All posts in “Social Good”

Code for America wants to clear 250,000 marijuana convictions

Over the years Jennifer Pahlka has listened as discouraged people across America shared their stories of missed employment, education, financial, and housing opportunities with her. She’s comforted these individuals, gotten to know them, and learned that past marijuana convictions follow them in ways that make it impossible to move forward in life.

“The things that people write will break your heart: ‘I made a small mistake a long time ago and it’s just haunting me, I need a job to take care of my kids, I need a job to take care of my parents,'” Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, said. “In a human way, when you see the problem up close it becomes a moral imperative to solve it.”

As more and more states around the country start legalizing marijuana, thousands of people find themselves haunted by past convictions that show up on background checks. In many cases, removing the harmful marks from criminal records is possible, but the journey towards record expungement is an extremely stressful one filled with lengthy paperwork and costly legal assistance.

That’s where Code for America’s Clear My Record program comes in. Using a new and advanced technology, Code for America set out to revolutionize the record expungement process, starting in California. The organization hopes to work nationally to clear a monumental 250,000 marijuana convictions by 2019.

Code for America, a nonprofit organization based off Teach for America, was founded in 2009 to connect tech professionals with city governments. The team worked to tackle pressing local issues in innovative ways, eventually branching into criminal justice work with programs like Clear My Record.

Clear My Record was first introduced in 2016 with hopes of helping people reduce or clear any low-level, non-violent, and non-serious crimes from their records. (Not simply those related to marijuana legalization.)

By offering individuals a way to apply for record expungement online, the program was able to connect 7,000 people across 14 California counties with attorneys. But in doing so, the team learned the harsh realities facing people when they attempt to move on from past charges. 

Clear My Record online application

“In getting those 7,000 users we collected data about what the rest of the process was like for them, and really came to the conclusion that this process is a very bad one,” Pahlka explained.

Oftentimes those who do know they’re eligible for expungement have to engage in an elaborate multi-step process to clear their own records. From locating and filling out the proper forms, to obtaining criminal records, hiring and paying for legal support, and waiting for responses needed to move forward. Trying to clear a record as an individual can be a nightmare and consumes so much time that opportunities tend to slip away before a clean slate can be achieved.

So earlier this year, when San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced plans to clear thousands of marijuana convictions under Proposition 64 — a law passed in Nov. 2016 that legalizes recreational marijuana use for adults ages 21 and older — Pahlka thought Clear My Record’s technical expertise and tools would be the perfect way to speed up and enhance the DA’s auto-expungement process. 

Why these decriminalization efforts matter so much

Clear My Record is teaming up with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office to review, identify, and submit paperwork necessary to overturn eligible convictions automatically. It’s a huge deal.

When California passed Proposition 47 in 2014, making people with certain felony convictions eligible to reduce or dismiss their charges, record expungement seemed hopeful for many people with low-level misdemeanors. But in many cases the complex appeal process is too heavy a burden to bear.

“There are literally millions of people in California alone who can’t really break out of the cycle of poverty and incarceration,” Pahlka noted. “You need to have a job to do that, and so few jobs are open to people with that on their records.”

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While marijuana possession in California was previously classified as a misdemeanor for most people without any serious prior offenses, the charges still show up on criminal records, and therefore are flagged during background checks to this day.

“Clear My Record has given me a chance to have a second chance.”

“It’s a very negative event in someone’s life, when they’re almost about to get a job and then don’t,” Pahlka said, recalling stories her team has heard first hand. “If you’re up close to these people you really get a sense of how painful it is for them to try to move on with their lives … but be so frustrated by the poor implementation.”

With this partnership, the DA’s office will review each of the 4,940 felony marijuana convictions in San Fransisco county dating back to 1975, giving thousands of people the ability to move forward with their lives.

“Clear My Record has given me a chance to have a second chance,” Amanda Cardell, an individual who used the original online Clear My Record program, said in a promotional video. “It was very easy and it’s going to change my life.”

How Clear My Record’s technology works

With the Clear My Record program, people applying for expungement online would upload photographs of their criminal records to the website and the organization’s character-recognition technology would work to determine which convictions on the paperwork could be expunged. 

Now, in partnering with the DA’s office, eligibility for record clearance can be easily determined under state law.

Rather than snapping photos of records and uploading them to a website, Clear My Record’s transferable technology can be used to digitally review criminal records in bulk. After reading and determining if a record is eligible for expungement, the program auto-fills the required paperwork and submits information needed to have the charges reduced (in PDF format) as a motion to the courts.

