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Teen Tech Genius Helps Connect Kids With Incarcerated Parents

Today, almost 3 million children are separated from their incarcerated parents. One 15-year-old tech aficionado built a solution to bridge the gap between incarcerated parents and their children. 

Meet Jay’Aina Patton (aka Jay Jay), a teenage tech genius from Buffalo, New York. She is the Junior Director at Photo Patch Foundation, where she created the mobile app Photo Patch that helps youth and their incarcerated parents communicate by sharing photos and letters on a frequent basis. And this app is desperately needed. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the average cost of one 15-minute phone call from jail is $5.74, but that amount can range as high as $24.82. This economic barrier is one that Jay Jay aims to tackle with her app.

I had the opportunity to talk to Jay Jay about the inspiration behind her app, how we can amplify marginalized voices in the tech and STEM sphere, and she even shared the songs on her coding playlist with us! We were so happy to get to know Jay Jay in the following Q and A:

Q: What inspired you to build the mobile app for Photo Patch? 
JP: My inspiration for creating the Photo Patch app came simply from wanting to help the needs of other children that were like me. I was just three years old when my dad went to prison for eight years. I knew how it felt to not be able to stay in as much contact as I wanted with my dad through that long time. There was never any convenient way to do so. Phone calls cost too much for my mom who needed to pay bills. Letters and photos could also be costly and even sometimes wouldn’t make it to him. I am a part of a generation that was born into technology and pretty much everybody had a phone compared to having a computer. I knew the convenience of an app would be great for kids. They could be able to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones without any worries. 

Q: Who inspired you to start coding and build amazing projects? Who do you look up to in the tech world or in general?
JP: My dad, hands down, is the one who inspired me to get into tech. Before my dad taught me about coding I had no idea what it was. I didn’t know that websites, apps, and all sorts of tech were made from code. Because I was away from my dad for so long, I had the desire to build a bond with him in some sort of way.  When I saw him on his computer all the time doing this crazy cool-looking stuff, I was very curious to learn more. One thing I also love is to see black women in the tech world. It’s great to see faces like mine in the tech space because it can be rare to see them. It’s great to be able to look up to them as inspiration. I also look up to my mom. She is a huge reason why I am the person I am today. She had me at only 17 and then had to be a single mom. But, somehow she did it and raised me to be strong like her.

Q: In what ways can tech be built and used to empower the most marginalized in our society?
JP: There are many ways tech can be built and used to empower the marginalized in our society. But, I really believe if marginalized people are given the tools to be able to build tech, they will be able to use it themselves to empower. The marginalized in our society know their problems and the way they can be fixed. But they are not always given the correct tools to do so, especially in tech. There are many powerful people in the tech world. These people also are not really the ones who face the problems that normal everyday people face. So, they don’t necessarily care to use their knowledge to fix what matters. That’s just one reason why my dad and I started our online school, Unlock Academy. So that we can teach the unprivileged people in our world the power of coding and technology. Then they can take it upon themselves to change, not only their own problems, but many others like them in this society. 

Q: Building an app can be tough, so when you’re stuck on a problem or you’re debugging your code what keeps you motivated? 
JP: Coming across problems in coding is pretty much inevitable, haha. Any coder will tell you. One thing that helps is having some sort of accountability partner. You guys can be able to work together to try and figure it out and keep one another motivated. Because two brains are always better than one. Music is another big one. If I am feeling discouraged or confused I just turn on some music to get me pumped up and motivated.

Q: Do you have any words of inspiration for Black youth who are looking to build tech?
JP: For any Black youth looking to build in tech, I would just say go for it with no hesitation. I know there may not be many people that look like you to look up to. I know you may even feel a little overwhelmed about it, but don’t be. Once you get into it you will see the endless possibilities of what you can bring to the table with tech. It’s better to start now than later,  too. The earlier you start the easier it will be to navigate and make a statement in this tech world. 

