Q&A with Elisabeth Holm, founder of the Sisterhood of Native American Coders

Elisabeth Holm discovered her love of computer science and coding at a camp for girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) between 5th and 6th grade. Inspired by that nurturing environment, she decided to do something similar for young women in Indigenous communities by creating SONAC, the Sisterhood of Native American Coders. SONAC connects indigneous girls around the United States to each other and teaches them to code through an entirely online program. To date, the program has included 120 young women from across 25 different states and representing 82 unique tribal affiliations.

To celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we spoke to Elisabeth about starting SONAC, being a woman in a predominantly male field, and how the tech industry can help increase Native American participation and representation.

What part of your backstory inspired you to start SONAC?

I started coding the summer before 6th grade because my mom and dad were like, “Hey, you should apply to this program.” And it was a camp for girls in STEM. I didn’t really have any interest in STEM. Well, I wanted to become a veterinarian, but I didn’t want to do coding or computer science. But I was like, “I might as well apply,” because my friend was also doing it.

So that kind of got me into coding! Because at the camp, we were doing projects that were really based on creativity and the intersection of art and STEM. From that, I started to get more and more into computer science and STEM and was doing that all throughout middle school and high school. As my coding skills developed, I was looking back, and thought, “Okay, now that I’ve developed as a coder, how can I give back to communities that I’m a part of?”

If not for that camp, would you have been exposed to computer science?

My older brother actually did computer science. And so I kind of grew up computer-science-adjacent. But I never really got into it, particularly because it was kind of it was my older brother’s thing. I didn’t want to invade his space. And he was doing these really complicated things that my 7-year-old mind was like, “I don’t know what’s going on.”

So I feel like if I hadn’t been in an environment where it was all girls who were all new to programming, I think I probably would have strayed a little bit away from computer science. I don’t think my passion for computer science would be where it is today at all.

If having an affinity group makes that difference, how have you translated that into your work with SONAC?

That’s definitely something that we really tried to emphasize when we were putting together our team of teaching assistants, mentors, and the girls themselves. We really wanted to keep it specific to Indigenous girls who were 9 to 12 years old, because then they already had things in common; they could create a community fairly easily. And no one would feel quite intimidated because they were around girls that were just like them, and mentors and guest speakers were people who were also just like them.

So for any guest speakers, we had Indigenous females who were successful in STEM. And when our SONAC girls saw these guest speakers — and also saw they’re female, they’re Indigenous, and they’re working at NASA now — they could see a little bit of themselves in the guest speakers. And that kind of helps them actualize their dreams and solidify them as something that’s possible rather than something that’s just a far-off dream.

The Sisterhood of Native American Coders logo, courtesy of sisterhoodofnativeamericancoders.org.

How do you find these role models to come speak to the group?

A lot of networking! That was something that, starting SONAC, I was not super familiar with. But I learned — through Zoom and connecting with all these very successful people around the world — people are just people, and they want to help out. And they want to help communities that they personally connect with.

So a lot of our mentors and teachers and guest speakers actually came to us. They were looking for an Indigenous coding program, especially one for girls. And they would just fill out our Contact Us form and say, “Hey, I’d love to help out. I like what your organization is doing and what you guys are and who you guys are serving.” So that’s how we’ve gotten our baseline of amazing women who are on our team. And from that, you know, they’ll know someone who knows somebody. And we’ve been able to network and branch out farther and farther.

What’s the main goal of SONAC?

Our goal is to reach as many young Indigenous girls as possible, and expose them to the wonderful world of STEM. What we’re really trying to do is spark their STEM interest at a young age, so that they can carry that on with them, and inspire girls around them to do the same — to pursue this and try out this new, potentially scary thing that they might really be interested in.

What impact do you think SONAC has had on girls who have been part of it?

I think the impact of SONAC, you can really see in the way that the girls’ eyes just light up when we’re doing live coding demos, and they’re following along, and using their creativity to help them through. And then we finally run the code, and they see that computer magic explode before their eyes. And there’s just this moment of, “I did that, I’m smart, I’m capable, and I am a coder.” And I think that just makes it all worth it.