“People won’t ever have to see that paperwork, they’ll just find out the conviction has been taken off their record.”

While misdemeanor cases are relatively simple to comb through, felony marijuana convictions are more complex and usually take a good chunk of time to review. That’s where the technology will most come in handy.

The algorithm can easily search criminal records for serious offenses, such as violent felonies, that would prevent a person from having charges cleared or reduced. And while not every record can be expunged, the overall process will certainly be improved.

Since the bulk record assessment can be done with a groundbreaking level of efficiency, the DA’s office will also have the power to review everyone’s past convictions. This means even people who are unaware they’re eligeable or who have yet to initiate the expungement process will be cleared.

“In the new system people won’t ever have to see that paperwork, they’ll just find out the conviction has been taken off their record,” Pahlka said.

The future of auto-expungement

To reach the lofty goal of clearing 250,000 marijuana convictions by 2019, Clear My Record plans to share its technology with three to five other counties in California.

“That number is an estimate assuming we get a certain number of counties to come onboard showing the same sort of leadership that DA Gascón has shown. And I would think it’s a high likelihood,” Pahlka said. “It’s ambitious and I’m excited about it. I also don’t want to stop there.”

L-R Evonne Silva (CfA Senior Director,) Jazmyn Latimer (Lead Designer,) Paras Sanghavi (Senior Software Engineer,) San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, Laura Kogler (Engineering Manager,) and Jennifer Pahlka (founder and executive director) at the partnership announcement.

L-R Evonne Silva (CfA Senior Director,) Jazmyn Latimer (Lead Designer,) Paras Sanghavi (Senior Software Engineer,) San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, Laura Kogler (Engineering Manager,) and Jennifer Pahlka (founder and executive director) at the partnership announcement.

Image: Code for america

Code for America currently has government partners in cities across the country, and has made noteworthy efforts to improve communities throughout the years — from helping individuals attend required court hearings in Salt Lake County, Utah, to working to keep people experiencing homelessness and mental illness away from the criminal justice system in Seattle, Washington.

“When the government uses 20th century tools to tackle 21st century problems, it’s the public that pays the price.”

In the future, the organization hopes to share its expungement technology nationally, working with other city and state governments to help deliver on voter promises. And aside from expanding the services location-wise, the program hopes to assist people with criminal records under different propositions, eventually moving beyond the focus of marijuana convictions.

“When the government uses 20th century tools to tackle 21st century problems, it’s the public that pays the price,” District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that this partnership will inspire many prosecutors who have cited resource constraints to join this common sense effort and provide this relief.”

On May 14, the DA’s office had prepared 962 motions to dismiss misdemeanor marijuana convictions, submitted 528 to the San Francisco Superior Court, and granted 428. The remaining thousands will be processed with the help of Clear My Record’s technology. 0a55 c5c1%2fthumb%2f00001

These 8 books are required reading for anyone who wants to change the world with tech

“Changing the world,” the rallying cry of the technology industry, sounds like a concept bursting with optimism. But in reality, it’s complicated.

Take Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s creation, built under the banner of “move fast and break things,” certainly changed the world. But the creation of Facebook has also impacted democracy, privacy, communication, and even the nature of truth, in unforeseen ways; Facebook has since disavowed that motto (and Zuckerberg was harangued for his company’s association with it while testifying before congress).

Too often, in the technology industry, disruption is valued in its own right, without a thought that there may be consequences outside the purview of tech industry leaders — let alone teenage college students, who have historically been many of the driving forces between world-changing tech.

“Technology, science, and business should be founded or created or innovated, shaped, on the basis of what is actually good for human beings,” Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at MIT, told Mashable. “Part of the problem is this idea that an individual can create a better world by him or her (and usually him) self. This idea of rugged individualism actually goes back a long time in American history, and is one of the problems that we’re seeing in science, technology, and business.”

With the help of Epstein, MIT, one of the pre-eminent technology-oriented schools in the world, is introducing its own change into how the future creators of world-shifting inventions approach the idea of disruption, to make it more wholistic, and thoughtful. MIT announced the hiring of Epstein on April 24 as its first humanist chaplain. 

A humanist chaplain is a position in the university’s office of religious life who serves as a resource for secular ethics and philosophy. The secular aspect is important; Epstein said that 40 to 50 percent of students identify as either atheist, agnostic, or non-religious. 

