‘Create and innovate’: 7C community devises apps, legislation, events in Hack for Black Lives

A woman is sitting at a computer writing code.
The Hack for Black Lives event hosted a variety of educational workshops and encouraged participants to create a project that aligned with one of six central themes. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

 Hosted through Zoom and a Discord server, Hack for Black Lives tasked 7C participants with developing projects to support Black communities and the Black Lives Matter movement, coded or otherwise. What arose was an array of work: apps, legislation, data mapping, event planning.

The hackathon, hosted the weekend of Feb. 19, was created and organized by a group of Harvey Mudd College students and alumni inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Natasha Crepeau HM ’21, Kira Favakeh HM ’20, Ben Hinthorne HM ’21 and Camille Simon HM ’21 hoped to encourage students to contribute their individual, technical skill sets to the movement, whatever they may be.

The group came up with Hack for Black Lives and spent last semester meeting with potential sponsors, creating a website, planning the event and promoting it across the 7Cs. They worked closely with HMC which finally supported the event, as well as the Office of Black Student Affairs and the Hive which provided workshops and mentors for the participants. 

From rising first-years to Ph.D. candidates, more than 100 students and alumni signed up for the hackathon. Many had never tried coding, much less participated in a hackathon before. However, the event’s purpose and flexibility spurred people like Savanna Beans HM ’22 to take part, whose project focused on finding solutions for Black students needing supplemented academic assistance.

“Part of why I hadn’t joined a hackathon before this was because I didn’t have that much of a [computer science] background, but also because I didn’t find the topics really interesting,” Beans said. “Normally, hackathons are solely based around technology, but that was only one of the six categories for Hack for Black Lives. My friend and I didn’t want to do tech at all, because we already do that in class. We wanted to do something more interesting.”

The project’s programming and categories — legislation and political action, Black history and education, community organizing, algorithmic bias reduction and promotion of Black artists and voices — were crafted to inspire projects that not only aligned with the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement but also worked holistically toward anti-racism. 

On Friday evening, Justin P. Christian, founder and CEO of BCforward, inaugurated Hack for Black Lives with a keynote speech that encouraged students to continue fighting for racial equity.

“We need more equitable experiences for Black people in America,” he said. “What sacrifices, what risks, are you willing to take to see it through?”

Later that night, participants attended workshops to provide them with skills in community impact, design and social innovation. Favakeh said participants appreciated these workshops throughout the hackathon. 

“We hosted a brainstorming session on Saturday for students who still needed help, and in those brainstorming sessions, we all referenced some of what we talked about in those workshops to help people along,” she said. “I think that right there, you can see that they were useful for our participants and will be in the future as they continue to move forward and create and innovate.”

The hack lasted only 48 hours, which, for most participants, wasn’t enough time to complete their respective projects. According to organizer Hinthorne, this was expected, and the state of a team’s creation wasn’t supposed to be a discouraging factor.

“The point of a hackathon isn’t to create something polished — it’s to try something out and build something, and however far you get, you’ll be celebrated.” — Ben Hinthorne HM ’21

“We’re trying to encourage everyone to submit,” Hinthorne said. “The point of a hackathon isn’t to create something polished — it’s to try something out and build something, and however far you get, you’ll be celebrated.”

Partners Gabriel Konar-Steenberg PO ’23 and Nolan Windham CM ’25 created a social media app that aims to connect activists and encourage action and event participation that help progressive movements, like Black Lives Matter. While the team developed a thorough idea of what the app would look like, they still have a long way to go before they finish the project.

“We haven’t actually written any line of code yet, but we think that’s how it should be,” Konar-Steenberg said. “You should really be thinking about all of these design aspects before you actually start writing code.”

Windham appreciated how the hackathon sparked his creativity despite the app’s being unfinished.

“I’m so glad that this opportunity was available to get this project started,” Windham said. “Now I feel like I can continue to work on it and continue to develop it and maybe eventually show it to some investors and interesting parties. I think there’s a lot of potential with the idea.”

Echoing this sentiment, Elza Moore SC ’22 said the event pushed her to pursue projects she was passionate about but hadn’t yet found time to pursue.

“Sometimes college feels like stalling what you want to do,” Moore said. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have that much time or energy to participate in things that align with my values or that might create actionable change, but I think this hackathon taught me to seize any opportunity I have to try and make a difference.”

The event also left Crepeau feeling encouraged by what teams were able to accomplish.

“I think this event has changed my perspective on how many people are actually willing to put in that sort of work,” Crepeau said. “Sometimes people can be — including myself — kind of cynical about what people say on social media versus the actions they take, and so I feel like I left this event a little bit more optimistic that people are willing to back up what they support, and that’s been really nice.” 

Along with participating in the event again, Beans expressed interest in helping host it next year. 

“I hope this becomes an annual thing, and I hope that there’s enough interest from the people who participated in it for something like this to happen again,” Beans said. “I think that people can benefit from thinking about problems that may not necessarily affect them.”

Although the event’s organizers are certain they want Hack for Black Lives to continue in the future — and are even thinking of expanding it to include other universities — Crepeau said they’re unsure if they want to continue being the organizers.

“Because planning the hackathon was an educational experience, I think it’s important that other students get to have that experience,” Crepeau said. “I think it would be good if this was something that was passed down or even something that Black Lives at Mudd continues to be involved in.”

Hinthorne said he hopes that Hack for Black Lives inspires similar hackathons in other places.

“Now that this model has been created, we hope that other people can also feel like they can take this and do it in their own communities, even when it’s not necessarily us constructing Hack for Black Lives.”

On Feb. 25 at 6 p.m. PST, Hack for Black Lives will be hosting a project showcase through Zoom. If you would like to attend, register for the webinar prior to the event here and join the Discord server here.

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