Techsdale helping Rexdale youth up their game with tech education

When we talk about Toronto tech, it’s easy to picture a downtown cityscape—King and Spadina, Liberty Village, Yonge and Dundas are but a few neighbourhoods one could list off. And while the concentration of tech and startup-related ventures in those areas is undeniable, it also doesn’t fully represent Toronto proper—both in terms of its diversity and its geographical vastness.

Techsdale is working to bring innovation and technology to the community of Rexdale through mentorship and skills development programs. Co-founded by Andray Domise and Sam Allemang, the idea was born during Domise’s 2014 council run, which Allemang worked on. (Domise was running in Ward 2, against Rob Ford, who took the seat handily.)

Agents of Change - Centre for Social Innovation

Techsdale co-founders Andray Domise and Sam Allemang (contributed photo)

“The area is starved for jobs, starved for youth opportunities, and meanwhile the tech sector is a growth sector,” Allemang says. And in the neighbourhood, there is an access issue. “Demand [for tech education] is there and there’s a whole bunch of young Torontonians not being served because downtown [where coding bootcamps are] is a different world from the one they inhabit.”

Techsdale began as a pilot program last summer—a 14-week video game development program with 15 high-school-age students. “The goal was to to take the youth that were enrolled from knowing nothing except for their own enjoyment of playing games to being able to show a demo to their friends or—knock on wood—potential employers one day,” Allemang said in an interview with The Sheet.

Techsdale’s pilot

The pilot took place at Humber College, in space and on equipment donated by the school. “A couple of their faculty volunteered to help us teach it, to develop curriculum and actually show up for two hours on a Sunday to teach,” Allemang said while describing how important Humber’s involvement was to the success of the pilot. The students worked with mentors using open-source software and libraries to develop their stories and characters, their game design and UX and ultimately, a 2D game demo. The cost to students? Free.

“Rexdale is a community where the median income is $10,000 below the city average, to pick one metric,” Allemang said. “It’s of crucial importance to us that poverty in and of itself is not an impediment to signing up.”

When Techsdale launched its pilot, the number of applicants outstripped the number of seats available for the program. And though they suffered “not-insignificant attrition” over the course of the program—15 students started the program and just four graduated—Allemang says the feedback they’ve received from the Rexdale community has been overwhelmingly positive.

‘He came in and showed such aptitude for the work’

“One of the soft skills we hope to embed in this is holistic education, a lifelong love of learning, self-starterness, entrepreneurialism,” Allemang says. “A few of the students have embraced that.”

Allemang tells me about Julian, a Techsdale student who took his learning into his own hands. He was never assigned homework, but the 14-year-old worked on his own time to improve his game.

“[At the start] his mom didn’t have a particular enthusiasm for him pursuing a career in games, not realizing that you can make a serious career out of it,” Allemang said. “But he came in and showed such aptitude for the work … his mom got to see his drive applied in a way that I don’t think she had seen before.”

Julian Blender T-Rex

One student took his learning into his own hands and created this 3D T-Rex using Blender in his spare time. (Contributed screenshot)

Julian got a new computer for Christmas and Allemang loaded it up with open-source software and other resources he would need to practice on his own. A few days later, Julian’s mom emailed Allemang a Blender file—it was an incredibly intricate three-dimensional T-Rex that Julian had made.

“It’s just so humbling that all we did was give him the opportunity—or the permission—to get serious about this and he did all the work. We just pointed him in the direction, and he was off to the races.”

Diversity and new voices in gaming

There’s no shortage of data that underscores a lack of diversity in tech, and in the gaming industry, diversity issues seep into the games themselves. “[Game developers] depend on tropes or stereotypes because it’s easy and lazy and because they’re not sensitive to what it means if they’re not presenting a more nuanced character,” Allemang says.

“The only black people [players] encounter are avatars of black people, freighted with racist baggage.”

Rexdale is a diverse community located in the north-west corner of Toronto. When Techsdale opened its doors, every student that enrolled was a person of colour or from a visible minority group. “Just by virtue of the communities we’re operating in, we’ll be developing a more diverse talent pool,” Allemang says.

“There is unique talent [in Rexdale] and our job is to foster that. [We’re] not preparing people to do what’s already ubiquitous—that’s what we’re trying to confront,” Allemang says. “We think it’s important that kids from different backgrounds have the opportunity to bring different stories to the marketplace of ideas and demand legitimacy and respect within a broader culture.”

Plans for Techsdale

Since the pilot, Allemang and Domise have been taking the lessons they learned from the pilot—including those around the attrition rate—and preparing the next Techsdale program, which will be held at the Albion branch of the Toronto Public Library this summer.

One day Techsdale hopes to establish a permanent innovation hub in Rexdale that would host workshops and programs for web, mobile and gaming for students of varying experience levels. To achieve this, Allemang and Domise have successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign, built relationships in the tech and gaming industries, and are working to find increased and sustainable funding for their program.

When I ask Allemang if he has anything else to add to our interview, he simply points me to a 10-minute documentary about the program on the Techsdale website, which has been embedded below. “The kids speak for themselves through much of it, and if you don’t come away from it appreciating that there’s creativity and cleverness and new perspectives among the kids in the communities we’re working in, then we’re just not the right charity for you.

“I think it is the most clear evidence that it’s worth delivering opportunities out here.”