With this new position, Epstein and MIT want to bring resources and a discussion space to campus for students to think about the ethical and moral dimensions of how they might change the world with their technological innovations.

“There aren’t really enough ways at places like MIT and Harvard among innovators who are going to change the world to talk about why we’re trying to change the world, and what we’re trying to change it into,” Epstein said.

Epstein’s position mirrors corporate initiatives, too. Google’s acquisition of AI company DeepMind prompted their creation of an ethics board in 2014. DeepMind expanded the board into a whole “ethics and society” research board in 2017. And even Mark Zuckerberg talks about connecting the world as “moral responsibility.”

But Epstein thinks that providing the next Zuckerbergs with resources to discuss ethics and morals at the educational stage could be even more impactful; a proactive, rather than reactive, way to ensure a thought-through change for the better with technology.

“The goal is that every single student at MIT and at Harvard who’s working on the technology, the science, and the business of the future, is going to have the opportunity to be expected to talk about the meaning of human existence, and not just how to create successful money-making endeavors,” Epstein said.

So what does it mean to have an ethical education, for the tech world? I asked Epstein what he wished Mark Zuckerberg or Travis Kalanick had read, before they founded Facebook and Uber. And while an ethical education is a lifelong process, Epstein has provided some required reading, for anyone in a position of changing the world through the technology they bring into it.

Here is MIT’s first humanist chaplain’s “sample required reading list” for “humanists in and around the world of technology which will shape our future.”

Selections and captions by Greg Epstein, edited for length by Mashable.

Image: Basic books

This classic work of psychoanalysis tackles the topic of gifted, talented people who were raised by loving, largely supportive parents yet struggle with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and imposterism. It’s a larger demographic than you might think.

Image: Spiegel & Grau

This landmark book on race and politics in America may very well also be the quintessential text on humanism and atheism of this generation. As Coates writes, with hope and inspiration: “godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.”

Image: Philosophical Library/Open Road

One need not be a luddite to wish that today’s tech leaders were reading a little more great philosophy, and if I could nominate one school with which they could start, it would be the Existentialists— especially the movement’s two greatest thinkers, de Beauvoir and Camus. Ethics is one of the best explanations ever written of what it means to be an ethical human being in a complex and changing world.

Image: vintage international

The Plague, around which I build a major section of my book Good Without God, is a sweeping secular sacred text: a novel whose characters and drama are a metaphor for the question of how we create meaning and purpose in a world where it otherwise might seem, as Dostoyevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov, that ‘without God, all is permitted.’

Image: Avery

Too many tech innovators think their biggest mission in life is to be a kind of superhero, single-handedly changing the world through their own genius and strength. But Brown, a professor of social work and famous TED speaker, offers an inspiring vision of a different kind of heroism: the ability to be vulnerable.

Image: picador

In my experience, open and honest conversations about death can actually be incredibly inspiring, causing us to reflect profoundly on what we want to do with the limited time we have in this world. When students really concentrate on that question, they almost universally realize it is better to live and die as someone who loves others, who helps people, and who spends much of his or her energy on helping make the world a better place. There are many great books to help us reflect on these subjects, but this one by Gawande may be the best and most relatable to a young science and tech audience.

Image: St. Martin’s press

The Atheist Muslim offers the most sophisticated and nuanced (yet also compelling and readable) answers yet published, to questions critical to humanity’s future: how can one consider oneself Muslim by culture and heritage, yet embrace a nonreligious and progressive worldview? And how can we in the secular world learn to critique problematic ideas in traditional and modern Islam, while enthusiastically protecting and caring for Muslim immigrants and others who face prejudice and discrimination mainly because they seem different, because they are the “other” in western societies that still contain too much racism, not to mention Islamophobia?

Image: publicaffairs

Can we innovatively nudge capitalism to evolve toward something healthier and more just, without having to tear it down and start over again? Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his work alleviating poverty, is a visionary for new economies that can improve the human condition. A humanist economics may not yet have been fully invented, but it needs to be, and this book is one of the best markers and conversation starters along the path. 9fd0 ca38%2fthumb%2f00001

In Mexico, this coding school gives returning immigrants a second chance

Growing up in the small town of Bradenton, Florida, Miriam Álvarez had a pretty typical American childhood. She took the pledge of allegiance every morning in elementary school and cheered the U.S. team during Olympic spirit week in high school. Her younger brother enrolled in the Army, and is now serving in South Korea.

