth Innovation Lab will ensure it’s future as a meaningful place in the young lives of some who need it most.

“Many people are good at talking about what they are doing, but in fact do little. Others do a lot but don’t talk about it; they are the ones who make a community live.”― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth


John Gray

John Gray is the co-founder and CEO of Mentionmapp. As a writer, John cares about keeping the humanity in our stories and conversations about technology. He has a B.Ap.Sc. in Communications and a B.A. in English, both from Simon Fraser University.

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