Hidden genius’ emerge as nonprofit expands RYSE partnership

The Hidden Genius Project Senior Innovation Educator Eugene Lemon speaks with his pupils. (Photo credit: The Hidden Genius Project)

By Kathy Chouteau

RYSE Youth Center’s recent expansion to the 45,000-square-foot RYSE Commons campus opening this summer in Richmond is set to help uncover more “hidden geniuses” from the local community thanks, in part, to its work with one of its anchor partners, The Hidden Genius Project.

The Hidden Genius Project and RYSE began conversations toward collaborating in late 2016/early 2017, eventually launching their first cohort of “geniuses” there in June 2018, according to the project’s Programs Director Akeem Brown.

At RYSE, The Hidden Genius Project’s work includes hosting cohorts of 24 geniuses in a 15-month Intensive Immersion Program experience, during which Black male rising 9th through 11th grade high school students are taught coding skills to develop tech-enabled solutions for their community’s own challenges. The program, operating in its fifth year in Richmond, has gained ample community support, with Chevron Richmond among its funders, which helped establish a Hidden Genius initiative at Kennedy High School’s Fab Lab.

Brown said that with the addition of RYSE Commons, coupled with renovations to the Richmond center’s existing or “legacy” building, The Hidden Genius Project will have “a choice of space,” where previously limited space was a key issue. “Having additional space means we’ll be able to serve more folks,” he said, noting that the organization has a lease agreement with RYSE where it will maintain dedicated staff in the legacy building and youth programming on the RYSE Commons side, in the courtyard and beyond on campus.

Given the resolution of the prior space challenges, Brown said that this summer will be the first time The Hidden Genius Project’s cohorts are together in the same space. As one program cohort of 24 young men is incoming, another cohort of 24 will be outgoing, as they temporarily overlap. With the newly expanded space, this translates into the outgoing cohort serving as near peer mentors for the new cohort—in turn, building their own leadership skills.

The crux of the partnership with RYSE, he underscored, is that “those cohorts that come through RYSE in The Hidden Genius Project [will] then turn around and offer technology and entrepreneurship programming within RYSE.”

“They would not have been able to run two cohorts at that size in our old building,” said Jamelieh Ebrahimi, director of programs & organizing at RYSE about their anchor partner. She said that the expanded space not only has provided The Hidden Genius Project with the opportunity to run two cohorts at the same time, but also for them as a team “to maintain our programming, as well as our counseling services, and to still have space available for other activities in the center.”

Outlining how their work at RYSE aligns with the organization’s overall mission, Brown said that they look to “train and mentor Black male youth in technology creation, entrepreneurship and leadership skills to transform their lives and communities.” He added that they “train up the next wave of Black male youth leadership that can stay in their communities, thrive in their communities, and most importantly, build the solutions to the most common problems in their communities.”

Brown cited some of these common problems as food deserts where “there’s a liquor store on every corner and a McDonald’s in between,” gun violence and homelessness. He said they’re “providing a resource and helping our young folks develop a skill set, that they can go out and challenge those problems and turn them into wins with an entrepreneurial mindset.”

“We’re not a coding boot camp, the code is just the lure,” said Brown about The Hidden Genius Project’s approach, sharing that they teach youth how to develop games so they can ultimately become the producer and not the consumer.

Brandon Nicholson, founding director of The Hidden Genius Project, instructs students. (Photo credit: The Hidden Genius Project)

“It’s more than just the tech that we’re teaching them,” Brown added, emphasizing that they are a holistic youth development organization with wrap around programming that “goes beyond standard care.” Sometimes this approach often sees the organization advocating with counselors, coaches, county social services and at probation hearings on behalf of their program geniuses.

“We’re very vocal about not wanting to come into any city and pretend like we’re bringing religion and we’re gonna make everybody cut their hair and put on a white shirt with a tie…that’s not us,” said Brown about The Hidden Genius Project. “We are simply there to enhance and provide an additional support to the existing ecosystem.”

Ebrahimi shared her insights on why their partnership with The Hidden Genius Project works so well. “Our values are aligned…we have a deep commitment to supporting young people being in service [and] working in partnership with our community.” She added that “the ways in which we work with our people also overlap, and that includes a deep commitment to those holistic supports—the youth development support—in providing services.”

According to Ebrahimi, although they’ve been running some programs already, summer programming at RYSE for youth between the ages of 13 and 21 officially starts on June 21. She shared that features of the new RYSE Commons, such as “rooms that have windows that open up and a new high tech HVAC system have really supported our ability to come back” amid the pandemic. The new “beautiful outdoor space” includes cabana areas, a meditation garden with a water feature, a regular garden and more opportunities to enjoy the fresh air, she said.

The Hidden Genius Project’s Richmond cohort is one of its four locations, with others in Oakland—where its headquarters is located—and also Los Angeles and Detroit. Learn more about the organization here. Learn more about RYSE’s work with Richmond youth here.

Photo credit: The Hidden Genius Project