But when Álvarez was 14, her parents sat her down in the living room and told her a secret they’d been keeping her whole life: Álvarez, her sister, and her parents were undocumented. Her mother had brought Álvarez from Mexico to the U.S. when she was just nine months old. 

“It was a shock because you felt lied to,” says the shy 22-year-old, who laughs nervously when talking about her past. “Telling me that I’m not American, or not even Mexican American. So really, what am I?”

As deportations increased under former President Barack Obama, Álvarez’s parents began to worry for their family’s safety. Realizing, too, that being undocumented would make going to college for their children prohibitively expensive, her parents decided to move the family back to Mexico in 2010, hoping for a brighter future.

For Álvarez, however, the difficulties were just beginning. She’d lived her whole life in the U.S., and Mexico felt like a totally foreign country.

“It was really scary,” she says. “I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write Spanish. I could barely speak it. In school I would keep quiet so people wouldn’t make fun of my accent.”

Worse still, when she tried to enroll at a university, the local college wouldn’t accept her American documentation.

“This is literally all I had,” she says. 

But now, eight years after she returned to Mexico, Álvarez has finally found a place where speaking English is an asset, and the only language she really needs to know is HTML.

Miriam Álvarez was told by her parents at age 14 that she was undocumented.

Miriam Álvarez was told by her parents at age 14 that she was undocumented.

Image: Oscar Lopez / Mashable

That place is Hola<code/>, a software engineering boot camp in Mexico City that launched last year to support returning Dreamers and other young immigrants like Álvarez who grew up in the U.S. The intensive five-month course, modeled after San Francisco coding school Hack Reactor, currently has 22 students enrolled, including Álvarez. 

“I don’t like being told something’s wrong — I like figuring it out for myself.”

“Coding seems like a puzzle to me,” Álvarez says with a smile. “It’s like filling in the pieces. I don’t like being told something’s wrong — I like figuring it out for myself.”

Unlike local colleges and universities, Hola<code/> doesn’t require any documentation or previous education — just the willingness to learn.

“We hacked the obstacles,” explains Marcela Torres, the school’s cofounder and CEO. “We wanted to eliminate all the barriers.”

After passing an entrance exam, students receive a monthly stipend of $270 (nearly twice Mexico’s monthly minimum wage) so they can devote 12 hours a day to the training. They only pay their tuition of around $6,000 if they get a job.

“The heart of Hola<code/> is to go against the current climate of building walls,” Torres says. “We’re building bridges, but this isn’t charity. The students are their own agents of change.”

Places like Hola<code/> are becoming increasingly important in Mexico, where hundreds of young Mexicans who grew up in the U.S. are returning every year, either forced home by deportation or, like Álvarez, returning voluntarily because of the political climate. 

Marcela Torres, cofounder and CEO of Hola Code.

Marcela Torres, cofounder and CEO of Hola Code.

Image: Oscar Lopez / Mashable

But unlike Álvarez, who left before Obama instituted the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA, there are some 600,000 undocumented Mexican Dreamers with legal status who are at risk of deportation if Congress doesn’t pass a replacement.

With the March 5 deadline set by President Donald Trump now long passed, the fate of these thousands of young immigrants hangs in the balance. Even though a federal judge has blocked Trump’s order to rescind the program for now, without concrete legislation from Congress to renew DACA, it’s unclear how long this legal protection will last. 

“It’s a monumental injustice,” says Gustavo Mohar, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “A perverse political use of people that are completely innocent. They’re the scapegoats of American internal politics.”

But for Mohar, who was Mexico’s chief migration negotiator during the administration of former president Vicente Fox, the greater concern is what will happen to those young people who are sent back to Mexico. Like Álvarez, many returnees grew up speaking English, and have almost no memory of Mexico, making the transition incredibly challenging.

“From any optic, it’s clearly a very difficult change,” he says. “Even though they’re Mexican by origin, they’re really foreigners.”

The Mexican government offers some assistance to returning migrants, such as food and basic shelter as well as assistance finding work. In Mexico City, deportees can receive unemployment allowance for up to six months, and sign up for training schemes to facilitate integration into the workforce. 

But few of these programs cater specifically to young returnees and Dreamers, and in any case, the Mexican government has admitted it may not have the budget to fully support a potentially huge increase in the number of returning Dreamers.

The scene at Hola Code in Mexico City, Mexico.

