Tech group draws students into ‘smart zones’

Once in, their brains open up

2015 HSTP graduates (l-r) Isaiah Brown, Mohammed Abdi, Kiani DeJuan Burkett, Diliet Tekie, and Jesus Vega (not pictured)
2015 HSTP graduates (l-r) Isaiah Brown, Mohammed Abdi, Kiani DeJuan Burkett, Diliet Tekie, and Jesus Vega (not pictured)


On Friday, January 8, Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA) celebrated its 11th year with a graduation and awards ceremony emceed by Dawn Stevens of FOX 9 news. The theme of the event: transformational leadership.

Approximately 50 students between fourth grade and college level were honored at the event. BDPA is an all-volunteer organization, from the instructors to the students they teach. It boast a 100 percent graduation rate.

Fredrick Blocton, the Twin Cities BDPA chapter president, described their role in creating a foundation for future transformational leaders: “All of our kids that come into BDPA come into what we consider a smart zone. A smart zone means that when you come into the BDPA program you get the opportunity to be as smart as you want to be. And when kids come in they see the other kids trudging away at technology…and they start to all do the same thing…

“They get in the smart zone and they are able to open up their brains,” Blocton continued. “And what it does is it flips on the switch for them and gives them the opportunity not only to learn in technology, but in other areas of their lives, too.”

Sifora Tek-Lab, a six-year BDPA participant, alumnus and volunteer, is currently a student at the University of Minnesota studying computer science and business. She explained that for six to seven weeks during summer vacation, students dedicate their Saturdays to learning about technology.

“Students start out by deconstructing a desktop computer, learning about each of the parts and putting it back together again” said Tek-Lab. “They also learn basic programing, HTML and scratch… a visual programming language. Scratch is used to [create] video games.”

There are three levels of technology that students study at the high school level. At the first, students are taught HTML, the basic programing language used to build the structure of a website. At level two, they are taught JAVA script, preparing them for more sophisticated programming language, and at the third level they learn more challenging programing languages using C sharp and

This year, BDPA reached an even younger student body through Friendship Academy. Fourth and fifth graders participated in an eight-week program covering multiple facets of technology, including a music technology tour at the High School for Recording Arts and a Minnesota Twins technology tour of Target Field.

Sylvia Barley, BSc (Hons), Ph.D
Sylvia Barley, BSc (Hons), Ph.D

“What type of leaders do you want to be?” asked Dr. Sylvia Bartley in her keynote to the audience of volunteers, students and their families. “Despite all efforts to suppress us, we continue to rise up to accomplish great things,” Bartley said of Africans in America and across the world.

The smart zone that Blocton described is an environment that the keynote speaker could identify with. Earlier in her life she was a divorced single parent. “My choice to get a divorce meant that my household income was reduced by half. My monthly payments alone, my mortgage payments, were twice my monthly income. So I had to get smart…

“This strong since of direction lifted me up and gave me energy to move along and keep going through the hardship and long hours and financial struggles we faced for the next decade as a Black single-parent family living in the UK.”

At the age of 18, her smart zone was a full-time job in a London medical school where she worked in the department of physiology as a research technician. There she met a mentor who encouraged her to push herself and change her circumstances.

“During the 13 years, he invested in me time, skills of science research, analysis, writing, teaching, presentation skills, and how to think critically.” He also gave her the opportunity to study one day a week while working.

Over this period Bartley received a Bachelor of Science degree in applied biology and a Ph.D. in neurophysiology. She has now been with Medtronic for 14 years, currently as their neurophysiology global director.

“Look around you in Minnesota, here in the Twin Cities,” said Bartley. “Look at what’s going on right on our doorstep. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention what is happening — the high Black unemployment rate, one of the highest in the country, together with high Black incarceration rates, economic, health and housing disparities. We have the highest academic achievement gaps between White and Black children right here in Minnesota.

“Now, I know the power of a good education and what that did for my family. Imagine what it could do for a whole community. The power to change all of this lies within each and every one of you, and each and every one of us. And what role will you play in this transformation?”


For more information on the Twin Cities chapter of BDPA, go to

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