Ornell Caesar

Cool, composed, and calm, Ornell Caesar is an artist and sharp coder.

We first met him in Bushwick, N.Y., less than 100 days after serving 7.5 of an 8-year prison sentence.

The details of Caesar’s sentencing goes something like HBO’s The Night Of: Caesar wakes up in the middle of the night, in jail, bloodied up, beaten up, charged with a felony of assault with a deadly weapon. No fingerprint or DNA evidence on the gun that wasn’t his. The victim walked out of the emergency room in less than hour. Caesar pleads innocent. No one dies in this true story.

Still, after three lawyers and thousands of dollars of legal fees, Caesar gets slapped with 8 years.

“I promised myself I would make use of my time,” Caesar tells us. “I learned sign language, Spanish…I didn’t want to be further behind than the people outside.”

After transferring from multiple facilities throughout the state of New York, he lands at one running the Bard Prison Initiative, a program from Bard College, which teaches inmates and former inmates how to code.

Caesar learns full-stack JavaScript programming and builds a public health app for a career fair where he gets noticed by Andrew Cencini, a computer science professor at Bennington College.

Andrew then introduces Caesar to his former student Rohail Atlaf — co-founder of our WeXL Board Member Timothy Woo — and Rohail and Timothy hire Caesar to work for their startup. That’s how the WeXL Impact Network (W.I.N.) works.

After that first meeting in Bushwick, we keep in touch.

Fast forward to almost one year since our first meeting. WeXL connects Caesar to our technology partner, Nag, Inc., a 28-year-old tech firm based in Washington, D.C., run by a father and son team — Swapan and Mo, respectively.

The plan is to have Caesar work with the Nag team to create a presentation on data and storytelling with JavaScript during DeveloperWeek San Francisco. WeXL and Nag are launching the What Matters Survey Data Platform, and it’s a perfect opportunity to bring Caesar out to showcase his own talent.

Within three weeks, Caesar learns how to build a data visualization dashboard that aids in telling a story on prison reform and recidivism.

We also connect him to Rasha Khatib, a software engineer at Quora. She says her “favorite part of learning D3 and data visualization isn’t the coding — that’s the easy part — it’s the storytelling.”

Rasha recommends the book, Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter More Persuasive Data Visualization.

Thanks to the generous support of the team at Autodesk Forge, WeXL is able to upgrade Caesar from staying at a hostel to five days in a hotel. Autodesk is the official WeXL “What Matters Program Launch Partner.”

On Friday, February 22, 2019, Caesar presents his learnings at the Google Community Space during WeXL’s “Combatting Fake News with Data and Javascript” at DeveloperWeek San Francisco.

Not able to attend the event, Rasha sends the following texts during Caesar’s presentation:

rasha-khatib-text-message.jpg

Watch Caesar’s full presentation here.

Before flying back to New York, we take Caesar to Google for lunch and a tour of the GooglePlex thanks to our new WeXL mentor, Michee Smith, a Product Manager at Google who works on the Data Transparency Project. Caesar learns that it’s best to have an employee referral when applying to Google. He now knows at least one. :-)

 
 

Somewhere in between this whirlwind 5-day stay in the San Francisco Bay Area, Caesar shares his experiences with the criminal justice system on our WeXL television show, REPRESENT, which is taped at the Midpen Media Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

Caesar joins public policy innovator and California State Senate candidate, Josh Becker, on this episode, “Post-Prison Prosperity.” Watch the highlights of that show here.