The scene at Hola Code in Mexico City, Mexico.

Image: Oscar Lopez / Mashable

For now, a number of nonprofits and private companies like Hola<code/> are stepping in to ease the transition for young returnees who, with their fluent English and American educations, could be a boon to the Mexican workforce, particularly the country’s growing tech sector. 

“These young people swallowed the American dream. Mexico has a lot to gain if they wanted to look at it that way.”

As companies from Amazon to Facebook expand their operations south of the border, and as the U.S. immigration policy makes skilled immigrants harder to find, there is a growing need for software engineers who can either work remotely, or join Mexico’s own technology boom. 

“These young people swallowed the American dream,” says Torres, the Hola<code/> founder. “Mexico has a lot to gain if they wanted to look at it that way.”

Jorge Cervantes, 20, is another student at the school who tasted that American dream. Taken to the U.S. when he was just over a year old, he came back to Mexico at 15 after his father was deported.

“It was overwhelming,” he remembers. “I felt more American than Mexican — my whole life was over there.”

Like Álvarez, Cervantes also struggled with the language — his own family made fun of his Spanish when he first arrived. Still, like many young migrants back in Mexico, speaking English landed him a job at a call center, work that he calls “cubicle hell.”

Jorge Cervantes, a 20-year-old student at Hola Code.

Jorge Cervantes, a 20-year-old student at Hola Code.

Image: Oscar Lopez / Mashable

Before coming to Hola<code/>, Cervantes had never even seen a snippet of HTML. Now he’s learning to build websites and mobile apps from the inside out.

“It’s like learning a new language,” he says. “But now that you know the basic alphabet, any code that you see is like reading a book.”

But according to founder Torres, Hola<code/> is about more than just learning code. For many students, the school gives them a sense of belonging.

“Behind everyone, there are stories of pain,” she says. “The shock of deportation hits them really hard. This is a safe space — the only thing we see in them is potential.” 

For Álvarez, the young immigrant from Florida, the coding school has made her finally feel at home in Mexico. “They become like family,” she says of her classmates. 

Finding her place in Mexico has also given her some perspective on her former home: “Living in the U.S., you’re living in a bubble,” she says. “Once you’re out of it, you can see all the  flaws that need to be changed in order to make it as great as people think it is.”

As for Cervantes, beyond the skills he’s picked up, he says the coding school has changed his whole mindset.

“Before Hola<code/>, I wasn’t sure where my life was headed,” he says. “Now that I’m halfway through, I have so many visions of doing the things that I used to dream of when I was a kid, dreams that started to seem impossible. Now I see them, closer and closer.”

Black Lives Matter co-founder explains what people get wrong about Black History Month

Patrisse Cullors has had a major influence on the Black Lives Matter movement ever since it began in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Here she explains what many people get wrong when it comes to how they think about Black History Month and where the focus should be. 

Teachers say #ArmMeWith classroom resources instead of guns

In the wake of yet another tragic school shooting, teachers have started an eye-opening movement on social media to let the world know what preventative measures really need to be taken seriously to protect students.

In response to the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Trump suggested that some teachers receive gun training so they can be armed in their classrooms. But rather than adding more guns to educational environments, teachers are using the hashtag #ArmMeWith to share far more peaceful resources they wish to be armed with, such as school supplies, mental health resources and funding, impactful changes in curriculum, and stronger gun control legislation.

The movement was started by two educators: Brittany Wheaton, a teacher in Utah, and Olivia Bertels from Kansas. Both 27-year-olds met through Instagram, according to Buzzfeed, and eagerly asked the online teacher community to share their personal thoughts on how to ensure the safety and proper education of students.

Teachers across the U.S. have been using the hashtag.

One high school English teacher requested a “curriculum that tells the truth, the ability to teach the truth, a society that believes the truth, and political leaders who make laws based on the truth.”

Others asked to be armed with more on-site mental health professionals, like school counselors and social workers, as well as self-care classes, bullet-proof glass, an enhanced library, and a range of other resources that focus on the physical, mental, and emotional care of students and faculty members.

“Since teachers are the individuals in the classroom when it happens, I like to think we know what’s best for our students,” Wheaton told Buzzfeed. “If you’re an educator, you know that [more guns] is not a solution to stopping the violence that’s happening in our schools.”

For those looking to participate in the movement, Wheaton has shared a blank #ArmMeWith template that can be downloaded and filled out. 

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