At age 30, Jason Gibson had built a decent life for himself as a successful drug dealer.
Raised by a working-class single mother in the Queensbridge Houses of Queens, New York City, Gibson said he was often surrounded by people who were forced to turn to a life of crime to get by. Growing up, he learned that one of quickest ways to escape the extreme poverty he was surrounded by was to follow the money.
“When I was younger, I was surrounded by hustlers, you know? People who were doing their best with what they had but often it wasn’t enough,” Gibson, now 37, shared with Essence. “After a while I saw that those who seemed to always have money were the ones that sold narcotics. So I got into it myself and learned the trade.”
Gibson started peddling drugs in his teens, and years later eventually earned more than enough to move out of his housing project into a mixed-class neighborhood. Right before his 31st birthday in August 2013, he said his life took a pivotal turn.
“I’d always felt like I was stuck between two worlds—I was hustling but I always had a larger worldview than my friends that were also on the block. Like an interest in politics and things way outside my normal environment. I would literally be out on my block hustling, doing my thing with a newspaper under my arm. So, one day an older Black lady stops me and tells me to read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I did. And it completely blew my mind.”
In the critically acclaimed book, Alexander examined the school-to-prison pipeline, and how mass incarceration is a new form of segregation wielded against minorities. Gibson felt as if he saw himself within those pages. Unfortunately, his feelings would turn out to be true. A few months after that exchange with the stranger, he was indicted on drug trafficking charges and sent to prison for five years.
While serving his time, he rethought his life and began taking steps to learn skills that would afford him the lifestyle he’d become accustomed to, but through legal means. “I saw that on the outside, there are 19-year-old guys turning themselves into millionaires in Silicon Valley and I told myself ‘if they can do it, I can too,” said Gibson.
Upon his release, Gibson said he wanted to prevent generations behind him from falling into the same trap he’d been ensnared in.
“There’s too much opportunity out there in tech for kids to have to turn to the streets to take care of themselves,” said Gibson. “There’s going to be generations of children coming out of Queensbridge and some of the other public housing complexes in New York City that are not going to have this exposure. The schools aren’t offering it. The community centers aren’t offering it.”
So, in 2019, he came up with ‘Hood Code,’ a no-cost after-school coding program for kids ages 8 – 15 living in New York City Housing Authorities (NYCHA). While there, the participants have access to laptops and internet to avoid tech disruptions they may be facing at home. Trained volunteer instructors lead coding courses and connect students with career development resources as well.
For the last two years, Gibson has been working to spread the word about the incredible work he’s been doing, and it’s paid off. Earlier this year, he was nominated for the David Prize, a $200k award given to community change-makers like him. If he wins, he said he plans to grow the next cohort of teachers, and even recruit alumni of the program to return and teach.
“Expansion and increased accessibility of this program is important because it’s literally disrupting the pipeline to prison. We’re saving lives out here.”