Q: There still remains a huge gender gap in the STEM world. As a girl in STEM, what advice would you give to girls who are intimidated or nervous about just starting out in the field? 
JP: To all girls that want to get into STEM but feel intimidated or nervous here’s all I have to say: You got this girl! You can do anything you put your mind to! Don’t let the majority scare you and make you feel belittled. Let the minority inspire you to come in and help make a change. You can not let people who don’t have your best interest at heart make decisions for you. That’s just going to tear you away from what you want in life. Listen to your heart, mind, and the people around you that are there to uplift you and support what you do. Girls can do any and everything. We run the world, remember that! 

Q: What changes would you like to see in the tech space? 
JP: I would unquestionably like to see the lack of diversity in the tech space changed. It’s very important to me to see more minorities, people of color, women, and the youth stepping into the world of technology. Tech is our future and it would not be fair to have the underestimated left behind. 

Q: What’s the next problem you want to tackle and solve with your incredible engineering skillset?
JP: There are many problems in the world that I would love to tackle with my skills, and I will. But I also want to continue to focus on the communication gap between children and their incarcerated parents. One big thing that we are heading to work on is virtual reality visits. For families, visitations to prisons can be very hard. Especially if the loved one is far away or the family has no way of transportation. Visits can be pretty limited. During my dad’s eight-year sentence, I had only visited him about twice. 

And now with the pandemic, it’s definitely tough. With virtual reality, we have the vision that both the parent and the child can “visit” with each other no matter where they may be. It would be ideal that they can both pick a place to visit, like the beach, for instance. Then put the goggles on and truly feel like they are at this location with one another. They would be able to have conversations, laugh, and just genuinely feel like they have each other there. It’s a lot for sure, haha. But, with the technology we have today, it can be possible and it would be very beneficial. 

Q: You currently teach coding classes, and last year you even surpassed your goal to teach 2,020 people of color how to code by 2020. Why did you feel it was so important to start teaching youth to code + do you have any goals for 2021?
JP: It’s been very important to me to get youth into coding because I know how big of a role it will play in our future and I especially want to make sure they’re ahead now. Our generation has basically been born into the world of tech. And as the world grows, our generation will have to be the ones to lead tech. But if they don’t know much about coding then it’s gonna be hard for them to do so. So, that’s where I come in. 

As far as my goals for 2021, there are many. One goal I am working towards is creating some new cool courses for my youth students. Courses filled with the knowledge that’s certainly gonna have them stepping into the tech space; it’s gonna be awesome. A bigger goal that I would love to reach this year is, having our very own tech conference for Unlock Academy. Filled with a bunch of our students and any other people looking to learn. Of course, we have to wait for the pandemic to pass. But, it’s something awesome we want to do. 

Q: What’s your favorite tech stack and/or programming language? 
JP: I have a couple of different programming languages I enjoy using. But my two favorites right now are CSS and Python. I like CSS because you can do so much with it. Plus it’s what, most of the time, makes your website or app look nice; it’s the style. I like Python because it’s a pretty simple language to learn but there is an endless amount of possibilities you can build with it, it’s very cool. 

Q: What are some songs on your coding playlist?
JP: While I am coding I like to listen to softer music to keep me focused, but still motivated. So I’ll listen to artists like Ariana Grande or Alicia Keys. I’ll also play old-school music from artists like Destiny’s Child or TLC. I’m a 90’s baby at heart, haha. And of course Beyonce. She’s most of my playlist for sure. Before I code though, I sometimes like to listen to more upbeat music to get myself pumped and ready. I am a very huge music person; it helps a lot!

For more information about the Photo Foundation, the photo patch app, and their code academy, please visit https://photopatch.org/ or @unlock.academy, and don’t forget to follow Jay Jay at @jayjay.digital!                                                           

Ashley Lopez

Ash López, 24, is a socially conscious web developer and college student originally from South East Los Angeles. Ash grew up in the small town of Lancaster. There she excelled as a compassionate and committed leader in her community. Her leadership includes becoming a youth board member at multiple nonprofits in the Antelope Valley and Los Angeles. After attending a web development boot camp, she became a Diverse Scholar fellow. During the fellowship, she became an Echoing Green fellow and Voto Latino: Innovators Challenge semi-finalist. Ash later joined forces with Humanistic Technologies to change the world. As Channel Kindness reporter, Ash hopes to fill the world with kindness- one story at a time.

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