Through SONAC, I think we’ve really been able to just genuinely change some girls’ outlook on STEM. And with even just one girl, I think we can start a chain of the next generation of Indigenous female innovators in STEM and hopefully, really up that representation that we have in the STEM field.

What do you think it will take for initiatives like this to take off and see change?

It’s really hard to get the ball rolling, because there’s so few Indigenous people in STEM, and specifically Indigenous females in STEM. But I think once we have started a new generation of girls who are growing up with this passion for STEM, maybe they’ll pass it on to their daughters or sons. I think it’ll spread very naturally.

I think one way that we could do this, though, is integrating it into a basic part of the school curriculum. Instead of trying to take girls or boys from the normal pool of an Indigenous community and bring them into this external program, bring the entire coding curriculum into the regular curriculum of a school. And I think that’s what Code.org is doing, which is fantastic.

I think kids sometimes need to be forced into trying out new things. I know I definitely was not very interested in STEM, and I think if my parents hadn’t been like, “Hey, apply for this thing, try out the STEM coding camp,” I wouldn’t have ever personally chosen the STEM path. But because I was encouraged into that, it made me realize how much I loved it. And I think that that’s a really important thing to do, to just expose kids to a wide field of things that they might be interested in.

Why did you choose the name Sisterhood of Native American Coders?

I think a lot of the times when larger groups are naming themselves, it’ll be “community” or “alliances.” But we really wanted to choose a word that represented something more than that, something for a really strong family of female coders who are also Indigenous. I think “sisterhood” encapsulated that because it represents supporting one another, like being a helping hand. And I think it also reflects some of the community values, which are largely based around family — like respecting your elders or being respectful to your peers. So a lot of our community values are family oriented. And I think “sisterhood” represents the type of community that we are trying to create, which is supportive and unconditionally loving, and always there with open arms.

Tribal representation within SONAC, courtesy of sisterhoodofnativeamericancoders.org.

What do you see as some of the barriers to more Native Americans being in the tech industry?

Starting with the basics, there’s definitely a barrier in access to tech, such as stable internet or having your own personal computer, or even just having a computer in your house at all. I know some of the SONAC girls had to actually go to their community libraries and use the computers there.

I think another thing is access to programs that will spark interest early on. Because even if they identify, “Hey, I like this whole coding thing,” they don’t have structured coding classes or access to tech, so they can’t develop that interest. Then when it comes time to apply to college, colleges will see they haven’t worked on this interest. And then if they don’t get into the best college, they don’t have the same career opportunities as those who had access to those pre-college opportunities. So it’s kind of a cycle where they don’t have access to opportunities, and that affects them later on, as well in their careers.

Looking at the more social side of it, the general population doesn’t have a great understanding of Native American culture. I think this is kind of the fault of the American schooling system, but Native Americans are definitely misrepresented in the basic history lessons. I think a lot of teachers don’t really have that cultural competency, where they’re very aware of every detail about Native American culture — which, obviously, that’s a high expectation. But it affects children who are growing up and learning facts that aren’t entirely true. And I think it raises a generation of people who don’t have quite the cultural competency that’s necessary. So when Native Americans are entering the workforce, they are misunderstood, misrepresented. And I think working with people who don’t understand you and your culture is definitely a barrier; that’s something that you don’t want to deal with.

What’s the value of having more Native Americans in tech?

In general, it’s great to have a diverse workforce, because the more people that you have, from more backgrounds, the more that they’ll bring these ideas of, like, “Oh, this would cause a problem in my community because of X, Y, and Z.” Having diversity in the workforce is really important because you can have so many people from so many different backgrounds, and pool their ideas of what issues are important and what issues need to be addressed from their own personal experiences and communities.

Any final thoughts?

Looking at the future of the advocacy work we’re trying to do, we have a long road ahead of us. But the fact that we’re on this pathway means that we’re doing something right. Continuing on this path, there will come a point where we reach equal representation for women and Indigenous people in STEM. And at that point, we can say that we have succeeded.

— Samantha Urban Tarrant, Code.org

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Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.

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Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.

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