Young Men Swapping Guns for Laptops

Laptops For Guns is a simple program making a big impact in Baltimore. You find a gun, dust it off, bring it to Lance Lucas CEO Digit All Systems and walk away with a brand new laptop. The exchange is held at the Urban League in West Baltimore and gains more popularity every year with support from the Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and a host of other local politicians. To date, Lucas is responsible for 89 guns being taken off the streets, and he plans on doubling that number this year.

I met Lucas, whose personality towers over his 6 foot 3 inch frame, at a conference in Washington DC and rapped with him afterward. We swapped ideas on the negative issues that affect our community, and how we all need to evolve into more solution-based-thinking instead of agenda-less marches. “Laptops For Guns is only the tip of the iceberg!” he told me. “I just use that to get the community interested. If you want the real story, my man, come check my program out when you’re back in Baltimore.”

I always want the real story, so I hit Lance on the jack about a week later: “Meet me on Rose Street, it’s real down there,” he said. I know Rose Street. I grew up in that area – it’s like the rough section of a rough neighborhood, decorated with poverty, open air drug markets and uncertainty. 

I pulled up behind Lance and jumped out, to a mini-celebration of pounds and hugs from some old friends – a mini celebration because there has already been over 50 murders in Baltimore this summer and any one of us could be next.

“Yo this is Rose Street Shelter,” said Lucas, pointing to a slim row house on the corner. “My student Trayvon was living here before I got him and his brother A+ certified.” A+ is nationally recognized certificate awarded to people who have the ability to troubleshoot, test, manage, install and solve minor software and hardware issues on computing equipment. 

Trayvon Leonard, 23, walked out the shelter looking like he came from the future in his limited edition Google Frame glasses. He was going on and on about his upcoming trip to New Orleans, where he will eventually be moving for three months to teach an A+ Certification course.

Trayvon had been working with Lucas for four years now. Lucas taught his twin brother, Tracy, at the Baltimore Talent Development High School. The twins fell on hard times shortly after graduation and ended up homeless. They lived on porches and park benches until they found the Rose Street Shelter. “Man we ain’t have nothin,” Trayvon told me. “I remember Lance had told my brother that if we needed him, [we should] call him – so we did,” he added.

Lucas helped the boys find housing and enrolled them in his A+ certification course. From there, they learned basic computer and cellphone repair and instantly started making money. “I didn’t know my life would change so fast,” said Trayvon. He adjusted the lenses on his Google frames: “Don’t get me wrong, you have to work hard, but anybody can do it, as long as they work.”

Trayvon and his brother Tracy went to train 500-plus people in A+ classes with a 95% certification rate. “That’s what it’s about, learning these skills and sharing them,” said Jason Brooks, one of the few black software engineers at Google, who has served over a decade in prison and has found redemption through technology as well. “I don’t have to teach coding at Lance’s program, but I do it so that my brothers and sisters can experience success like me,” he said.

The day for the annual Laptops For Guns exchange, 25 July, rolled around. Lance had made last-minute trips to Best Buy and Hip Hop chicken for extra computers and food, preparing for a massive crowd. His company Digit All funded everything – Lance even bought the computers that were to be given away during the exchange.

A line of eager people formed out front with their pistols and rifle cases, waiting to swap them for a new opportunity. Armed Swat dudes wrapped the block in full military gear. An eager Lucas popped in and out of the center, greeting cops and gun traders. He was rocking a Street Geek tech tee, a prototype shirt that will be offered by a new line created by him and the Leonard twins.

“They’re coming for the laptops but I’m gonna school them on making more through these certifications,” Lance told me before we walked into the center, adding: “I really think we can use technology to end systemic poverty. I have the cure and it’s through technology-driven education.” Out of the 100 people from a municipal workforce development program, which uses Lucas to retrain unemployed workers, 62% of those people found jobs and escaped poverty. 

“You do the math,” he said.

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