We were recently featured on the February E-Newsletter of the Network of Social Work Managers (NSWM).
Conscious Youth Promoting Health and Environmental Readiness (CYPHER International), founded by R. Bong Vergara, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is on a mission to develop socially-responsible technology entrepreneurs through tech-enabled innovation at the nexus of food, energy and water systems. CYPHER’S vision is to build a technology marketplace for sustainable development inspired by local and indigenous knowledge, STEAM, and youth culture. Though founded by Professor Vergara, CYPHER, comes to fruition by professionals from a myriad of backgrounds who aim to fight the vulnerabilities many low-income communities of color face when it comes to sustainability across food, energy and water.
CYPHER speaks to the social and environmental determinants impacting a person’s trajectory in life, such as geographical location; climate resilience of one’s community; socioeconomic status; education; access to food, energy, and water; access to health care, and social capital. CYPHER’s work is premised on the idea that grass-root communities with direct experience with extreme weather and environmental degradation have insight that could be harnessed for technology for the social good.
CYPHER promotes the development of community-defined, tech-enabled climate change adaptation tools to make sure local communities are equipped with tools of their own making to promote human and planetary health. CYPHER works to shift the identity of the youth from a consumer of technology to a producer of it. By conditioning this shift in identity so that the youth can reliably create the technology the world needs, CYPHER (a) addresses the talent pipeline needs of private and public sector firms, (b) adds value to the work of educators and students in achieving career readiness, and (c) fuels youth engagement in health equity and sustainable development.
A major component of CYPHER is to inspire youth to be the change their community needs by providing them the mentorship and guidance along the way. CYPHER’s programs revolve around these mentorships and opportunities for youth to shift their identities from those as consumers of technology to those of producers. CYPHER believes that such a shift in identity is not only vital to addressing the needs of private and public sector firms, but also adds significant value to the work of students and educators in reaching career readiness and encouraging youth to engage in environmental justice.
One of CYPHER’s annual programs is the Sustainable Earth Decathlon (SED), which provides youth with an exciting opportunity to showcase their innovative ideas in a public forum targeted to technologists, social entrepreneurs and policy makers. Those who provide the best technological advances to impact climate change are awarded a grand cash prize. A second program by CYPHER in partnership with Rolling Robot is #EcoBot, a robotics competition that teaches youth how to create and recreate robots that are eco-friendly and interact with humans. Programs like #MYKNOWLEDGECOUNTS, Mentorship and Innovation Coaching empower youth to get involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math ( STEAM).
CYPHER’s blend of academics, engineers, social entrepreneurs, social workers among other professionals give a distinctive insight to address such a multifaceted issue, like global climate change.
In an era where the very notion of global warming and environmental degradation continues to be heavily contested, Jim Gilmer, Director of Government Relations for CYPHER, expresses that the fight for global sustainability is not an easy one. Mr. Gilmer’s advice to those who wish to enter the fight for environmental justice is to understand that this will not be fixed overnight. Mr. Gilmer states, “Look inside yourself and find your purpose, if you feel that this is where you have to be then we are here to help because the kind of change [CYPHER] hopes to make will take time.”
Jeff McKenzie, CEO of McKenzie Systems Engineering and Director of Investors Relations for CYPHER, shares that though the work can be challenging it is very rewarding. Mr. McKenzie states, “As an engineer it’s been inspiring to see so many youth make their ideas materialize and to see their ideas presented both orally and visually with a sense of accomplishment has definitely been one of the most rewarding parts of this whole process.”
Allen Braswell, founder of TecDonor and a RN, has partner with CYPHER to promote volunteer in the nonprofit sector. Mr. Braswell saw a need for nonprofits to maximize volunteers and created a system to address such a need.
Joseph Owuondo, an Innovator in Residence in African International Affairs states that, “through CYPHER’s ongoing mentorship and support, I strive to develop solutions integrating technology and social expertise in addressing the three areas of my interest.”
Though these are just a fraction of the CYPHER team they have all come together to empower communities to be their own advocates and be at the forefront of change and policy. CYPHER will continue to uphold its mission and vision and guide the next generation of engineers, social entrepreneurs, policy makers, lawyers, academics and innovators to be agents of change and fight for sustainability from the ground up.