EastBay Today

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Posted August 5, 2020

Guiding the Next Generation of Geniuses

Cal State East Bay nonprofit management student Akeem Brown leads programming at Oakland-based The Hidden Genius Project

Akeem Brown is the program director at The Hidden Genius Project, which works to provide training in technology creation, entreprenurship and leadership opportunities for Black male youth.
Elias Barboza

When he was a teenager, Akeem Brown’s goal was to become an all-star football player. It wasn’t until after he lost his university football scholarship due to legal trouble that he began to envision a different future. This major setback encouraged him to pursue a career in politics, hoping to impact schools and families, similar to those where he grew up in Berkeley and Oakland.

Two years after leaving football, Brown enrolled in a community college and secured a paralegal job, and eventually graduated as a double major from UC Riverside. The then 29-year-old father of two, said he was ready for a future in politics, creating and passing laws that would enliven and improve California communities, until a friend contacted him asking if he would be interested in changing the lives of young people in the Bay Area directly.

Brown’s friend worked for an Oakland nonprofit called The Hidden Genius Project, which uplifts Black male youth by connecting them with the resources they need to contribute to the global tech economy. Focusing on Black male teenagers between the average ages of 14 through 16, dubbed “geniuses,” the organization offers training in technology creation, entrepreneurship and leadership skills. Its ultimate goal? To spark a transformation within, in hopes of geniuses returning to their communities and sparking further change. 

“I thought about it, and I realized I could have a better impact on young people’s lives every day, as opposed to sitting in Sacramento elbowing politicians,” said Brown. 

Brown decided to join The Hidden Genius Project in 2015 and has felt overwhelming pride ever since, he said. He’s been the organization’s program director since 2015 and refers to himself and his fellow mentors as educators or “enlighteners” because his mission is to help youth “reveal their light and let it shine.”

“The Hidden Genius Project is looking to create and develop the next wave of Black male leaders who can thrive in their communities ...”

“There’s no average day at work,” said Brown, who will graduate from CSUEB’s Certificate in Nonprofit Management Program this fall. “Sometimes I’m in meetings, or doing interviews, or putting out any fires that may arise. But the best part is interacting with the young people. There’s always lots of laughter. The work I do is a reflection of what I wish I had when I was that age.”

Closing the Gap

The Hidden Genius Project was founded in 2012 by five Black male entrepreneurs and technologists in response to the disparity between the high unemployment of young Black males and the abundance of career opportunities within the technology sector. Since its inception, The Hidden Genius Project has served more than 6,700 students with 310,400 hours of direct training through its Intensive Immersion and Catalyst programs. This summer, the organization branched out to Southern California and welcomed 71 new geniuses across its Oakland, Richmond, and Los Angeles cohorts. 

Each Intensive Immersion cohort runs for 15 months. Students receive more than 800 hours of mentorship and training, meeting once per week and one Saturday per month during the school year and Monday through Friday during the summer.

Although The Hidden Genius Project takes up most of his time, Brown said he’s been able to simultaneously educate his geniuses and acquire his nonprofit management certificate, thanks to the program’s flexibility. 

The Nonprofit Management Certificate Program provides students with insight into board development, financial management, fundraising, marketing, program evaluation and nonprofit law. The program can be completed in six to nine months, with classes typically held at CSUEB’s Oakland Center, but currently online due to California’s shelter-in-place orders.

“Having this program allowed me to sharpen those skills I already had, and most importantly, helped me focus on the human side of the nonprofit sector,” said Brown. “I come from a corporate law background, so during lectures, I’m reminded that what we’re dealing with in class aren’t ‘things’; they’re human beings. The [Nonprofit Management] program has allowed me to shift from a corporate mindset to a human evaluation and management mindset.”

“With knowledge of business, we teach young folks they can be pioneers and game-changers.”

Brown’s geniuses arrive from various backgrounds, although a significant number of them come from impoverished neighborhoods, many are failing school, and some are homeless or have lost parents through violence. 

“When you have a lack of opportunities, it can lead to a path of destruction,” said Brown. “The Hidden Genius Project is looking to create and develop the next wave of Black male leaders who can thrive in their communities, and most importantly, build solutions to the most common problems that face their communities.”

More Than a Bootcamp

The organization’s curriculum revolves around technology creation, entrepreneurship and leadership. Geniuses learn a diverse handful of computer programming, including website creation with HTML and JavaScript and back-end web languages, and many become proficient in advanced database programming.

In addition to technology education, Brown and his colleagues teach geniuses about college-level business topics ranging from trademarks, market analysis, and patents, to copyright and market projections. 

“With knowledge of business, we teach young folks they can be pioneers and game-changers,” said Brown. “Why do young people have to wait until college to learn these things?”

While geniuses are busy conquering technology and business, Brown says the third and equally important subject they learn is leadership. He and his team educate geniuses on how to build stronger friendships, better present themselves, and cooperate as a team to lift each other up.

“[The Hidden Genius Project] is not a bootcamp, it’s more than that,” said Brown. “We are a holistic youth development organization, which is why you don’t hear ‘code’ or ‘tech’ anywhere in our name. [These geniuses] can have a million-dollar skill set, but that’s not enough. We teach them how also to be a people person.”

Typically, enlighteners and geniuses meet in-person at their designated campus, similar to a classroom. But because of California’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, The Hidden Genius Project moved online, using video conferencing to communicate. An important aspect of the organization is for cohorts to interact with each other in person, making internet conferencing a challenge for Brown and his team, but surprisingly, said Brown, the geniuses are doing just fine collaborating through video.

“There’s nothing like in-person contact, and we miss the camaraderie, the brotherhood, and being able to look at each other in the same room and crack jokes, so it’s been a challenge to keep them engaged,” said Brown about the geniuses. “But so far, most of the geniuses haven’t had a problem with the online format, and they’re doing well.” 

Protesting from the Inside

While COVID-19 brings daily challenges to The Hidden Genius Project, another current topic that the organization has touched on is the Black Lives Matter movement. Brown has discussed the recurring BLM headlines and protests with his geniuses, bringing awareness to the situation while making sure it doesn’t overshadow the curriculum and the organization’s mission. Brown emphasizes The Hidden Genius Project is not a response to any unlawful treatment of people of color. Instead, he and his team use their organization as space for young men to better themselves and be a positive transformation the world needs.

“I don’t protest on the street or hold up signs,” said Brown. “My protest is on the inside, to train and give young folks a new outlook and new set of skills to navigate society as a Black male. I want to give them the knowledge base to think about humanity and how to preserve lives and think about their community.” 

After Brown earns his nonprofit management certificate, the now 36-year-old father of three says he will continue giving back to society by becoming a community college professor, teaching political science or business law. He also has aspirations of managing his legal firm and offering assistance to others in building their own business. 

“I want to leave a legacy for future generations,” said Brown. “What can I build today to positively impact the world tomorrow?”

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